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KING OF FISH

Distribution of Hilsa.                Bengalis are well-known for their fondness of fishes, as well as, for sweets. Supported by mother river Ganges, along with other different sized water bodies and even with a little coastal area, fish of different varieties, is a round-the-year availability. In Bengal, the fish market is mainly divided into two major areas – the basic vegetable greens and the ‘Mach Bajar’ (Fish Market); where sellers of meat and poultry are simply ruled out! The huge demand of fish among Bengalis has, thus, created the ‘Mach Patti’ (the whole sale market exclusively for fish). And no wonder a large number of fish comes here from other parts of the country also, namely, Odissa, Hyderabad, Chennai and even from the neighboring country, Bangladesh.

                Bangladesh??? Yes. Bangladesh! And when it comes to Bangladesh, the fish should be no doubt ‘Hilsa’, or, ‘Ilish’. Bengali fish-lovers consider hilsa as the ‘King of Fish’.

Customers purchasing Hilsa in a retail market.                Hilsa is mainly a marine fish, but, unlike others, it spends its major life-time in sweet water and bay area. The normal grown/ adult fishes are 20 – 22 inches long and about 3 kgs in weight. It has scales with a notch of gold, which gives it a majestic silver appearance. Hilsa is an oily flat fish and has more or less very sharp and tough bones, throughout its body. Due to this reason, most of the people find it difficult to enjoy this delicacy. Here lies the typical role of the ‘Chef’. Preparing boneless hilsa is considered a culinary art and mastering it requires quite credibility. Thus, the Chef takes this delicacy to a step ahead to delectable.

Smoked Hilsa                Preparing hilsa in different styles is a century-old tradition. Bangladeshis (though in other sense, Bengalis, but citizens of Bangladesh), can cook hilsa in numerous ways. Starting from simple frying to smoking, some of the popular and authentic dishes are – Ilish Begun, BhapaIlish, Doi Ilish, Ilish Tok-Jhal, Shorshe-bata Ilish, Narkel-bata Ilish, Ilisher Dom Chochchori, Ilish Paturi, Ilish Macher jhol, Nona Ilish MacherJhol, Panta Ilish. It also goes seamlessly with ‘PuiShak’, ‘KachuShak’, ‘Spinach’ etc. The present-day’s preparations like Smoked Hilsa, Grilled Hilsa, Boneless Baked Hilsa, Ilish Biriyani, Aam Ilish – all claim to be as delectable and mouth-watering as the centuries-old preparations. Gourmet Chefs have made their ways of preparing hilsa in competition with other cuisines such as – Ilish Salsa, Malabar Ilish, Hilsa in French Mustard Sauce, Shorshe Ilish grilled with Romesco Sauce, Ilish Pitha, Ilish Pulao, Hilsa in Coconut Milk.

Raw Hilsa pieces showing Marbled Fat                While cooking hilsa, one must consider the fat content of the fish. A higher fat content often results in excessive fat left in the pan after frying. It is a saying among the Bengalis that, a good hilsa does not require any oil/fat to fry. It fries itself in its own oil/fat. Moreover, the left-over fats in the fry pan are also cherished with hot rice and green chili! Hilsa fat consists of a unique flavor, unlikely without a sticky/fishy smell. But one should keep in mind that the fat content of this fish is not only in its liver or skin, but, it has layered fat between its bodies. It is technically termed as marbled fat. Besides its unique flavor, this fat gives the fish its softness and it almost melts in the mouth.

Shorshe Ilish grilled with Romesco Sauce                In spite of all its flavor and taste, a large number of people are unable to cherish it. Hilsa contains more than average muscle bones (‘kanta’). Also the central bone and bones in other parts are strong, sharp and doesn’t break easily. Muscle bones are very thin, long, and pliable. These often get stuck in the mouth and due to its pliability, do not come out easily. The scales transform into a sharp angle at the bottom part of the fish, adding to further uneasiness in eating. For those who wish to stay away from fish bones, may wish to try some boneless preparations in some of the speciality restaurants of Kolkata and Dhaka. Able/Well-trained chefs prepare various hilsa preparations around the monsoon, after carefully removing all the bones, but, without much affecting the taste or texture.

Hilsa Festival                In the season, you will find a handful of speciality and gourmet restaurants in Kolkata and in Dhaka, serving this delicacy for the food-lovers. All of them are doing well, having a good clientele also. But just one problem is grasping the market. It’s the availability of good-sized hilsa, which is decreasing day-by-day. The huge and priced demand of large hilsa resulted in mass fishing. Unfortunately, the time to catch them is the prime time of their reproduction. Catching an adult fish means making their eggs root out. Also, catching young hilsas, popularly known as ‘Shad’, means eliminating adult hilsas.

                Thus, slowly they are becoming less in number. Scientists have warned that continuation of this trend will surely make them extinct. To avoid such a disaster, immediate halt to the fishing is necessary. For an effective roll-back an effective 5 years of non-fishing is required, which should be repeated frequently.

Proposals for Hilsa Conservation Trust Fund by IIED


                Both the governments of India and Bangladesh can surely impose such ban, but their challenge is how to support the lakhs of fishermen, living below the poverty line, whose hope of earning a considerable amount is the hilsa. To them, a ban on hilsa fishing means a year of unemployment. Fortunately, Bangladesh government has already taken some fruitful steps like providing the fishermen rationing without charges, monetary allowance, community development programmes, health and medical support, primary education support etc. And, slowly the result is reaping. But, there’s still a lot to go!

Proposals for a new Hilsa Conservation Trust Fund by IIED

                Till then, we can enjoy the taste of hilsa, but, definitely by paying a higher price!

 

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 “This article has been published in the Where and What in the World , on January 3, 2016.”

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Nostalgia – a story of a Lad in the Kitchen:

A must read for the Hotel Management Trainees…

As a young apprentice, it is most exciting to see the rows of gleaming copper / brass / stainless steel/ ceramic / earthen pot and pans, vast shining stoves / oven …. almost exciting to see CHEFS / COOKS in their whites at work all at the same time.

Soon after the first introduction began with instructions in culinary science, store room and into the nature of quality of ingredients. Explained for instance the different sort of rice. Almonds too must, carefully pick them, in case there may be a bitter one among them, which are smaller and wrinkled. Learnt the difference between currents, sultana and raisins which also had to be tested for smaller stones, as must peas, lentils and beans. Before cooking they had to be carefully washed and any impurities removed. One is asked if he had understood and as always said ‘Yes’ with the great confidence. A senior cook had not given either lentils or rice but a bag of salt to wash. Lad zealously poured into water, only to find that no little stones remained but also – to the general amusement – no Salt either.

On another occasion, a large bowl of Ice Cubes were given to sauté. Other Cook came and gave a kilo of refined flour to cut up fine. Which Lad vainly tried to do. Lad soon forgot his embarrassment at such practical jokes in the thought of being able to play them upon my successors. Lad was now on the look out for such things, but lad had one other occasion.

Lad was taken into the Butcher and given an un-skinned sucking pig, with instructions from the Chef to pluck and clean it. Of course Lad had seen often plucked chicken, partridges and ducks – but a pig. That was something new to Lad. He took endless trouble to pluck hair and remove the skin, until his fingers become more and more painful and lad finely give it up. Onlookers could no longer control their laughter, Lad was rewarded for all his vain by a good slice of Cake. This was the end of the tests. It was only later that I discovered that none of his predecessors had passed them any better than him.

He who is laughed at as an Apprentice, will win Honour as a Master

Published without edit, as exactly said by Chef Manjeet Gill, Father of Indian Cuisine, who has enjoyed every bit of his professional journey. Donning many a hats at the Chef’s Corner, he is happy giving his advice to all the youngsters.

          The president of the Indian Federation of Culinary Association and Corporate Chef ITC Hotels, he has loads of responsibilities, “But this is what I love to do. Helping the young to know the possibilities this profession offers is our responsibility as well.”

          It’s not just the passion for food that makes a good chef, according to Gill; a good vision and being honest as well as ethical is paramount. “With food, we are playing with people’s health. Add to it patience (there are no shortcuts in this field) and be a great disciple if you want to rise in this field.”

          What he loves most about his profession is that it keeps you physically and mentally fit. “One needs to think ahead,” he says.

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An exclusive interview of Corporate Chef Manjit Gill

               Chef Manjit Gill is the Corporate Chef at ITC Hotels & President of IFCA –  Indian Federation of Culinary Associations. He is passionate about popularizing Indian cuisine on the global palette and believes that only if Indians start taking pride in their native cuisine and present it well without aping the West, it would very soon be the next big thing on the global arena. In his relentless efforts to attach due recognition to the Indian Culinary Art in the pantheon of great cuisines of the world, he is educating the masses in India and abroad about the richness and depth of Indian gastronomy. At home, he is also in regular parleys with food enthusiasts, hotel and restaurant owners to work together to raise the standards of Indian food industry. Follows the conversations…

 

What inspired you to choose Hotel Management?

                “I had a natural inclination towards creative things from the beginning. I was an average student, not clear on what career to pursue till I passed schooling. It was my father who came across this new booming career through the newspapers and one day asked me to give it a shot. So I did. I chose cooking as my major subject. It started exciting me and I realized that this was what I actually want to go ahead with.

                I began my formal career as a Food Production Trainee in the Oberoi School of Hotel Management and was selected for the Kitchen Training Programme where I got the opportunity to hone my skills. After graduating from Management School of Oberoi Hotels International, I joined ITC Group in 1997.

                I decided to popularize the goodness of Indian food sans any western influences. I did it pure Indian style. I began doing seminars, workshops, road-shows, TV shows, writing books, and what not to increase people’s knowledge base and bring back the lost pride of Indian cuisine.

                This has borne some fruits. But I alone cannot bring about radical changes. We all have to work together. While Indian food is better placed in the global arena today, there are miles to go.

                I have always told my juniors that they may learn any cuisine they like but they must know their regional cuisine inside out; they must master it. Being jack of all and master of none does not work in my kitchen. We train our staff to perfection, to be taken seriously and to be unparalleled wherever they go. This uncompromising philosophy has won us accolades and prestige world-over.”

Who was your inspiration when you joined this line?

                “Very frankly, back then we did not have any role models as such. My parents and wife were my biggest inspiration and support. I remember how seeing me in uniform filled them with pride, as if they could not ask more from life. They guided me with whatever little they understood of this line and stood by me in all thick and thins. While my father introduced me to this line, the women in my life – my mother and wife reinforced my passion for cooking. Whatever I am today, I owe it to them.”

How involved are you with the kitchen financials?

                “Oh! we are business managers! Profit from the F&B is the only thing in a hotel that is calculated on a daily basis. So we have to be super at culinary mathematics. It includes a range of factors:

chefa

                Forecasting: You have to calculate how much food you have to purchase for the next day.

                Profit Management: You must understand that once you buy something, cost has been incurred. Now how you make profits out of it without compromising the quality, is the game. Here your business acumen and salesmanship play a major role.

                Guest Understanding: when you have a party in your restaurant, you need to be aware of what kind of people are coming, how many of them are coming and what their food preferences are. Notably, there is different food consumption in different cultures. Food consumption also differs with occasions. It would be different for a wedding, a cocktail and a wholesale dealer’s outlet opening party.

                Yield management: Yield standardization is where the profits lie. On hundred kilo de-boned chicken, did I get 42 gram chicken or not? If I got, say 35 gram, it means more meat is thrown with the bone. How much was the wastage? Such things have to be calculated on a daily basis. While cooking you also have to ensure that the dish is neither over-cooked nor under-cooked. Else it results into wastage and translates into immediate losses.

                Price-to-Portion Ratio: Chefs must carefully decide on the portion size for the price it would be sold at. The worth of the dish should match its selling price. And the portion size of each dish should be same for everyone. It shouldn’t be that someone is getting 100 grams and someone only 70. At the same time, we must watch out for competition. You have to outdo them by being reasonable in costs, best in quality and high on profits. How many applauds one gets for one’s dish does not matter at the end of the day if one doesn’t make profits.

                Among other factors you need to calculate are labour cost, cost for food promotions, staff training, etc.”

 

The interview conducted by India Hospitality Review over Lunch at ITC Maurya Sheraton, details of which can be found at their appropriate section.