Pan-Fried Ilish (Hilsa) Steaks


We Bengalis love our fish and Ilish is the national fish of Bangladesh. Unfortunately it only inhabits tropical waters so you have to buy it frozen in the UK. Taj Stores has a great selection, I went with my mother the other day. She spent 20 minutesfiercely inspecting each of the icy specimens at the back of the shop before entering into a lengthy discussion with the owner about the terrible state of the political scene back home and how awful it is that Bengali fish just isn’t what it used to be. Hilsa is to Bengalis what toro tuna belly is to Japanese – i.e. the equivalent of piscine gold. It’s best to look for the fish that are fatter around the stomach as they possess that all important creamy belly fat (which crisps up deliciously in a hot pan), and if you’re really lucky they’ll also be full of roe. Once you find a decent specimen, ask the nice man with the knifey-machine to saw this into 2-3inch steaks for you. Then freeze in batches and defrost in the fridge the night before you want to eat them.

There are at least fifty different ways to cook Ilish. This is my mother’s recipe, and it truly is the veritable bomb.


8 hilsa steaks, washed and de-scaled

1 tsp Maldon salt

1 tsp turmeric

2 small onions

2 inches ginger root, peeled

3-4 cloves garlic

1 tsp cumin

½ tsp garam masala (optional)

1 tbsp oil


  • Massage the fish steaks with the turmeric and salt. (This serves a dual purpose as the fish is flavoured and the turmeric also has antibacterial properties).
  • Blitz the ginger, garlic and onion in a blender and mix with the cumin and garam masala if using.
  • Smear the onion mixture over each fish steak, covering well and leave for around 15 minutes.
  • Heat the oil in a frying pan over a medium heat and after a few minutes add the steaks, still covered with the spiced onion mixture.
  • Fry gently for approximately 15 minutes. The spicy crust should turn a deep golden brown.
  • Turn the steaks onto their sides, so the peripheral belly fat can crisp up.
  • The fish can be quite bony so take care when eating this. It’s best eaten with fingers in order to extract the tender morsels of flesh.


  1. Hmm Hilsa, never tried that before, in the top photo is that belly fat in the centre of the steak? Looks good.

  2. gastrogeek

    It’s quite a strong flavour and the bones can be quite an issue but it’s seriously worth it. It’s actually roe in the centre, the fat lies around the edges of the steak. p.s. nice blog

  3. Aha of course, roe! Thanks for explaining to the uninitiated.

    p.s. nice blog back

  4. Bengalis certainly do know how to make the best fish in our part of the world. Love your recipe and massaging the fish with turmeric bit. do you make your own garam masala? x shayma

  5. gastrogeek

    Thanks Shayma, I do indeed. You can find it on my Waitrose Tandoori Chicken Recipe.

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