The Bhojpuri feast
From the iconic litti-chokha to the rustic vegetable curry in mustard paste and the mouth-watering desserts, this regional cuisine of india offers a host of fresh flavours with numerous health benefits. chef and author pallavi nigam sahay takes us on a unique culinary adventure discovering the nuances of bhojpuri cuisine
Masala tel chodhne tak bhunjna. (Sauté the spices till of your pan).” This was my mother- in-law’s advice on my first day in a traditional kitchen in Patna, capital of the state of Bihar. I still remember my mother-in-law familiarising me with the traditional Bhojpuri cuisine,you start to see oil at the edges which is popular in Bihar, and parts of Jharkhand, Odisha, and Uttar Pradesh. Even after 10 years, the memories of that day are as fresh in mind. As I noted down the recipes recounted by my mother-in-law, I stood there, amazed at the simplicity of it all, finally finding comfort in the moment I began to cook.
Bhojpuri food has historically been associated with the agricultural pastures of Bihar. It is high in protein and packed with carbohydrates. Every meal is a grand display of the rich flavours of the great Magadha empire (684 BC-320 BC), an ancient kingdom located on the Indo-Gangetic plains of what is today Bihar. On my first day in a traditional kitchen, I fell in love with the simple yet wholesome flavours of this not-so-known cuisine. While today, a few dishes from this platter, like makhana (fox nuts) and litti-chokha (roasted wheat dumplings filled with sattu served with roasted and mashed vegetables), have become popular outside the region, there is much more to this culinary tradition. When I prepared an authentic Bhojpuri meal, helped by the family cook, I served a host of classics: chane ka bachka (a fritter prepared with soaked black gram and spices) and pitha (steamed rice flour dumplings stuffed with a paste of lentil and garlic). The main course included kadhi badi (deep- fried gram flour dumplings cooked in a yoghurt-based gravy), aloo gobhi ki bhujia (deep-fried cauliflower and potato), kohra sarson ki sabji (pumpkin cooked in mustard paste), oal ki chutney (yam chutney), lentils and rice. For dessert, we served malpua (deep- fried batter of flour, sugar and milk, soaked in sugar syrup).
The people of Bihar love their food. Take any festival – Holi, Diwali, Dussehra or Chhath, they are as much about the food as everything else, if not more. Interestingly, weddings in the region are also a culinary celebration involving community feasts with friends and family. I learnt this during kacchi, a ceremony performed on the day following the wedding. On this occasion, traditional dishes are prepared and served to the groom’s family by male members of the bride’s family. I was introduced to baigan badi (brinjal cooked with deep-fried lentil dumplings), pachphoran kohra (pumpkin cooked with a mix of five different spices), sarson ka machli (mustard fish), mutton curry, spicy chicken kebabs and the dessert kala jamun.
That day, I also learnt that mustard oil and the panchphoran (a mix of cumin; radhuni, a strong spice; dry fenugreek seeds, fennel seeds and nigella seeds) are the two pillars of Bihari cuisine, much like in several of India’s eastern states. Tempering mustard oil with panchphoran at the beginning of almost every dish, manifolds the taste. Within days I also learnt how integral sattu (roasted Bengal gram flour) is in the daily lives of a families from Bihar. Many begin their day with a healthy and savoury sattu drink: by mixing sattu in water with lemon and black salt. Sattu ke parathe (shallow- fried flatbread with a filling of sattu) is a regular on the breakfast menu. High on protein, sattu is said to have cooling properties as well, ideal for summer. During winters, litti-chokha comes to the rescue. Culinary lore says this immensely popular dish was first cooked in the Magadha kingdom.
The health value of the recipe and the convenience of the cooking procedure made it a staple with soldiers during wars. It requires very little water for cooking and can be baked without the use of utensils. Pitha is another traditional dish that people love. These half-moon shaped steamed rice-flour dumplings stuffed with a coarse paste of lentils have grown to become one of my favourites too. Interestingly, a variation of this dish, called farrah, is common in Madhya Pradesh too. The difference being that Bhojpuri pithas are spicier and have a distinct flavour of garlic whereas farrahs have a more balanced taste and are given a tempering of curry leaves and mustard seeds after they are cooked. In Bengal, a similar- looking but sweet dish is called doodh puli, in which, instead of steaming, the dumplings are poached in milk and the stuffing is of coconut and jaggery. A version is popular in Maharashtra as well: the sweet modak! This flower-shaped rice flour dumpling is filled with a mixture of coconut and jaggery and steam- cooked. In Kerala, a similar dish called kozhukattai is prepared on Easter, the only variance being its round shape and thick encasing. This is just a small introduction to the variety of Indian cuisine. Our integrity in diversity, immersed in our great culinary traditions, often overlap and interact in surprising ways, creating gastronomic combinations that belong to certain geographical area but are accepted and enjoyed across the country.
The food of a region serves as the best way to understand the social and cultural history of that area. Today, when we taste flavours from home at a nearby restaurant, memories come rushing back, nourishing our bodies and souls. Bhojpuri cuisine is spreading its wings beyond its home and its recipes are becoming popular across the country. As new speciality restaurants are launched and chefs experiment with the traditional flavours, hopes are high that the recipes of this ancient culinary style will continue to live on.