Hilsa Fish: Everything You Need to Know about Bangladesh’s Heritage Dish

Last updated on October 6th, 2023 at 05:11 pm

Hilsa fish is a cultural symbol and national dish in Bangladesh, known for its unique taste and nutritional value.

Also known as Ilish, this species of fish that is highly prized for its unique taste and texture. Scientifically known as Tenualosa ilisha, it’s a member of the herring family and is also commonly referred to as hilsa shad. It’s celebrated as the national fish of Bangladesh and is also highly prized in India and Myanmar. Known for its silver-colored body and distinct flavor, it’s an oily fish high in omega-3 fatty acids.

Let’s delve into fascinating facts about hilsa fish, including popular recipes. Our team at Remitly created this guide as part of our new series celebrating the traditional foods of our customers across the globe.

Cultural and Economic Significance

Hilsa fish is more than just a staple of Bengali cuisine. In Bangladesh, hilsa is often served during important occasions, such as weddings, festivals, and religious ceremonies. Belonging to the Clupeidae family, the hilsa fish holds a revered status in Bangladesh, often dubbed the “Queen of Fish.”

Apart from its cultural significance, hilsa also plays an important role in the economy of Bangladesh. It is one of the most valuable fish species in the South Asian nation, with a significant portion of the population involved in its production, processing, and distribution.

The term “hilsa” likely originates from the Bengali word “Ilish” (ইলিশ), as the fish has a special cultural and culinary significance in Bengal, which is a region in South Asia divided between Bangladesh and India.

Nutritional Value and Health Benefits of Hilsa Fish

Apart from its cultural significance, hilsa fish is also a rich source of nutrients. It is packed with protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and various vitamins and minerals. Despite its fatty texture, the hilsa herring’s omega-3 fatty acids can help to reduce cholesterol levels.

Moreover, hilsa is also a good source of vitamin D, which is essential for maintaining healthy bones and teeth. It also contains high levels of iron.

Cooking Methods and Traditional Recipes for Hilsa

Hilsa fish is a versatile ingredient. In Bengali cuisine, it is often prepared as a curry, grilled, or fried, with the skin left on to enhance its flavor and texture.

One popular way of cooking hilsa is to make “Paturi”, where the fish is marinated in a paste made with mustard, turmeric, and coconut, and then wrapped in banana leaves and steamed.

Other popular Bengali recipes for hilsa fish include “Shorshe Ilish” (hilsa cooked in mustard sauce), “Ilish Bhaja” (Fried hilsa), and “Ilish Pulao” (hilsa fish cooked with rice).

Seasonal Availability and Migratory Patterns of Hilsa fish

Hilsa fish is a migratory species that travels from the Bay of Bengal to the estuaries of Bangladesh and West Bengal to spawn. The more famous areas for hilsa spawning and fisheries are the Padma, Meghna, and Jamuna rivers in Bangladesh and the Hooghly River in West Bengal.

It’s typically available in the market from April to September, with the peak season being from June to August.

However, in recent years, the availability of hilsa has decreased due to overfishing, high demand, and climate change. This has led to an increase in prices and a decline in the quality of the fish.

To address these issues, the government of Bangladesh has implemented various measures, such as banning fishing during the breeding season, limiting the number of fishing boats, and promoting sustainable fishing practices.

Historical Importance and Culinary Heritage of Hilsa

Hilsa has a long and rich history in Bengali cuisine. It is believed to have been consumed in the region for thousands of years and has played a significant role in the cultural and culinary heritage of Bangladesh.

Hilsa fish has been mentioned in Bengali literature, folklore, and songs. It’s so important to Bangladesh’s cultural heritage that it has been declared a “Heritage Fish” by the government, and efforts are being made to preserve and promote its production and consumption.

Beyond its native range on the Indian subcontinent, hilsa has gained popularity in international markets, including the Middle East and Malaysia.

Recipe: Shorshe Ilish (hilsa fish in mustard sauce)

Shorshe Ilish is a popular dish that showcases the unique taste of hilsa and the pungent flavors of mustard.


  • 4 large pieces or whole Hilsa fish
  • 4 tablespoons mustard paste
  • 2 tablespoons mustard oil
  • 2 green chilies, slit
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 1 teaspoon red chili powder
  • Salt to taste


  1. Clean the fish thoroughly and marinate with turmeric powder and salt. Keep aside for 15 minutes.
  2. In a bowl, mix the mustard paste, mustard oil, turmeric powder, red chili powder, and salt to make a smooth paste.
  3. Heat mustard oil in a pan and fry the marinated fish pieces until they turn golden brown. Remove from the pan and keep aside.
  4. In the same pan, add the mustard paste mixture and cook on low heat for a few minutes until the raw smell of mustard disappears.
  5. Add the fried fish to the pan and coat them well with the mustard sauce.
  6. Add slit green chilies and a little water to the pan. Cover and cook on low heat for about 10-15 minutes or until the fish is cooked through.
  7. Serve hot with steamed rice or paratha.

Note: hilsa fish can be cut into fillets, but traditional preparations often involve cooking the fish whole or in large pieces to preserve its flavor and texture.


Bangladeshis eat a great deal of fish, not just hilsa. Rohu is a freshwater fish that is widely available and is often farmed in ponds and rivers. The marine pomfret is more expensive, though also popular. In fact, the common saying “Maachh-e-Bhaat-e Bangali” translates to “fish and rice make a Bengali.”

That said, it’s the humble hilsa that holds the title of “Queen of Fish” in Bangladesh. During certain seasons, especially around the Bengali New Year, the arrival of hilsa in markets is celebrated, and various hilsa-based dishes become the focus of family gatherings and festivals.

Despite the challenges of overfishing, climate change, and high demand, efforts are being made to preserve and promote the total fish production so it can be enjoyed for generations to come.

Why not try some today?

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