Ilish Pulao (Hilsha Fish Pilaf)


Today I have for you another pilaf dish, this time hailing from Bangladesh, Ilish Maacher Pulao (Hilsha Fish Pilaf). This is my mother’s Ilish Pulao recipe and it is my favourite way to eat Hilsha fish. Read on to see how to make Ilish Pulao, Bengali Style Hilsa Fish Pilaf. 

For recipe steps, please watch video at the end of post.

There is an adage in Bengali “Maachhe bhaate Bangali” which means Bengalis live on fish and rice / are of fish and rice. I am not very good at translations, but I hope it makes sense to you, my dear reader. I’m a huge fan of seafood, but I’ve never been a big fan of fresh water fish – the majority of fish that you get in Bangladesh. I would wrinkle my nose if my mother cooked a fish I haven’t tasted before, and I would just eat veggies if I had to just so I didn’t have to pick the bones apart.

Even now, while I don’t eat fresh water fish regularly, or even crave it, there are a handful of fish that I can’t get enough of. Hilsha is not one of them, but this fish pilaf dish surely is. There might be many a gasp while reading the previous line, because Hilsha (Ilish in Bengali) is known as the king of Bengali fish. It’s the national fish of Bangladesh. How many other countries have paid such respect to a fish?  Because of its popularity, it is also a very pricey fish. Recently, the Bangladeshi Prime Minister advised Bangladeshis to avoid eating Hilsha during Eid (Islamic celebration) to prevent driving up the prices even further, and also because of their seeming scarcity. Oh the agony!

Some of the ways that Hilsha is prepared is by frying, making a curry with mustard, making a Hilsha head curry, and my favourite – combining fillets of this strong-smelling fish with delicate morsels of rice to bless our culture with Ilish Pulao (Hilsha Pilaf).

My last recipe was a pilaf as well (see Turkish rice pilaf) which is much simpler and more subtle in flavour. My Bengali rice pilaf is an explosion of flavours, but not overpowering, that combines, fish, spices, milk, yoghurt, onions and rice to give you an elegant dish that is worthy of Kings. If you can master this recipe, there is nothing in this world that you cannot master. So I had to turn to my mother for her recipe, because I am no master.

As I’ve mentioned before, my mother is an excellent cook, and this recipe of hers helps in proving that she is. It tastes just like what you get in Old Dhaka or in good restaurants in Dhaka, maybe better because it’s not as oily.

The rice that are traditionally used in Bangladesh to make pilaf (pulao) are short-grain Chinigura or Kalijeera. West Bengal uses Gobindobhog. The fragrance of these grains are incredible, and you’d think you’d be able to eat them raw! These types of rice are native to their region and may be found in Bangladeshi/Indian grocery stores in your area. If you can’t find any of these, you may use long grain Basmati. It won’t taste as good, but still good!

So without further ado, I would like to share with you my mother’s Ilish Pulao recipe. Get ready to be bedazzled!

Ilish Pulao (Hilsha Fish Pilaf)
Prep Time
10 mins
Cook Time
50 mins
Total Time
1 hr

Ilish Pulao (Hilsha Fish Pilaf) is a traditional Bengali fish pilaf recipe. It is a rich mix of fish, spices and rice, that is fit for a king. Get a taste of Royal Bengal with this recipe. 

Course: Main Course
Cuisine: Bengali
Servings: 6
Author: Tamara at Foodieverse
  • 3 tbsp oil (neutral oil, not olive oil)
  • 1/4 cup onion paste
  • 1 tbsp garlic paste
  • 2 tsp cumin powder
  • 2 tsp coriander powder
  • 1/2 tsp chili powder
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric powder
  • 1/4 cup beaten yoghurt
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 2 chillies
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 6-7 pieces Hilsha(Ilish) fish
  • 2 tbsp oil
  • 1 tbsp sliced onions
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 tbsp juice of ginger
  • 2 cups pre-washed short grain rice (Chinigura, Kalijeera or Gobindobhog) (Or Basmati if that's all you have)
  • 3 3/4 cups water
  • 2 chillies
  • 1/4 cup fried onions
  1. Heat oil in a pot, add onion paste, garlic paste, the spices, yoghurt, milk and sugar. Stir and simmer for a minute. 

  2. Add chillies and salt. Stir.

  3. Place fish pieces on gravy and cook for 1 minute.

  4. Turn fish over and cover. Simmer on low heat for 10 minutes.

  5. Take off heat and reserve 5 tbsp of gravy.

  1. Heat oil in another pot and fry onions for 30 seconds. 

  2. Add bay leaf, ginger juice and rice. Stir and cook for 1 minute.

  3. Add 5 tbsp of gravy and stir. 

  4. Add water and chilli. Cover and cook on low heat for 15-18 minutes until all the water is absorbed and rice is fluffy. 

To assemble
  1. Scoop out half of the rice. Place fish pieces and remaining gravy. 

  2. Add fried onions and top with remaining rice.

  3. Cover and simmer on very low heat for 5 minutes.

  4. Carefully serve with fish pieces on top. Garnish with more fried onions and chillies. 


Watch how to make Ilish Pulao


You may also like my Turkish Rice Pilaf recipe!




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