“A man’s character is known from the way he buys his fish”, retorts the Bengali father when his daughter professes her love for a Punjabi boy, in the Bollywood film ‘Vicky Donor’. Growing up in a middle class household of Kolkata, does attest considerable sentiment to various sayings on fishes. Blessed with abundant water bodies and wetlands, Bengal has ensured that the plates of Bengalis are filled with fish, while it has also influenced popular culture, literature, and rituals.
For instance, Prawn (chingri) and hilsa (ilish) serve as the unofficial mascots of the fabled football derby Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, respectively. Satyendranath Dutta’s poem Ílsheguri’ portrayed the joy of hilsa fish during the ilsheguri  rainfall. Rabindranath Tagore had elaborated on how hilsa attracted the crowd in the riverside market and humoured about how it sang songs in the tune of ‘Behaag’ raaga in his poetry collection titled ‘Khapchara’ .
In the days of abundance availability, prior to the setting up of Farakka Barrage in Murshidabad district in Central Bengal, hilsa was a mandatory offering to Ma Durga on Nabami tithi. From Dashami (late October) to Sri Panchami (early February) consumption of hilsa is forbidden, as the juvenile fish which is born in the upstream river swims back to sea (as hilsa is anadromous like salmon). By offering hilsa to Ma Saraswati on Sri Panchami, Bengalis would resume their epicurean relation with the silver harvest.
Preparing fish delicacies is preceded by an adroit navigation of a typical fish market and some astute bargaining. As a child I would accompany family elders to the market, most often I would carry a small fish bag (tholi) while the elder would carry the big bag filled with vegetables. Now in my mid-20s, I have started to do the market errands having internalised the elders’ behavior and preferences in the market. As if the bazaar smartness has been transferred over generations, through the bones of hilsa and the fillets of bhetki. It’s like an unspecified norm: a boy is baptised to be a full-fledged man when he learns to buy the right fish at a right price.
Woman of Chinese origin selling fish-balls, Teretti Bazar.
Chinese Breakfast on Sunday morning, Teretti Bazar.
In Kolkata, Gariahat, Manicktala and New Market are some of the old traditional bastions of renowned fishmongers, functioning since the pre-independence period, which are swarmed by fish buyers/lovers on a daily basis. Three of the biggest wholesale fish markets are located in Howrah, Sealdah, and Patipukur, which are situated in different parts of the city. Improved public transport and affordability of personal cars have allowed the Bengalis to transcend the markets of their vicinity and travel to wholesale markets of Malancha and Diamond Harbour in South 24 Parganas district which offers greater variety than the city markets and offers the opportunity to buy fish from the fishermen at a lower price, when they sail back to the shores with their catch.
Besides these, shopping malls have also started selling fish which includes multiple breeds such as tuna, sardine, and salmon imported from outside. Big departmental store outlets in Kolkata such as Spencers and Metro Cash and Carry have an entire section dedicated to fish. These outlets are mostly popular in the newly added areas of the city such as New Town, Rajarhat, where the informal market network is yet to consolidate. Moreover, a significant section of the new generation workforce, primarily associated with the Information Technology sector, prefers to avoid the slippery floors of a typical market and the hassle of bargaining, in favour of the departmental stores’ clean premise and pre-specified price of the fish. Entrepreneurial enterprises are coming up with new models of business with fish; ‘Machli Baba’, a well-furnished shop selling raw fish and multiple fish items, is one such initiative which is located in the posh locality of Ballygunje in South Kolkata. Machli Baba has struck the chord with the trend of the modern nuclear family by starting to sell fish by the number of pieces, rather than a minimum weight (minimum 300gm to 500gm over different types of fish), which is the established norm. Such business model is possible for Machli Baba likely because of the investment behind the refrigerating infrastructure, which is unavailable to a traditional fish seller. A number of online ventures have also started delivering fish, along with other food products, to home. Till now such alternative ventures and entrepreneurship models cater to a small percentage of the population who are digitally literate and resides in high rise apartments. We may as well say, that the new work regime and relaxed norms of trade activities in the post-globalization period have bought some cosmetic change in the way fish is traded in an urban space like Kolkata.
The Government of West Bengal, after the change of guards in 2011, has been particularly attentive to the potentials offered by pisciculture. State Fisheries Development Cooperation (SDFC) has taken multiple revenue generating initiatives such as setting up fair price shops, mobile fish vendor, fish-themed restaurants and guest houses across the state. State-owned fish outlet ‘Benfish’, once renowned for their fish fry and batter fry, has also been rejuvenated through more outlets, enhanced outreach, and increased workforce.
In 2013-2014 financial year, SDFC reaped a profit of Rs 1,50,000, which increased to Rs 43,00,000 in 2016-17 financial year. The ailing guest houses managed by SDFC made a commendable comeback by offering multiple fish items in the occasions taking place in the guest houses at a competitive price; in 2014-15 financial year, revenue from the eight guest houses was Rs 53,53,504 which rose to Rs 1,90,00,000 in the 2016-17 financial year (till February 2017). Over the years West Bengal has exported a variety of fishes, particularly prawn to markets abroad; in 2016 West Bengal exported marine products worth $530.91 million which was 11% of India’s total export of marine products. New breeds such as Vanom prawn and Viet koi are being cultivated now in Bengal; the fish seeds of these breeds were initially procured from Southeast nations such as Vietnam. One such breed hybrid magur, has turned to be a menace in some wetlands as it consumes almost everything and fiercely competes for resources within the ecosystem which is detrimental for local carp breeds such as rohu, katla and mrigel. Currently, over 50% of West Bengal’s fish demand is met by supplies from Andhra Pradesh. Taking note of this huge gap, West Bengal government has carved out 810 water bodies for fisheries and allotted Rs 23 crores for fish food. While 14.90 lakh MT of fish was cultivated in 2012-13, the aim of the state fisheries department is to increase the fish production to 17 lakh MT in 2017.
The facts and figures about fish in Bengal, goes beyond the question of economics, revenue and export. Different communities, who have arrived in Kolkata, have added their own ingredients in making of the fish, which have been seamlessly assimilated in the broader cuisine of the city. On the other hand, the younger generation of traditional vegetarian communities like Marwaris, have started to embrace the fish recipes outside their homes, which sounds contrary to the trend of gastronomic vigilantism in multiple parts of Northern and Western India in contemporary times.
Tashkeen is renowned for preparing Mahi Akbari in the month of Ramzan, Zakaria Street, Kolkata.
Mahi Akbari served at Tashkeen, Zakaria Street, Kolkata.
The Bengali households and ‘pice hotels’ of Kolkata are repositories of some of the traditional preparations of fish, with mustard seeds and paanch foron (five spices) constituting as essential ingredients. Oriya cooks in the pice hotels are a common sight across Kolkata. The Chinese breakfast eateries of Terreti Bazar of Central Kolkata have have maintained their long-standing culinary tradition of serving fish ball soup, fish dumplings and prawn chips. In the last few years the Iftaar walks in Zakaria Street, which hosts the Nakhoda Masjid, during Ramzaan has gained popularity. Some of the shops are popular for their haleem and exotic preparations of chicken and fish. One such shop is Tashkeen which is famous for their mahi akbari, marinated katla fish pieces which are sold by their weight. Zakaria Street and Teretti Bazar, along with the household kitchens, ensure that Bengal retains the secular and decorated legacy of its gastronomy, which quintessentially hinges on its affair with the fish.
 Khapchara can be loosely translated as ‘óut of the box’. Refer to https://archive.org/details/KhapcharaEd.1st.