In our pursuit to try different worldly recipes, sometimes there are some ingredients that are simply too difficult to come across, at least where we are in the US.
In this case, it was the ilish, otherwise known as half of the Bangladesh’s more traditional shorshe ilish recipe.
Nevertheless, when the ingredient is simply too difficult to come across, you have to get creative and carry on. At the very least, we could recreate the spicy mustard sauce for a still delectable fish curry.
First, What is Ilish?
The ilish is the national fish of Bangladesh and is, in many ways, the pride and joy of Bangladeshi cuisine. The ilish is an anadromous fish, meaning it’s rare type of fish born in freshwater that then spends its lifetime in the ocean.
Now when we say that the ilish is a pride of Bangladeshi cuisine, we’re not kidding. Apparently, there are over 100 different dishes and ways to prepare ilish. The recipe for this post, shorshe ilish, is a well-known method of preparing ilish, but really it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
What makes the ilish so popular in Bangladesh, besides the abundance of the fish in Bangladesh riverbeds, is the taste and sensory delight the fish brings. The fish is very oily and fatty fish that is a rich source of omega 3 fatty acids, and apparently is known for it’s full-bodied and rich taste profile.
About the Shorshe Fish Curry Recipe
Ilish or no ilish, shorshe is a fish curry recipe that calls for a fragrant mustard base. In Bangladeshi kitchens, mustard oil is used as a base cooking fat just as commonly as vegetable oils or ghee (clarified butter).
One particular method of cooking Bangladeshi food, this fish curry recipe included, that we’ve found both alluring and special is the inclusion of full spices and herbs either at the beginning or at the end of recipes. For example, in this recipe, fully intact mustard, cumin, and fennel seeds are cooked and browned in oil prior to adding the remaining ingredients.
What happens is that the flavors from these seeds mingle and permeate into the cooking oil and into the rest of the fish curry. In other recipes (some of which we’ll write about in the future), full seeds or handfuls of herbs are also added to the end of the dish to give a fresh burst of flavor to the recipe. Again, this tactic of cooking was an interesting one to learn, even for recipes that transcend Bangladeshi cuisine.
Generally, however, this shorshe recipe is very straightforward fish curry and can be done in as little as 20-25 minutes. Prior to any cooking being done, you create a “spice paste” of turmeric, cayenne, mustard powder, and water. This paste becomes the base of the mustard sauce, and the fish simmers – you might even say it poaches – in this sauce until it’s fully cooked.
Depending on your preference of consistency for the fish curry itself, you can add water or, if you have some lying around, coconut milk to create a bit richer, thicker sauce. It’s completely up to the cook how runny or thick the sauce becomes, but this recipe offers that flexibility for it.
Once the fish is added to the pan, you simmer the fish, basting occasionally, until it arrives at the final shorshe fish curry dish.
Our Version: Shorshe Salmon
We really do wish we’d had the chance to make this shorshe ilish recipe as it is originally intended. After our research into ilish and the attempts of finding it in several different specialty grocery stores around us, it’s certainly an elusive type of fish that must be tried when we have the chance.
For now, however, we sought to make a substitution of fish that made the most sense and would still work nicely in the shorshe preparation. Salmon is an anadromous fish that’s very oily and very rich in omega 3 fatty acids, much like the ilish. For us, those similarities were good enough to accommodate this fish curry recipe.
In addition to changing the recipe to be shorshe salmon instead, we also used olive oil instead of mustard oil as a base. Using the technique of cooking full seeds to permeate flavor throughout the dish, we added brown mustard seeds to flavor the oil and to get the mustardy flavor the recipe thrives on. Brown mustard seeds are, by the way, the more spicy kind of mustard seeds, which was something more to our liking. If you’re looking for a milder flavor, we’d recommend using yellow mustard seeds instead.
Additionally, in the pursuit of “more heat,” we carried over a particular ingredient and technique from another Bangladeshi recipe into this one. Near the end of cooking the dish, we added 2 split partially-deseeded serrano chiles to the sauce. We do this simply because we love spicy, but if you like to take it easy on the heat, either leave out the chiles or consider fully deseeding the chiles in order to get the same flavor but without as much heat.
Other than that, this shorshe recipe is very straightforward to make. It’s a fabulously vibrant fish curry dish with many differing flavors, and one bite will have you clamoring – just as we are – to try the “real deal” with ilish.
Have you had a truly authentic shorshe ilish fish curry? Comment below!
- 4 (3 oz.) skinless salmon filets
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- ½ teaspoon sea salt, plus more to taste
- 2 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
- 2 shallots, diced
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 serrano chiles, split and deseeded
- 1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
- ½ tablespoon ground turmeric
- ½ tablespoon cayenne pepper
- 2 tablespoons mustard powder
- ¼ cup water or coconut milk (depends on your preferred consistency of sauce)
- Freshly cracked pepper
- Rub the salmons evenly with a spice mixture of 1 tsp turmeric, 1 tsp cayenne, and a few cracks of fresh salt. Set the filets aside
- In a separate bowl, mix ½ tbs turmeric, ½ tbs cayenne, 2 tbs mustard powder and ¼ cup water (or coconut milk) together. This will create a yellowish sauce, which you will set aside for now
- Heat your skillet over medium high heat, adding the olive oil once it's hot. Then add your mustard seeds and heat them for 1 minute
- Add the cumin and fennel seeds to the oil and cook for another 30 seconds. This will add layers of flavor to the oil
- Add the shallots and garlic, and cook for 1-2 minutes until they have softened
- Next, add the spice sauce and cook for another minute
- Reduce the heat to medium-low, bringing the sauce to a simmer. Then add the salmon and cook in the curry, occasionally basting the filets with sauce, until they are fully done and flaky. This should take roughly 10 minutes
- A few minutes prior to finishing (around the 5-6 minute mark) add the chiles and, if the sauce is getting a little cakey, add a splash or two of water. You can also add water to regulate how thick or thin you want the curry to be
- Once the fish is cooked, take the pan off the heat, and serve the fish and curry with rice