‘Ilish’ (Hilsa) isn’t just a fish, rather it’s an emotion for Bongs living across the globe.
When Sir Radcliff drew the line of partition between the two Bengals, he also divided the river – with India having Ganga & Padma flowing through Bangladesh. I guess it was ‘ilish’ from the Padma that kept on ringing a familiar bell in the hearts of the people living on both sides of the border. Truth be told, I have grown up seeing ‘ilish’ as an object of sentiment – and we Bengalis uphold it to the world as ‘the finest among the finest’ of what Bengali cuisine has to offer.
When I told my friends that I’m going to Bangladesh, everyone was like – “Okhane giye Padma’r Ilish khabi toh?” (You’ll have the ilish from Padma River there?) I knew it was something I can’t afford to miss – as they say, the fish procured from the Padma is more delicious than those in Ganga. ‘Maybe it’s hype’, I thought in my mind, until I was in Mawa, by the banks of the river – and witnessed that the hunt for hilsa is a real deal out here. Hilsa here is considered similar to gold, and the fish caught at Mawa is exported across the world.
How to reach Mawa?
Considering the famous traffic of Dhaka, we planned to leave early in the morning (around 7’O clock) to sway through the crowded streets and effectively hit the Dhaka – Mawa Expressway, which is the first national expressway in Bangladesh. It’s a beautiful drive of approximately 50 KM and takes about 2 hours to reach Mawa Ghat – one of the biggest ferry terminals in the country.
Before reaching the Mawa Ghat, we stopped at a restaurant for breakfast – and then made our way to Shimulia Ferry Ghat where a series of shacks was bustling even at 10’O clock in the morning! They had put up the fish on display outside their stalls, from which you can pick your favorite one and they will cook right in front of you and will serve you with steaming hot rice and some delicious bhortas. You can find other items as well like chicken curry, khichuri, and fried vegetables but people mostly prefer to have fresh fried ‘ilish’ with fried eggplants, as well as fried fish eggs, which are equally delicious.
To enjoy this scrumptious food, you’ll need to be a little oblivious about the environment and hygiene but it’s worth it, trust me.
What’s there to do in Mawa?
Other than gorging on endless pieces of fried fish, the next best thing to do, of course, is to take a boatride on the river. It’s really hard to describe the beauty of the river and its vastness left me in awe. The photos would never do justice to what we saw – and there were times when I doubted if this was a river or the sea, as I could barely see the other side!
You’ll find a variety of boats to go for a ride at Shimulia Ghat – but it’s advisable to take the ferry or a speedboat, and negotiate the price before hopping into one.
We stumbled upon this boatman who introduced himself as Nawazur and offered us a ride on his speedboat (2000 BDT for an hour) and it seemed like a good deal. One thing I have to admit is that the Bangladeshi people are so warm and friendly, they’d instantly make you feel as if you’ve known them for years – and the same happened with Nawazur Bhai. Speeding up the boat, he took us to the middle of the river to show us the Padma Setu which is under construction and would ease the daily hassles of the passengers who need to cross the river for their regular chores.
There are several small river islands, and we anchored our boat by the banks of a tiny one. Getting out of the boat, my feet landed on the black sand beach where it was just the three of us – and silence all around. Jishu and I took a walk around the island, clicking pictures and admiring the beauty of nature that surrounded us.
We crossed several boats that have been parked in the middle of the river, and fishermen waiting eagerly for their catches!
Lunch at ‘Project Hilsa’
The day trip to Mawa would have been incomplete if we didn’t stop for lunch at ‘Project Hilsa’. Well, as the name suggests, this place is all about ‘ilish’! The restaurant has a unique exterior and the entire place looks like a Hilsa fish itself.
They have an exquisite menu offering endless preparations of hilsa – starting from fried fish to ‘shorshe ilish‘ (fish marinated and cooked with mustard paste), ‘ilisha bhapa‘ (steamed fish with mustard and coconut paste, wrapped in banana leaves), ‘ilish’er leja bhorta‘ (a delicacy made with the fishtails), etc. Other than hilsa, they also have fresh pomfrets, red snapper, prawns, and lobsters as well as crabs – and everything here is on display – so you just pick your fish & they’ll cook it for you!
With a happy heart after that sumptuous lunch, it was time for us to head back to Dhaka. Undoubtedly, if you’re planning to visit Dhaka, you must go for a day trip to Mawa and experience the true essence of ‘ilish’ madness that lingers here! And if I have to talk about myself, I’m gonna hold these memories pretty close to my heart.
If you’ve been to Bangladesh and have any recommendations, please let me know in the comments below. I guess I’m definitely going to return back someday soon, for the food and much more!