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Bengali Hilsa Bhaat and Sindhi Pallo Chawal — where cuisines and cultures collide It’s not just their love for the fish that makes Bengalis and Sindhi

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Bengali Hilsa Bhaat and Sindhi Pallo Chawal — where cuisines and cultures collide

It’s not just their love for the fish that makes Bengalis and Sindhis alike. It’s their recipes, too!

Zehra Khan
19 Aug, 2023

Sindhis and my family have nothing in common, except that Sindh gave us a home when we didn’t have one. Sindhis are part of that fortunate cadre of people who have lovingly inhabited the same piece of land for centuries, building a vast and colourful culture of language and literature, music and folklore, clothing and food. Their food habits and recipes have been passed down generations, maturing and developing with time yet always finding themselves at home.

Unfortunately, people cannot traverse borders as freely and without ruptures as fish. When my family migrated from Bihar to East Pakistan and then from Bangladesh to Pakistan, eating three meals a day was put to a test. And as often happens, it fell upon the women of my family to find a common ground and make a home out of it. While beh (lotus root), makhaanay (lotus seeds), pua pitha (a kind of sweet rice-flour pancake) and singhaara/pani phal (water chestnut) were easily available, kachha kathal (raw durian), kacha kela (raw bananas) and bataali gur (jaggery) got left behind until much later when my grandfather discovered Musa Colony and Machhar Colony, the secret havens of Bengali food and culture in Karachi, living on silently but resiliently despite state-sanctioned discrimination.

Since both Sindh and Bangladesh heavily rely on their vast freshwater and saltwater resources, my family looked at the Sindhu Darya and thought of the Ganga that flowed outside their home in Dhaka. And Hilsa Bhaat or the Sindhi Palla became the common ground we began to call home.
Food is liked or disliked by a people in accordance with the topography and climate they inhabit.

Since the fertile lands of Punjab are rife with fields of wheat and other grains, flatbread or rotis of different kinds are considered fundamental for a filling meal. In Sindh, both roti and rice are prepared in a variety of ways and sometimes also served one with the other. For Bengalis, the food story is entirely different. Rice is the basis of life itself, soaking up the juices of its partner gravies and being arguably the best companion to seafood. Like Sindhis, we even eat roti with rice!

Pallo — The King of Fish​

When I asked my friend for a reliable Sindhi recipe of the fish, our conversation strayed and fell into folklore. Palla or Pallo, as it is called in Sindh, is a fleshy, silver-skinned fish which is largely considered the Machher Raja or the King of Fish. Through the fish, I found out about Jhulay Lal or, as he is locally called by both Sindhi Hindus and Muslims, Zinda Pir (The Living Saint), the revered saint who is believed to control the currents of the Indus River and of whom I had only heard of in song. In many depictions of the saint, he is seen sitting on a large Pallo fish atop a lotus flower.

The fish is known to grow very large and muscular as it swims upstream, against the flow of the Indus, with a distinct taste quite different from other freshwater fish. It is believed that each fish is only blessed with the unique taste of Palla after it swims all the way up to the shrine of Jhulay Lal in Sukkur. I then spoke to the mother of another Sindhi friend who confirmed these details and also narrated to me a mouthwatering recipe of fried Pallo fish with rice — the most common way Pallo is prepared and served in Sindh.

After cleaning the insides and removing the head of the fish, cuts are made on either side of its belly and it is liberally marinated in salt, pepper, chilli powder and turmeric powder. As the fish rests, rice is boiled and spread onto the serving dish.

Next comes the daag masala, a Sindhi specialty. In about three tablespoons of hot vegetable oil, ginger, green chillies, finely chopped onions and salt is added and cooked until the onions sweat and turn golden brown, releasing a sweetly tart flavour.

Then tomatoes, turmeric, red chilli powder, coriander and cumin powders and garam masala is added and cooked for about 20 minutes, adding a dash of water to rehydrate the mixture.

Once the masala is ready, it is seasoned to taste and set aside. Meanwhile, the fish is fried in hot vegetable oil in a pan until fully cooked and crispy around the edges, quite unlike Bengalis, who don’t usually fry fish. The fried fish is then placed on top of the bed of rice and steamed for 10 minutes so that its flavours and spices seep into the rice.

This is why the perfect preparation of rice is important to tie the dish together and to add a carbohydrate to the largely protein-rich dish. The dish is served with lemon and coriander.

Hilsa Bhaat and the smell of childhood​


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The most formative memory of my childhood is Dadda, my grandmother, tucking her pallu into her petticoat as she went through the routine motions of measuring, washing, soaking and boiling white rice or bhaat. To me, bhaat is the joy of life. The stiff rice grains boiled and bubbled in a huge pot of saltwater, frothing with starch and swelling with moisture until firm enough to hold its shape yet soft enough to mush between the tongue and palate. Dadda would then strain the aromatic rice and set it aside to cool, collecting the starchy water or maar, full of the goodness of the rice.

Dadda used to say, “Bhaat does not have byproducts.” Give the maar to a baby and she will grow up tall and strong; run it through your hair and you won’t ever lose a strand again. The bhaat itself would be served with lentils or daal and a vegetable or meat gravy. Then you could puff the rice and enjoy the murmuray or flatten it and chomp on the chewra. When it would grow a few days old, there would be bowls of panta bhaat or baasi bhaat in the fridge waiting for my rumbling evening tummy.

But the best days were seafood days. A world of fish and prawns, cooked in gravy and pan-fried in simmering oil, I’d be able to smell it from my parent’s room and my five-year-old feet would carry me straight into Dadda’s arms in the kitchen, her anchoring me against her left hip while she cooked with her right hand. When Dadda grew old, her diabetes worsening her health, the doctor advised her to skimp on the rice. And Dadda argued and haggled about this limitation like a child until the day she left us. We think she didn’t consider life without rice worth living.

 My grandmothers

My grandmothers

A few days ago, while speaking to a relative settled in Lahore, I discovered a shocking food preference — there are some vegetable and even meat-based dishes that are considered best eaten with chapaati/roti in the majority of the northern part of Pakistan. As a person of Bihari descent and with roots in present-day Bangladesh, the idea that wheat instead of rice can ever be the preferred carbohydrate supplement in a meal is unimaginable to me. Herein lies the science of food preference.

Pallo is Hilsa or Ilish to Bengalis. The centre of a vast variety of Bengali literature and famously, the favorite fish of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, Hilsa is considered a symbol of monsoon rain, wealth and prosperity by Bengalis. In many a poem, the fish has been used to portray the highs and lows of life itself and to form the Bengali identity. Dadda would tell me that the marker of a true Bengali is to eat the fish while simultaneously separating its many bones in the mouth. So that’s how I learnt to eat it.

At an age when parents would carefully pick food apart for their children, Dadda fed me juicy bites of rice and fish, too big for my mouth, teaching me how to separate the bones of the Hilsa myself.
Nano, my maternal grandmother, is as fantastic a cook as my Dadda was, so I asked her to narrate her recipe for the fish to me. Between meanderings about her difficult journey with her parents from Bangladesh to Pakistan in 1971, Nano recalled the recipe through memory without so much as a single pause of doubt.

Nano informed me that Bengalis don’t have lentils with rice and that daal is the part of our food we borrow from our Bihari heritage. Because of this, Hilsa is cooked in gravy instead of being fried to go with bhaat. For the gravy, fresh ginger, garlic and onions are finely chopped and added to some oil in a pan. Bengalis do not brown their onions when cooking with them and they use very little ginger and garlic to cook fish.

As in the case of Pallo Chawal, tomatoes, turmeric powder and red chilli powder are added to the mixture and it is cooked until it is well done and aromatic. To this, Nano added that the tomatoes they had in Bangladesh were smaller, redder and more ripe than we can find here so they would disintegrate almost instantly in the gravy, letting out their juices.

The Hilsa is cut into smaller pieces width-wise and lightly sautéed with salt, pepper and turmeric powder marinated on all sides. Once the fish is sautéed enough to hold its form, it is carefully put one after the other in the gravy, soya (a herb also generously used in Sindh to prepare daag) and water added to it and the dish is cooked on a low flame, lest the fish breaks apart. This deliciously protein-rich dish is served topped with coriander.

Today, the population of Pallo or Hilsa in the Bay of Bengal is dwindling rapidly due to overfishing.

A fundamental part of the diets of both Sindhi and Bengali people, the fish reminds some that they’ve been home for centuries and some of the home they lost. As the River Indus and Ganges continue to flow and nurture civilisations around them, Pallo/Hilsa tell the tales of resistance in these regions and urge us to consider swimming upstream, against the current, if that’s what it takes to preserve ourselves.



 
The story brings back fond memories, you can process rice in like a thousand different ways (in each rice consumption country there are many many dozens of options).

Whenever I visit a Vietnamese, Korean or Chinese market in LA I see so many options, from noodles to inclusion in tons of snacks.

I grew up on everyday Bhaat-Daal-Chicken-Curry staples and the occasional large prawn dish.

Rice in Bangladesh consumed in middle and upper middle class households is usually parboiled non-sticky type, with special Basmati or Pulao rice (Kali Jeera, Chini Gura micro grain varieties) for special occasions.

Chewra (called Cheera in Bangladesh) is a staple of the local snack food scene. I think this is called Poha or Chevda in India and is as common to have for breakfast (in various preparations) as oatmeal is in the West.
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You can have it as a spicy snack or have it as a kid's snack held together with molasses.

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Bangladeshis consume Chawal ka roti during shab-e-barat (with soji halwa diamonds and nowadays, Baklava and other international desserts).

Maida or Atta ka Roti (and paratha) is normally a breakfast item (with egg-based omelets etc.) but lately it is more popular for dinnertime too.
 
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The story brings back fond memories, you can process rice in like a thousand different ways (in each rice consumption country there are many many dozens of options).

Whenever I visit a Vietnamese, Korean or Chinese market in LA I see so many options, from noodles to inclusion in tons of snacks.

I grew up on everyday Bhaat-Daal-Chicken-Curry staples and the occasional large prawn dish.

Rice in Bangladesh consumed middle and upper middle class households is usually parboiled non-sticky type, with special Basmati or Pulao rice (Kali Jeera, Chini Gura micro grain varieties) for special occasions.

Chewra (called Cheera in Bangladesh) is a staple of the local snack food scene. I think this is called Poha or Chevda in India.
View attachment 947179

You can have it as a spicy snack or have it as a kid's snack held together with molasses.

View attachment 947180

Bangladeshis consume Chawal ka roti during shab-e-barat (with soji halwa diamonds and nowadays, Baklava and other international desserts).

Maida or Atta ka Roti (and paratha) is normally a breakfast item (with egg-based omelets etc.) but lately it is more popular for dinnertime too.
Yummy:-)
 
The same place, where scores of bengalis in Sindh Pakistan, don't have citizenship there fore access to proper state Ed or health.

In that region 99% migrated their prior to 71'.

Sore losers after 71' branded them illegal over night. Then there is the complex myriad of their denial and prowess in their caste.
 
.,.,.

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A Bangalee’s account on

A Bangalee’s account on Hilsa — Bangladesh’s national fish

Recipes for Sindhi Pallo may be very different from the recipes of Bengal but the fish ties two nations together.

Hasnat Sujon
22 Aug, 2023

i should clarify at the very onset how I, a Bangalee from Bangladesh, ended up writing this article for a Pakistani newspaper. I will use the word “Bangalee” throughout as I do not like the anglicised word “Bengali”, the constitution of Bangladesh calls us “Bangalee”, and more importantly — my writing, my rules!

I grew up in the 90s in the hilly region of Sylhet of Bangladesh. As a child from a family which was directly affected by the 1971 war, I grew up hating everything about Pakistan and Pakistanis in every aspect imaginable. I hated Pakistan with all I had until I came to Europe on an Erasmus scholarship in 2021 and met a Pakistani for the first time. I became friends with Tarik, who was always busy bunking classes and asking me to make presentations for him.

However, this mischievous doctor from Sindh changed my entire idea about Pakistanis. I started to understand that there is a completely different perspective about Bangalees among the Pakistanis beyond the prevalent political rhetoric and the demagoguery of the populists of both countries. And due to Tarik, I fall in love with Sindhi food.

By a stroke of twisted luck, I came to Manchester in 2023 and there I met a Pathan doctor from Peshawar — Najeeb. We were having our lunch at a small shop run by an Afghan chef in the midst of the typically windy weather of Salford when Najeeb and I somehow ended up talking about the upcoming elections of our two countries. When I came back home at night, I wanted to check Dawn.com about what is happening in Pakistan right now. That’s how I ended up reading an article by Zehra Khan — Bengali Hilsa Bhaat and Sindhi Pallo Chawal — where cuisines and cultures collide.

Khan’s article is ripe with the smell of Hilsa fish, and I am inviting her to Bangladesh to taste some Hilsa of River Padma, despite the fact that there are some descriptions of Bangalee’s handling of Hilsa which I consider blasphemous. I understand that no one is going to submit a charge sheet against someone for cooking eggless Hilsa with tomatoes and garlic (and a lot of people in Bangladesh do that), but I curse the people who violate the sanctity of Hilsa with their treacherous cooking. The purpose of my writing is to give an account of a Bangalee on Hilsa fish. After all, Hilsa is our national fish, and we do not tolerate any tarnish on Hilsa.

The first question is who died and made me an authority on Pallo? The answer is no one. We Bangalees consider ourselves self-declared scholars of culinary science. While the Germans are famous for their ‘developing’ sense of humour, the Italians for their hand gestures, and the British for their departed queen, we Bangalees are famous for our power of tastebuds. We really get angry when the waiter is late serving our food. We become nostalgic when we talk about eating one kilo of mangoes after three plates of beef biriyani at someone’s funeral. Those experiences made me a Hilsa connoisseur.

Hilsa is a fish with a strong smell. During our childhood, when our father brought Hilsa, you could smell it in the entire house. Nowadays, the Hilsa lost its smell. Some blame climate change, I blame the government, like any other Bangalee.

Every cuisine has its own set of spices. Take the example of Mughlai food. A Mughlai biriyani will require garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander, nutmeg, poppy seeds, cardamom, cinnamon, and bay leaves, to name a few. You can cook Hilsa with all these spices, but you will never get the smell anymore. And it is important that you eat Hilsa with all your senses. You look at the piece of Hilsa fish lying on your plate, you gently take it and put it in your mouth while your nose enjoys its smell, you close your eyes and imagine you are in heaven. That’s why the most revered form of Hilsa recipe is devoid of any of these spices. We cook sharshe ilish (Hilsa with mustard) with only turmeric, mustard, and green chilli.

You can divide the Hilsa of Bangladesh into several categories depending on their age. Hilsa is a fish of monsoon. If you want to taste the best Hilsa at the arrival of monsoon, buy the eggless Hilsa. These Hilsa are coming from the Bay of Bengal and swim upstream of the rivers Meghna and Padma. They have lavish amounts of fat in their body, in preparation for laying eggs. In my mother’s words, these fish are coming directly from heaven. I never knew that heaven lay in the Bay of Bengal.

Now what is the recipe for this eggless Hilsa? Cook smoked sharshe ilish. Make a smooth paste of mustard seed and green chilli. My mom would always prefer yellow mustard, as brown mustard has a more pungent taste. Add a bit of turmeric and salt to the paste. Marinate your Hilsa pieces with the paste. At last, steam your marinated Hilsa and serve hot. It is blasphemy to cook these eggless Hilsa with ginger and garlic.

When there is a drizzle during the monsoon, we call it ilsheguri brishti, which literally means Hilsa drizzles. The fact that we named a type of rain after the Hilsa fish is itself a testament to our propensity to taste the fish during that time. The Hilsa lays eggs when the monsoon becomes heavy. And this is the time to eat the eggs. Separate the eggs and you can fry them or make a curry out of them — I always prefer fried! And then the fish itself can be cooked with some vegetables, such as pumpkin. This is a fish you want to cook with gravy. You can make gravy with onion, garlic, ginger, and tomatoes with other spices, but I would ask you to be cautious. Do not undermine the taste of Hilsa under the smell of spices.

After the Hilsa lay their eggs, they neither have any fat in their body nor any eggs. This Hilsa is only good enough to be fried. Deep fry the pieces and serve with fried dry chillies. One of the popular recipes for this Hilsa is making a mash of the head and tail with dried chillies and mustard oil.

There is a fourth kind of Hilsa, which I call a rudderless Hilsa. These are the Hilsa who lost their way while returning to the sea after the monsoon and end up in different small rivers such as Rupsha or Modhumoti. These Hilsas have a strange yet appealing taste. You want to make a curry out of it.

The Sindhi recipe of Pallo is quite different from the usual recipes of Bengal. However, it has a strong resemblance to what is colloquially called Ilish biriyani. Although it is called biriyani, in essence, it is not biriyani, but Hilsa cooked almost in the Sindh recipe and served with polao rice.

It is quite remarkable how two different nations can be tied with the same fish. While Hilsa has always been a source of identity for Bangalees, and we expatriate Bangalees find some solace and nostalgia in frozen Hilsa, I am sure Sindhis can also find the same kind of taste of home when they cook Pallo. After all, we bear the same feelings, longing for home, and nostalgia for our childhood as any other person despite our differences in culture and politics.
 
The same place, where scores of bengalis in Sindh Pakistan, don't have citizenship there fore access to proper state Ed or health.

In that region 99% migrated their prior to 71'.

Sore losers after 71' branded them illegal over night. Then there is the complex myriad of their denial and prowess in their caste.


i should clarify at the very onset how I, a Bangalee from Bangladesh, ended up writing this article for a Pakistani newspaper. I will use the word “Bangalee” throughout as I do not like the anglicised word “Bengali”, the constitution of Bangladesh calls us “Bangalee”, and more importantly — my writing, my rules!

PDF title says Bengali. So that's that for your tantrum.

Recipes for Sindhi Pallo may be very different from the recipes of Bengal but the fish ties two nations together.

What nation? Bengali nation or Bangladeshi nation?
 
I am enjoying illish after a long time today, maybe after a few years!
 
Bakhorkhani and a cuppa.
Lamb/Beef cooked withwild oranges/lemons and fita (rice flour dumplings and a dash of ghee) - true Bangladeshi home food.
 



PDF title says Bengali. So that's that for your tantrum.



What nation? Bengali nation or Bangladeshi nation?

Again it was a Palestinian woman that was one of the first leaders of Israel, Palestinian Jews are treated badly, every other Palestinian is gum on the shoe.

It was a traitor from bengal that British victory of Eastern India.
 
Bangladeshi nation is a nation based on national identity rather than personal identities based on ethnic background.

What is your national identity? You exist because India and Pakistan went to war. Bengali is a language or an ethnicity?
 
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