Bihari cuisine is synonymous with simple, flavoursome ingredients that people find highly comforting.
It was in January that at an F&B conclave at The LaLit, Chandigarh, Chef Nandita Karan, who specialises in Continental food, decided to showcase food from her home state, Bihar. Impressed by the simple yet delicious spread, Keshav Suri, the executive director of the group, decided that she should introduce the regional cuisine for the hotel’s guests. And this became the basis of a Bihari food festival at his Delhi hotel. Interestingly, the idea of inclusivity that the group promotes in different domains was one more reason to showcase the food from Bihar, a state which often suffers from an image problem. Says Suri, “Bihari food, unlike say Bengali, Rajasthani or Goan, is not considered glamorous enough to have a food festival dedicated to it. That certainly was an important reason to showcase it during the Independence Day month.” But that’s the back story.
Coming to the food, it was high on flavours despite the use of minimal ingredients and proved that artful cooking was about boiling it down to very simple methods. First up on the spread was litti chokha, the dish that in everybody’s mind is ubiquitous with the state. The Litti traditionally has a stuffing of whole chana sattu, which unlike roasted gram flour, has a distinct flavour. The chef pointed out, “Often people use gram flour but the sattu is what was traditional to the dish. This is combined with roasted garlic, green chillies and onions which are stuffed inside.” Served with chokha , which is mashed aubergine in mustard oil, a tomato chutney and another one made of flax seeds, this was a dish which certainly whetted the appetite. “It was traditionally used as war food as it can be prepared with minimal ingredients and lasts three-four days,” chef Nandita informed us. The flax seed chutney, though a staple in Bihari households is not served as a side to the dish but was an addition made by the chef.
An essential dish of the thali in Bihar, besides the roti, rice, two-three varieties of subzi and dal is a fried snack called…..The day I dined, it looked like chila but was different in taste and texture. Made with a combination of rice and gram flour, it had an addition of green peas that gave it a fullness of volume and was crunchy like a pakoda. But the taste, well, that was distinct without being overpowering, the pea making for excellent burst of flavours when used as stuffing. The chef pointed out that the balance between the rice flour which is used in a larger quantity and gram flour is the key. “If the proportion is incorrect, it becomes soggy,” she told us. Next up was the main course which had a Chana dal, Raw banana koftas, Red amaranth and alu subzi and Mutton ahuna. It was the last two dishes which were the stars of the evening.
The amaranth subzi was cooked simply with garlic, green chillies and turmeric which brought out the flavour of the greens. “The saag has been used whole as chopping it makes it lose some of its juice which in turn compromises its flavour,” said the chef. And was it cooked to perfection? It was tender without turning to mush and with each mouthful one got the intense flavour of eating something that is green and healthy. And even in the mutton, the flavour of the meat was balanced with that of the spices. Cooked to perfection where it was practically falling off the bone, the dish again scored for its simplicity. The meat is marinated in a mix of onions and whole garam masala and mustard oil for five-six hours before being cooked in a sealed earthenware pot which is the key in bringing out its flavour. Though chopped onions are used, the slow cooking reduces them to mush which forms a gravy that is not as smooth as one is used to in say a butter chicken or korma but then that is the entire point. “There is no use of cashew paste or cream in the cooking. Mustard oil is usually used in the cooking and its pungent smell adds another dimension to the dishes,” said the chef.
Some of our regional dishes make for great comfort food and we wish they could progressively make inroads into menus of Indian specialities which have largely remained static over the years.
Writer: Saimi Sattar
Courtesy: The Pioneer