Bhapa Illish – Steamed Hilsa Fish in mustard sauce made from scratch

Bhaapa Illish

When my sister was a toddler, she loved accompanying my Dad to the market. In India, we have fresh fish and vegetable markets that sell fresh produce and recent catch.

Whenever my Dad would go to the fish market, she would not let him buy fish. “They have so many bones!” she would cry. Most fresh water fish do have lot of bones, some really fine and large in numbers. But the ones that my Dad liked to buy were not as bad, meaning they had easier bones to pick – no pun intended 😀 Yet, she would cry and whine until he gave up and walked out shaking his head, empty handed. She was his pet, and he loved indulging her. So if she said ‘no fish because they have bones’, then no fish it was. Never mind that my mother would throw a fit back at home when she found out he came back without her favorite food that she could not do without even for one day.

Hilsa Fish

However, come ‘Illish’ season, and my little sister would grab hold of Dad’s sleeves and drag him to the vendor who would be displaying his ‘Illish’ catch with pride. She would then point to the fish, and implore him to buy them. ‘But the have so many bones’, my Dad would cry in mock horror. ‘No, they don’t have any bones’, she would reply with an emphatic shake of her head, her eyes glued, unwavering, to the catch basket like a moth to a light source. And my Dad would give her his brightest smile and buy Illish fish.

Hilsa Fish

Coat with turmeric and salt


After my Mom cooked this delectable fish, my sister would sit for at least two hours, patiently eating her piece of the fish that was bursting with bones, declining any help extended to her (especially by me, as I was notorious for swooping away food from her plate, horrendous little big sister that I was) till she polished off every available piece of meat on the plate. And she never lodged a single bone in her throat, ever, not one.


smother the pieces with mustard paste

smother the pieces with mustard paste


You see, if there was ever a competition for the most flavorful fish with maximum number of bones, ‘Illish’ would win the title fins tied. This fish is not made up of flesh and bones, it is made up of bones and flesh. I am not kidding. It possibly has  1000 bones networking for every square inch of its body, progressively increasing in numbers as one moves down its tail. Separating the bones from the flesh is done while eating the fish. It’s nothing short of an art that “Illish” or “Hilsa” lovers have perfected over the centuries. Most of us can actually swirl our tongue inside of ouu mouth and separate the bones, discard them and eat the flesh. It needs patience, practice, and makes for messy eating. But it’s so worth it.


Hilsa fish

Steam the fish

If you know a Bengali, from India or Bangladesh, who does not know about Illish fish – more popularly known as Hilsa – then know that something somewhere is wrong. It would be like an Italian not knowing about cheese, or a Greek not knowing about Gyro, or an American not knowing about BBQ Ribs or a Japanese not knowing about Sushi… get the drift. Yes, Illish is THAT integral to Bengali cuisine. It is also equally popular in Oriya and most of East Indian cuisine, and some parts of North western India – like Sindh part of Pakistan and some parts of Gujrat. It’s actually a sea fish. However, it lays eggs in the sweet waters of the Ganga and Padma rivers in the east, and Narmada river in the west. Then it swims back in the ocean and that is it is caught. This fish swims in large schools and is mostly seasonal.

I will be posting two recipes of this fish that are super popular in Eastern Cuisine of India. The first one is “Bhapa Illish”. “Bhapa” is steamed fish. The next recipe will be “Doi Illish”.

Bhapa Illish is based on everything mustard – mustard seeds, paste and oil. This fish is best when cooked in good quality mustard oil, but you can sub with olive or any other mild vegetable oil.

illish maach

Bhapa Illish – Steamed ‘Illish’ or ‘Hilsa’ in mustard sauce


5.0 from 4 reviews
Bhapa Illish - Steamed Hilsa Fish in mustard sauce made from scratch
Cuisine: Bengali
  • Illish Fish - cut into steaks about ½ inch thick
  • mustard seeds - 2 tsp
  • turmeric powder - 1 tsp
  • tomato - 1
  • tamarind (optional) - ¼ tsp
  • salt to taste
  • garlic - 1 pod
  • green chilies - 6
  • mustard oil - 2 tbsp
  • coriander leaves (optional)
  1. Soak mustard seeds for 4-6 hours in ½ cup of water
  2. Drain the water, then transfer them onto a strainer to drain and dry overnight. They will be easier to grind.
  3. Wash and dry the fish. Make sure you take off scales along its skin.
  4. Toss the fish gently with turmeric and salt and keep aside
  5. Grind mustard seeds with 2 tbsp of water, 2 green chillies and a pinch of salt till smooth.
  6. Add 1 tbsp of mustard oil and stir until smooth.
  7. Transfer the fish in a container that you will use to steam the fish in.
  8. Pour the mustard paste over the fish, coating all the pieces well.
  9. Add slit green chilies, garlic pod, tamarind, coriander leaves.
  10. Grate the tomatoes and add it to the mix.
  11. Cover the pan with aluminum foil.
  12. Place it in a larger pan filled with water. Bring to a boil, and then simmer for 15 minutes.
  13. Check for doneness ( insert a fork, it should come out clean, much like it does in a cake).
  14. Transfer in a serving dish, taking care not to break the fish pieces.
  15. Serve hot on a bed of rice.


21 comments for “Bhapa Illish – Steamed Hilsa Fish in mustard sauce made from scratch

  1. August 15, 2013 at 1:26 AM

    New to me, looks yummy and healthy steamed bhapa Illish
    jaleel recently posted..Dill Leaves Indian Doughnut/Dill Leaves Urad Dhall VadaMy Profile

  2. August 15, 2013 at 6:25 AM

    This was such an interesting post Minnie! I had no idea about Illish fish but I really want to try it now! 🙂

    • August 15, 2013 at 2:56 PM

      We buy them at our local Bangladeshi store. That is where you could possibly buy them. I know this fish is also popular in Vietnam, but I am not sure what they call it.

  3. Barnali
    August 15, 2013 at 9:41 AM

    We have planned illish party next sunday for lunch. Illish bhaja with the oil, kaata chorchori with illish er mathha and illish bhapa. I am sure dinner need to be skipped hehe.

    Your story reminded me one of Ria. She visited a bengali family, she was then hardly 2yr old. They started pampering her, all her wishes getting fulfilled. And then came the ques, Ria what do u love eating? Prompt came her reply.. Illish maach sorshe bata diye. They were speechless for few min and then said.. pakka bangalir bachcha bojha jachche. barite chocolate ice cream koto kichhu thakte bole kina Illish maach tayi bhalo.

    • August 15, 2013 at 2:58 PM

      Ilish party????? No kidding, I hate you.

      And I can see Ria in my mind doing that, hahaha!

  4. August 15, 2013 at 11:15 AM

    Amazing that your little Sister would avoid all boney fish but his one, the one with the most bones. That is probably the best recommendation that can be given for illish fish. I doubt if I’ll ever find illish fish here but I sure can made that mustard sauce. Is there another fish with a similar taste/texture that you’d recommend? I doubt anything will taste as good as illish fish but at least I’ll get an idea. Thanks, Minnie!
    ChgoJohn recently posted..The Bartolini Family RisottoMy Profile

    • August 15, 2013 at 3:03 PM

      Absolutely John, you can cook any fish in this fashion.I can’t think of a fish that would be close to Illish, but you can use Tilapia, Trout even Salmon this way. I do it all the times. Of course, Illish imparts a different taste, but the mustard sauce itself is fabulous but you even cook shrimps or potatoes in the same recipe. It’s difficult to find Illish all the time – we go to a Bangladeshi store in Boston to buy it – but any sweet water fish goes well with it.

  5. August 15, 2013 at 11:21 AM

    mhm I am not sure if I know this fish, in fact I am confused right now. do you know a local name for it Minnie? Your sister doesn’t like bones? How about the bombay duck (dak)? When you smash it a bit when it’s still raw you can take out the bone without much trouble.
    I think so I would go nuts with the tamarind in your recipe and add even more. =P Looks so very tempting Minnie!!

    • August 15, 2013 at 3:10 PM

      I am not sure if this fish is readily available in Goa…but I know Gujrat and Maharashtra sells a lot of it and exports it too. I think it’s called Palva. I know it’s called Pallu machli in South India, but more on Tamil Nadu side. My sister now eats everything, lol!! She loves fish, bones and all, but Illish remains her fav. Thanks so much!! This recipe also works well with Rohu fish thogh, in case you don’t get Illish there.

  6. August 15, 2013 at 11:53 AM

    What a cute post and a delicious looking dish in spite of the bones. 🙂
    Maureen | Orgasmic Chef recently posted..Rack of Pork Roast With CracklingMy Profile

    • August 15, 2013 at 3:14 PM

      Thanks so much Maureen, she was funny, hahaha!

  7. August 15, 2013 at 6:18 PM

    Very nice post. Fish looks great. I don’t know this one, but for sure looks deliciouss.

    • August 16, 2013 at 9:50 AM

      Thank you Marta 🙂

  8. August 15, 2013 at 11:02 PM

    Interesting recipe and a lovely story! I’ve never heard of Illish, and not sure if I could handle all of the bones, but I guess if your sister can, I could too. You do a great sell as to how good it is. 🙂
    mjskit recently posted..Roasting Peppers on the GrillMy Profile

    • August 16, 2013 at 3:27 PM

      Thank you so much MJ!!!

  9. August 15, 2013 at 11:29 PM

    When I was a child I hated being given anything with bones, fat, gristle etc. The only type of meat I enjoyed was sausages! I haven’t heard of this type of fish before but I can imagine that any fish would taste amazing if cooked in a sauce with those flavours xx
    Hotly Spiced recently posted..Slow-Cooked Beef Cheeks with Mushrooms and Red WineMy Profile

  10. August 18, 2013 at 12:49 AM

    Although this fish dish is new to me, I would love to try as I love all kinds of fish dish. I’ve never used turmeric and salt on fish before and that’s something I want to give it a try. The spice and fish give nice flavors to the stock. Looking delicious!
    Nami | Just One Cookbook recently posted..Somen そうめんMy Profile

  11. Pure Bengali
    October 25, 2013 at 11:05 PM

    We’ll here is the thing. A Bengali preparation of hilsha Bhapa will never have tamarind, garlic, etc Just mustard paste with green chilli, salt and turmeric marinate, and mustard oil with vertically slit green chilli. Just cook in steam. Surprising what goes on today as Bengali recipe

    • October 26, 2013 at 8:30 AM

      Thank you for your input. You are right. Which is why I have put that as an optional in the ingredients, in case you didn’t notice. Because it also depends how individual families have developed their recipes over the years. Where I come from, ‘tetul’ is an ingredient used in Bhapa Illish. I have tried both ways, and ‘tetul’ recipe wins every time. Try it. You might yet be surprised 🙂

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