Ask a Sindhi grandmum about the food traditions attached to the Pallo fish (Palla/Hilsa) and they will excitedly tell you about how revered it was back in Sindh. Cooked briefly over coals, the muscles of the silver-skinned fish would absorb flavour from the masalas slathered over it so generously. “Sometimes”, my grandmother remarks excitedly, “we’d even add a bit of alcohol, really anything we had lying around, to our daag masala”. Doing this makes the masala ring with a deeper caramel flavour with enough tartness from the tomatoes and the sweetness of the fresh river fish to balance.
The fiddly, boney fish is crucial to the Bengali identity on the opposite coast, inspiring works of literature and cinema. The true test for a Bengali is to eat a morsel of this fish without any discomfort while picking the bones effortlessly. Selecting a piece of hilsa to cook is usually done by the male elders traditionally who know their fishmongers by name. Other families would size you up on the basis of the hilsa you took home. With so much of Bengali tradition riding on the back of a hilsa, it’s surprising to see a deity of Sindhis actually riding the silver fish.
Jhulelal, the deity that Sindhi Hindus and Muslims revere controls the currents of the Indus. In Sindh, along the banks of the Indus, Hilsa is the unofficial national dish, and lore tells us that it is only when the Hilsa swims against the current, upstream and reaches the Jhulelal/Zinda Pir (The Living Saint) shrine of Sukkur that its pilgrimage is rewarded with the distinct taste that we all love in the fish. This, as Parineeta Dandekar points out in her Scroll article is because the Hilsa or pallo develops muscles as it swims upstream. The local fishermen of Sindh thank Jhulelal for controlling these currents, and worship him as Daryanath. Today the numbers of Hilsa in Sindh are dwindling because of over-farming. It has been some time since hilsa fish swam up to the Zinda Pir shrine in Sukkur and since both India and Pakistan’s Sindhis hold the river and its cultural importance above all, protecting the fresh water and conserving the environment takes precedence now more than ever.
This recipe is a riff on my grandmother’s old recipe with a final steaming and flambé before it goes to the table. It’s quite an extravagant dish to look at but really quite simple to make. A layer of rice forms the base of this dish, which is topped with a layer of the traditional onion and tomato gravy that the fish is also stuffed with. This is finished by partly-cooked fish, then everything is steamed together for the flavours to blend.
Pallo or hilsa is cooked in a number of ways in Sindhi cuisine, but it tastes best fried, then buried in our traditional daag or onion-tomato masala. In this recipe, I flambé the top of the hilsa before serving it.
Hilsa fish 1 big or 2 medium-sized, head removed, slits made on the body of the fish, washed, seasoned liberally and set aside. Add a bit of turmeric and chilli powder to the fish too.
Vegetable oil 5 tbsp, divided
Onions 5 large, very finely chopped
Tomatoes 3 medium-sized, finely chopped
Green chillies 3-4, slit lengthwise and finely chopped
Ginger 1 tsp, freshly grated
Turmeric powder 1/2 tsp
Coriander powder 1 heaped tsp
Cumin powder 1/2 tsp
Red chilli powder 1/2 tsp
Garam masala 1/4 tsp (optional)
Basmati rice 1 cup, washed well till the water runs clean
Dark Rum/Whiskey/Brandy 45 ml
Coriander 1 cup freshly chopped divided, half chopped finely, the other half chopped roughly
Salt and pepper
Lemon slices to serve
Soak the rice for a few minutes while you do the mise en for the daag or the tomato and onion masala. Ensure that the water for the rice has run clean after washing it 3-4 times at least, running your hands through it.
Fill a medium saucepan with 2 cups of water and bring it to a boil. Once it has come to a boil, salt the water and add to it the rice. Bring the water to a boil again and cover and cook for 10 minutes. At the end of 10 minutes, check the rice to see if it has a bit of bite to it. You want to take the rice out of its cooking liquid at this stage.
Drain the rice water and spread the rice out on a plate to cool.
Proceed to make the daag masala. In a medium to large sized kadai, heat 2 tbsp of vegetable oil over medium high heat. When hot, add in the ginger and green chillies and give it a good stir. Tip in the finely chopped onions and continuing cooking over medium-high heat, sweating the onions for 5 minutes before adding in a large pinch of salt. Reduce the heat to medium and let the onions cook down slowly now till it is beginning to brown in parts. It is this nice browning that imparts a delicious flavour to the final masala. When the onions are adequately brown, add in the tomatoes, the turmeric and red chilli powder and increase the heat to medium-high cooking the tomatoes for a minute or two. Then, add in the coriander and cumin powders and a bit of garam masala, if adding, give it a good stir and turn the heat down to low, cover the pan and let the masala cook for 15-20 minutes stirring it every now and then to make sure it doesn’t catch. If it does, splash in a bit of water and continue cooking.
Once the masala is ready, season to taste and add in the finely chopped coriander reserving the roughly chopped bits for later.
For the fish, heat a frying pan (non-stick is best) over medium-high heat and add to it the remaining 3 tablespoons of oil and let it get quite hot before you add in the fish. Let the fish cook for a whole minute on both sides. We want to half-fry the fish here, not cook it through completely. Frying it like this on both sides will seal the fish and get it ready for the final steaming with the rice.
Once this is done, take the fish out of the pan and transfer to a plate to cool just a bit so you can handle it. In a deep-dish pan, spread the cooled rice in a neat layer, place the fish and bury it with the daag masala on top covering the surface area of the rice. Put a lid on this and transfer to a stove over low heat where you can let it steam for 15-20 minutes, or till the fish and rice have cooked through completely.
Right before serving, in a small tadka pan, measure out the alcohol and light it using a match or a lighter. Swirl it slightly so the flame is distributed well and pour it over the fish gently. Let the flames lick the sides of the fish and the masala and collapse eventually. Serve with some slices of lemon on top, the remaining chopped coriander and let everyone dig in.