“Rice and fish are considered quinissentially Bengali…the ilish is the paradigmatic Bengali fish…(it) is particularly bony and difficult to eat… Bengalis love narrating real and apocryphal stories about how others struggle with the many tiny bones of the ilish.”
The Migrant’s Table
Meals and Memories in Bengali-American Households
Being fish-obsessed, I’ve had a long-standing desire to learn more about Bengali/Bangladeshi food. I enjoyed the whole koi (climbing perch) at Café Dhaka and absolutely loved the ilish/hilsa in mustard sauce. Bony, fatty, rich, with a quality described as “sweet” in Taiwanese. (This “sweetness” is also found in milkfish and mackerel and is not sugar-sweet, but might be more accurately described as “fishy”). I was looking forward to trying the whole, boneless hilsa, and was terribly disappointed when Café Dhaka closed.
A Yelp review mentioned that Gulshan market carried Bangladeshi fish, so I made the trip to Union City today. The owner, Mohammed, was incredibly friendly, gracious, and helpful. He did indeed carry a great variety of frozen Bangladeshi fish—exotic, unfamiliar names like pabda, tengra, boal, pangash, bata, poa, kazali, taki,..and hilsa! He said that the market had been open for 3 months and that business had not been good. The fish sold well—in fact, he was out of hilsa—but other products did not. In addition, typical sales were small—“a pound of this or a pound of that.” He also is a co-owner of Gulistan Restaurant two doors down, but said that they did not offer fish because his partner did not want to deal with the fuss.
Learning of my interest in hilsa, he volunteered to drop what he was doing and make the long drive to pick up the day’s shipment (later, his charming son said, “My dad drives a long way to get the fish; it takes him three or four hours. He has to go to Las Vegas or Los Angeles.”) Mohammed offered a cup of sweet tea and insisted on taking several raho/rohu steaks to Gulistan for his wife to cook. Then he left.
About two hours later, he returned, hilsa steaks in hand. After depositing them in the freezer, he made his way to the restaurant and came back with a steaming plate of rice and fried rohu. The rohu, which had been dusted with spices and fried, was absolutely delicious. A member of the carp family, it reminded me of buffalo (the fish, not the mammal). Also bony, fatty, and rich, with tender white meat and gelatinous skin that stood up well to the crispy, spicy coating. After polishing off the fish, I asked him about the varieties of fish.
“Rohu is very popular. It is inexpensive, and people from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan enjoy it. It is very good fried or curried, but it is best barbecued.”
“Pangash is very rich—it has a great deal of belly fat. My whole family is wild about it. Sometimes my mother cooks it without adding any oil; the white fat melts and fries the rest of the fish. My wife especially likes the skin; they say eating it makes your skin softer.”
I asked him about offering fish in the restaurant and he was not optimistic; I believe that hilsa was previously available, but the current menu seemed fairly generic to me. Mohammed said that, with advance notice, he might be able to provide some Bangladeshi specialities.
If you prefer your fish as anonymous, boneless, filets, don’t bother with Gulshan. If you are interested in a cuisine that celebrates a myriad variety of fish, with specific seasons and recipes for each kind—a hilsa can provide a muli-course feast, with different preparations for the head, steaks, entrails, roe, and belly—give it a try. I believe Bangla Bazaar in Sunnyvale also has Bengali fish. I hope that neither goes the way of Café Dhaka and Charulata.
34595 Alvarado Niles Road
(between Decoto and Mann)
Union City, CA 94587
In addition to fish, Halal meat, spices, grains, and prepared goods are available.