The fledgling bottlegourd vine by the cowshed is mischievous.
Every time a punctilious Manikkaka trains her with an assortment of sticks, wires and whatsoever makeshift contraptions his ingenious brain can conjure, she remains docile and obedient for a week.
But only just that.
Even before the week elapses, the adventurous tendrils, pretty and pristine as ever, are their truant selves again, scouting for brave new worlds to explore and new relationships to lean on.
Till of course, Manikkaka tames her again to humble submission.
After a while though, Manikkaka surrenders to the free spirit of the defiant vine.
And she flourishes in august pride, pompous and flamboyant, carving her own little kingdom on the red-tiled roof of the ancient cowshed.
And before even the month has passed, the roof is an oasis of verdant green, a world of leaves and tendrils, dense and luxuriant.
The vibrant red tiles fade into oblivion soon.
She is more enterprising than Queen Victoria, Bapi jokes one Sunday afternoon, the conquest of the roof no less significant than the annexation of India by the Empress.
And then one morning, the vine blooms.
Dainty white buds appear.
Amidst the ocean of green.
That’s a male flower and this one a female one, Grandma quips, pointing to the beautiful flowers one morning. All we now need is a bevy of bees and butterflies to flit amongst these pretty flowers.
Grandma’s prediction comes true.
A swarm of bees before long comes visiting, flirting unabashedly with the flowers.
And one fine day, the vine bears fruit.
Manikkaka gets the long-unused rickety ladder from the cobweb-mangled dust-suffocated storeroom beside the cowshed and rests it against the whitewashed wall.
Dada holds the ladder firmly.
A malicious sickle with an ominous blade secure in the folds of his gamchha waistband, Manikkaka climbs up the ladder, one careful step at a time.
He reaches the roof of the shed.
A violent sway of the sickle and a bottlegourd separates in agony from the vine.
Another one, Dada shouts. In enthusiasm.
A brandish of the malicious sickle again and another gourd is orphaned in a flash.
Manikkaka drops the bottlegourds.
Dada takes a gallant catch. He beams with pride.
And then one listless morning, Bapi gets home a pristine silver ilish from the market. Last night’s catch, I hear him flaunt to Maa. Straight from the fisherman.
Maa decides to make her delectable Lau Patay Ilish Bhapa. Manikkaka forages a sheaf of leaves from the vine, the mustard-paste caressed ilish is packed in the gourd leaves, secured with kitchen twine and set to steam.
Lau Patay Ilish Bhapa. From the kitchen of Tagores. Pristine ilish. A generous smear of piquant mustard. A drizzle of mango pickle oil. Some fiendish green chillies for the heat. Steamed languorously. To perfection.
Enjoy Lau Patay Ilish Bhapa with a bowl of piping hot rice as ilish season sets in !!
Lau Patay Ilish Bhapa (Hilsa steamed in Bottlegourd leaves)
- 4 Ilish or hilsa
- 1.5 tbsp yellow mustard seeds
- 0.5 tbsp black mustard seeds
- 1 tsp turmeric powder
- 5-6 green chilies slit
- 1 tbsp mustard oil
- 1 tbsp mango pickle oil
- salt to taste
- 8 tender bottlegourd leaves
- Soak the bottlegourd leaves in boiling salted water for 10-15 odd minutes. Shake off excess water, keep aside.
- Soak the yellow mustard seeds and black mustard seeds in warm water for 15 odd minutes.
- Drain the water. Make a smooth paste with 3-4 green chillies, a pinch of turmeric powder and a couple of grains of rice, keep aside.
- Add the mustard paste, turmeric powder, mango pickle oil, mustard oil and the remaining green chilies to a bowl. Give it a hearty mix.
- Gently place the fish steaks in the bowl, sprinkle in the salt, give it another loving mix. Keep aside for 10-15 minutes.
- Arrange the bottlegourd leaves as shown in the picture, place one hilsa steak on the leaves, top with a little marinade.
- Wrap from all four sides to make a parcel, secure with twine. Repeat for each of the remaining fish steaks.
- Steam the bottlegourd wrapped ilish in a steamer for 15 odd minutes.
- Serve hot.