Bhapa Ilish with Mustard Paste: A Delightful Bengali Culinary Tradition

Bhapa Ilish, a cherished Bengali delicacy, has earned a special place in the hearts and palates of food enthusiasts around the world. This delectable dish combines the rich, buttery flavor of Ilish fish with the bold, spicy kick of a mustard paste marinade. In this blog post, I’ll delve into the intricacies of Bhapa Ilish, exploring its ingredients, the reason behind the hilsa fish’s high price tag, tips for choosing the best hilsa, and the significance of the Padma River’s Ilish fish.

What is Bhapa Ilish made of?

Bhapa Ilish is a steamed fish dish that primarily features Ilish fish and a zesty mustard paste. The ingredients include:

For the Mustard Paste:
1. Mustard Seeds: These tiny seeds, soaked and ground, form the base of the paste, lending Bhapa Ilish its characteristic pungency.

2. Green Chilies: For heat and flavour, adjust the number according to your spice tolerance.
3. Turmeric Powder: To add a warm, earthy color to the paste.
4. Salt: To season the paste.

For the Fish:
1. Ilish Fish: Known for its tender flesh and unique taste, Ilish is the star ingredient. You can use other firm-fleshed fish if Ilish is unavailable.
2. Mustard Oil: Used for marinating the fish and infusing it with its distinctive aroma.
3.Salt: To season the fish.

Why is Ilish fish so expensive?

Ilish, also known as Ilish in Bengali, is prized for its exquisite flavour, soft texture, and high nutritional value. Its premium price tag is attributed to several factors:

1. Limited Availability: Ilish fish is primarily found in the rivers and estuaries of the Indian subcontinent, making it geographically limited. The scarcity of hilsa in certain regions contributes to its high cost.

2. Seasonal Harvest: Ilish has a specific breeding and migration season, during which it is at its best in terms of flavour and size. This seasonality makes it more valuable when it’s available.

3. Cultural Significance: Ilish holds a special place in Bengali culture, often featuring prominently in festive meals and celebrations. The cultural significance and demand for hilsa further drive up its price.

4. Delicate Handling: Ilish is a delicate fish that requires careful handling to preserve its quality. This meticulous handling adds to the cost of production and distribution.

Which Ilish fish is best?

When choosing Ilish for Bhapa Ilish or any other dish, look for the following characteristics:

1. Freshness: Opt for Ilish that is fresh, with clear, bright eyes, and shiny scales. The flesh should be firm to the touch.

2. Seasonality: Ilish is best enjoyed during its peak season, typically from June to September in Bangladesh and eastern India. This is when the fish is at its fattiest and most flavorful.

3. Size: Smaller Ilish tend to be more tender and flavorful, so consider choosing fish that are around 500 grams to 1 kg in weight.

4. Source: If possible, buy Ilish that comes from a reputable source with sustainable fishing practices to support responsible seafood consumption.

What is the Ilish fish of Padma River?

The Padma River, a major tributary of the Ganges, is renowned for its Ilish fish. The Ilish from the Padma River is considered some of the finest in terms of taste and texture. This river, which flows through Bangladesh and India, provides an ideal habitat for hilsa to thrive.

The Ilish fish from the Padma River is known for its distinct flavour profile, attributed to the unique combination of the river’s water quality, sediment, and aquatic vegetation. Many Bengali delicacies, including Bhapa Ilish, feature hilsa from the Padma River due to its exceptional taste.

Bhapa Ilish Ingredients:

For the Mustard Paste:

  1. 3-4 tablespoons mustard seeds (Black & white)
  2. 2-3 green chilies (adjust to your spice preference)
  3. 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
  4. Salt to taste
  5. Water (as needed)

For the Fish:

  1. 4-6 pieces of Ilish fish (or any other firm-fleshed fish)
  2. 2 tablespoons mustard oil
  3. Salt to taste

Bhapa Ilish Instructions:

  1. Prepare the Mustard Paste: Soak the mustard seeds in warm water for about 30 minutes to soften them. Drain the water from the mustard seeds and transfer them to a blender or mortar and pestle.  Add green chillies, turmeric powder, salt to the mustard seeds. Grind or blend everything into a smooth paste. You can add a little water as needed to achieve the desired consistency. The paste should be thick but spreadable.
  2. Marinate the Fish: Clean and wash the Ilish fish pieces thoroughly. Pat them dry with a paper towel. Rub the fish pieces with 1-2 tablespoons of mustard oil and a pinch of salt. Let them marinate for about 15-20 minutes.
  3. Assemble the Dish:  Take a large mixing bowl and combine the marinated fish pieces with the prepared mustard paste. Make sure the fish pieces are well coated with the paste.
  4. Steam the Fish:  In a steamer or a large pot with a steaming rack, bring water to a boil. Place the fish bowl on the steaming rack. Cover the steamer or pot and steam the fish for about 15-20 minutes, or until the fish is cooked through and the mustard paste becomes aromatic.

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Bhapa Ilish with Mustard Paste: A Delightful Bengali Culinary Tradition

Course: Main courseCuisine: Bengali cuisine, Indian


Prep time


Cooking time






  • 4-6 pieces of Illish fish (or any other firm-fleshed fish)

  • 3-4 tablespoons mustard seeds (Black & white)

  • 2-3 green chilies (adjust to your spice preference)

  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder

  • Salt to taste

  • Water (as needed)

  • 2 tablespoons mustard oil


  • Soak mustard seeds in warm water for 30 minutes.

  • Drain and blend with green chillies, turmeric, and salt into a thick paste.

  • Clean and dry hilsa fish.

  • Rub with 1-2 tbsp mustard oil and a pinch of salt.

  • Marinate for 15-20 minutes.

  • Combine marinated fish with mustard paste.

  • Boil water in a steamer or large pot with a rack.

  • Place fish bowl on the rack.

  • Cover and steam for 15-20 minutes until fish is cooked and mustard paste is aromatic.

Bhapa Ilish with Mustard Paste: A Delightful Bengali Culinary Tradition

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