Mood food is what we Indians thrive on. Like the lovers in Kalidas’ Ritusamhara (Garland of Seasons), our love affair with food and the emotions it evokes changes hues with the seasons. Inexplicable gastronomic longings tug at our heartstrings as the skies darken. It’s the epic season of the Meghdootam and the clouds come bearing tidings of hot masala chai and sizzling pakodas.
As the first drops of rain promise to turn into a downpour, I throw a casual question at my young friend Ipshita, a trendy woman of the times: “What do you feel like eating?” “Some sort of a roast with herbed potatoes and wine, with Julio Iglesias playing softly in the background,” she says, and then adds in honest admission: “Or, onion fritters with khichdi and fried ilish (hilsa), with some earthy folk music on the side”. Iglesias, take a back seat, the hilsa is programmed into a Bengali’s DNA.
It’s the time of the ilshey guri, the light drizzle heralding the monsoon when the celebrated hilsa, heavy with roe, starts travelling upstream from the sea. Ipshita’s earthy song could well be — Halka haoway megher chhayay/ Ilshey gurir naachh/ Ilshey gurir nachon dekhey/ Nachchey ilish maachh (To the rhythm of a light breeze and the shadow of clouds/ The raindrops prance/ Seeing this delightful sight/ The hilsa fish dance). I have heard many lyrical descriptions of how, when the first drizzles hit the shimmering dark waters, the silvery hilsa spring out and dance delightfully and that’s when the fishermen net them.
As a newcomer in a Kolkata school, I had an epiphany. As I sat alone in a corner of the classroom during lunch break, I watched in fascination a Sindhi classmate unpacking the hot lunch that had just arrived from home. Tucking her serviette firmly in place, she proceeded to attack a large piece of fried hilsa with a fork and spoon. My first thought was how could a “non-Bengali” eat hilsa and that too with a fork? I waited, in morbid anticipation, for her to choke on the first bone. She calmly proceeded to navigate through it expertly, without offering me a single morsel.