Home is Where the Fish Are


As I try to meet the packing deadline for a month long trip back to see my family, two images float in my mind’s eye: one is the monsoon rains bursting down and the other is my mother’s plate of steaming rice and fish curry waiting at my place at the table. While most people today are familiar with Indian food, cuisine from the state of Bengal is less well known. Bengalis are obsessive about their food and there is a strict code to the cuisine: the order in which dishes are to served, what is cooked in which season, which vegetables with what fish; the list goes on. In the old days, young girls were grilled on their cooking skills as part of the arranged marriage interview! Above all, Bengalis adore their fish, abundant in the rivers and ponds of the lush delta the Ganges river forms before tipping into the sea. And of all the fish in the world, the most precious is the “ileesh”. This used to be  the fish of celebration, on festive days, weddings or if India won at cricket!

So reading about the beloved ileesh  vanishing from the earth is liable to stop the Bengali heart.But that is exactly what seems to be happening now, ileesh is growing scarce and Bangladesh (which became a separate country later, but was originally a part of India and shares the language and cuisine of Bengal) has banned ileesh exports. At the root of this is that all too familiar, tawdry tale: we abandoned the code of cuisine which treated the fish with reverence, ensuring that it was used sparingly, never eaten during the egg laying season. Now, we demand it all the time, in ever increasing quantities, even freezing it great chunks of ice to be sent to distant countries. There, it is defrosted, prepared as best as possible, and though completely devoid of flavor after it’s  arduous journey to the plate, still revives memories of home and family, far from the paddy fields.

On a more somber note, this year also marks the 70th anniversary of the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 which took about 3 million lives.  World War II was on, and the harvest was diverted by the British toward the war effort while the  people who worked to produce the food were ravaged by hunger. An outstanding film on this famine, “Ashani Sanket” seen through the eyes of  people in a village, was made by Satyajit Ray. It is often named as one of the best films ever made and I was a young girl when I saw it but still remember some scenes with much clarity: the lush green fields contrasting with the desperation  and degradation of the villagers, forced to sink to unthinkable levels in their search for food.

Posts might be a little infrequent during the next few weeks…..whatever I can manage in between bouts of food coma! Wishing you all a lovely summer!


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