Hilsa in a Can: Year-round Supply of our Favourite Fish Now a Reality

07 May 2023

On a rainy day, suppose you want to serve guests at your house khichuri with shorshe ilish (hilsa cooked with mustard). But there is no ilish in the refrigerator, and none in the market. 


Worry not, as you can soon serve them canned hilsa. Researchers at Sher-e-Bangla Agricultural University (SAU) have recently developed locally manufactured chemical-free canned shorshe ilish which will be made available at an affordable price. 


Worldwide, canned fish is a quick and hassle-free meal option for people on the go as the processed food - unlike fresh fish that requires preparation and cooking - is ready-to-eat straight out of the container. 


"Our objective behind researching fish canning was the preservation of the valuable but perishable hilsa for a long period, maintaining international standards. At the same time, we wanted to make our favourite fish available all year round for consumers from all walks of life," said Md Masud Rana, co-researcher and assistant professor of fishing and post harvest technology at SAU. 


Professor Dr Kazi Ahsan Habib, chairman of the fisheries biology and genetics department at SAU, supervised the research funded under the Sustainable Coastal and Marine Fisheries Project of the Department of Fisheries. 


According to the fisheries department, there are 260 freshwater and 475 marine fish species in the country. So, why was hilsa chosen for canning? 


Citing hilsa as the national fish of Bangladesh, Masud explained, "Hilsa is fondly called the 'king of fishes' because of its unique taste and flavour. Only a few countries, including Bangladesh, have an abundance of hilsa. And more than 80% of the global hilsa is produced in Bangladesh," adding, "even if it is iced, export of hilsa is very challenging. But there is a high demand for this fish worldwide."  


Another factor at play for canning hilsa, Masud added, was that the fish cannot be dried because of its high fat content. Moreover, only hilsa weighing no more than 600 grams or 700 grams will be canned.   


In 2020-21, the total fish production in the country was 4.62 million tonnes, where hilsa alone contributed 0.56 million tonnes. Due to the department's various conservation measures, hilsa production has increased by around 80% in the last decade, according to the fisheries department. 


However, the high production rate does not benefit the fishermen all the time. Masud cited the famous novel 'Padma Nadir Majhi' by Manik Bandyopadhyay as an example. In the story, through the system of dadan, (informal lending of money), middleman Shital exploited the poor fisherman Kuber. 


During peak harvesting season, these middlemen hoard huge amounts of fresh hilsa and sell the remaining at a high price. They pay the fishermen a cheap price and add salt to the surplus fish to extend its preservation period. But salted hilsa is valued much less than a fresh one.  


"Industrial canning of hilsa can help the fishermen get fair prices for the surplus catches," Masud opined.  


Traditional fish traders might argue that canning hilsa will make the fish much more expensive, although the researchers disagree with it.  


They said that canning fish is not actually adding value; its industrialisation will not compete with the traditional fish trade, because the market for canned hilsa is different.   


Worldwide, tuna, salmon, sardine, pilchard and a few other sea fishes are canned. However, at the initial stage of the project, the researchers examined canned fish products of some other Asian countries like Malaysia and Thailand, because the recipes and fish varieties in those places are a bit similar to ours. 


Locally available cans are not suitable for canning hilsa because the fatty acid in the fish chemically reacts with the tin. So, the researchers imported containers having a zinc-oxide layer between the aluminum can and the fish. 


Sealing machines and the machines used to free the fish from bacteria were also imported. 


The researchers also examined hilsa's fat content and other nutrient values. They ensured that all the essential fatty acids, like Omega 3 and 6 - rich nutrients for pregnant mothers and children, containing EPA (Eicosapentaenoic Acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and good for the cardiovascular system - remain intact in the containers. According to Masud, no chemicals were used in the preservation process. 


Then they planned the recipes prioritising local consumers' taste. "Bangalis quite like hilsa with mustard, compared to other recipes of the fish. So, we tried this one first," Masud said.  


Currently, they are piloting three recipes: mustard hilsa, chilli hilsa, and vegetables with hilsa without any spice. The last item is meant for foreigners. 


The SAU researchers cannot engage in manufacturing and marketing of the product so they were looking for capable industrialists, as it is a sophisticated process requiring high quality maintenance and monitored food processing.


A private organisation called Sagar Fish Export was invited to pilot the canned hilsa. After several months of information exchange, Abed Ahsan Sagar, owner of Sagar Fish Export and director at Cox's Bazar Chamber of Commerce and Industries, adopted the idea in December 2022 and transformed a small portion of his 1.5 land at North Nuniar Chata of Cox's Bazar into a piloting plant. 


The second-generation businessman inherited a fish trading business of more than 40 years.  


"Canning fish has a great future both in domestic and export markets. The shelf life of fishes around the Bay of Bengal is comparatively high. So, there is a high potential of Bangladeshi canned fish in the export market," Sagar said while explaining his interest in the canned fish industry.  


Already the first batch of canned hilsa have been distributed for multiple panel tests (samples given to different groups for taste test). According to the researchers, since the beginning of March this year, at least 500 people have consumed the product and provided positive reviews. At present, the shelf life of the product is three months.


Currently, multiple analyses on nutrient content and shelf life are going on at laboratories of SAU, Bangladesh Livestock Research Institute, and Jashore University of Science and Technology. The analyses will go on for at least one year to determine the product's expiry date.  


The researchers believe, as does Sagar, that the industrialisation of canned hilsa will ensure employment of millions of people.  


Sagar said that usually, following the establishment of a major industry, backward-and-forward linkage industries begin to grow in phases. 


"Containers for condensed milk are now made in the country following a demand in local dairy industries. Similarly, there is a hope that we too can produce the containers for the canned fish," he said.  


The SAU researchers' canned hilsa is priced at Tk320. Is this a subsidised price when there are four slices of the fish in a single container? 


The researchers said that they have fixed the price after all necessary economic analysis. "The model containers are imported from China. If the containers are made locally, the price will fall further. Even a rickshaw puller can then afford canned hilsa more than once a month," said Masud, sounding hopeful.


Source: The Business Standard