Most Bengalis – yours truly included - love fish. We love the variety of flavours and textures that fish offers. Perhaps it is geography: in this small land there are over 260 species of freshwater fish which live and breed in 24000 kilometres of waterways (we have 700 rivers and tributaries) as well as numerous ponds, haors, beels and fishponds.
For many of us the love of fish extends to catching them. I caught my first fish when I was nine. It was a tilapia from a pond in the home of a relative in Naya Sharak, Sylhet. A member of the household staff set up a rudimentary fishing outfit for me – line, hook, sinker and dough for bait – and early the next morning we arrived at the pond. I recall with startling clarity the excitement of the first tug on the fishing line, of the anticipation of catching a wild thing. From that moment the day only got better.
Tilapias were easy and fun to catch but to me they do not taste as well as the smaller koi, pabda or puti. I have always been partial to eating smaller fish. Perhaps it is conditioned response. When I visited my Nanabari as a child, for example, my grandmother used cooked up a delicious curry of bashpata fish, with chunks of potatoes and tomatoes in a fragrant gravy. Not only did it have a delicate taste, but there was no worry about bones. You could either scrape its flesh off the backbone with your teeth or crunch and eat it whole.
Another childhood delicacy - and still my favourite fish anywhere - is the tiger-striped rani fish, about 2-3 inches long. It has a rich flavour and, fried crispy on the outside, simply melts in your mouth. In my travels, the closest I have found to rani were fresh anchovies I had in Spain, again fried crispy, though anchovies in Turkey were not as good.
And yes, I like my fish fried, even pabda. I can already see afficionados shaking their head.
Different regions of Bangladesh allow me to try out different fish. I tried faishha the first time on a launch in Sundarban and it has since become one of my favourite fish. In Nijhum Dwip, I tried several fish caught by the local fishermen at the mouth of the Meghna. Among these, chheua was delicious. About 4-5 inches long, it is easily recognised by its abnormally large belly.
No discussion of Bengali fish would be complete without hilsa, the king. One of our great writers went so far as to declare that since there is no mention of hilsa in descriptions of heaven, he is not interested in going there. My mother, who was a natural-born cook, had at least two dozen ways of cooking hilsa, each more delicious than the others.
The most fascinating fish I ever saw was the mudskipper. An inhabitant of Sundarban mangroves, this bug-eyed amphibious fish can spend a long time out of water on mud while avoiding predators and looking for food.
So, what's your favourite fish?