The Nuances of Bihari Cooking
As a child, when a plate of food is put in front of you, chances are high all you are thinking is “is this going to be tasty?” unless of course you are a junior master chef in making. Which I wasn’t. All our trips to Bihar in summer holidays and visits to my Grandparents’ or masi’s or bua’s place were full of meals that were, from the worldview of a child, a delicious answer to the question ‘is it tasty?”. Only after growing up did I realize how much more there was to those meals and the nuances that I missed. And how grateful I am to be able to see them now. Beyond being delicious, Bihari meals are also fascinating.
I’m as Bihari as they come but my parents come from two different banks of the Ganga and one river apart, the food styles of their two different homes are very different. I don’t yet know as much about the differences as I would like, but one thing common across both sides of the river is that Bihari food uses few ingredients, tries to stay true to them but the variety of techniques in preparing simple ingredients makes all the difference.
The famous winter dish and hallmark of Bihari cuisine, Litti Chokha, is a great example. The main ingredient of a Litti is the Sattu used in the stuffing inside the hard but crumbly roll of flame roasted dough. Sattu is an incredibly versatile ingredient, made of chickpea flour and 6 other ground grains, this powdered grain mix is used for sweet and savory breakfast halwas or porridges, as a stuffing for parathas, in both sweet and savory summer drinks, on its own tossed with some onions and seasoned well, and of course, in the Litti.
Litti Chokha is a surprising dish, with many flavours and textures, simple ingredients brought together to make something unique and delicious. There is the crumbly roughness of Sattu mixed with seasoning and spices and with raw onions adding both sharpness and sweetness, and this mix then encased in whole wheat dough, roasted over a coal fire and then tossed in ghee. Then these Litti are served with Chokha, charred tomato and eggplant purees cooked with mashed potatoes and spices, the smokiness of the dish playing off the smokiness of the Litti, the two coming together in a beautiful, warm, whole. Sometimes Litti are served with Aloo Chokha, roasted potatoes smashed and tossed with pungent mustard oil and sweet raw onions and smoked dried red chili.
Most Bihari dishes are simple and easy to make but it’s these simple techniques like charring, smoking and mashing that make the cuisine unique and exciting, especially for those of us excited by the idea of discovering the rich and varied cuisines in India.
Here’s a list of some of our favourite Bihari recipes and a recipe for a very simple Okra dish, Bhindi Bhujia, crisp and delicious.
250g Bhindi (Okra or Ladyfinger)
1 dry Red Chili
¼ tsp Paanch Phoron
½ tsp Bihari Bhuna Masala
Salt to taste
1 tbsp Mustard Oil
Wash and dry the bhindi and once thoroughly dry, chop them into fine slices.
Heat the oil in a kadhai and heat it till it starts to smoke. Add the Paanch Phoron and let the seeds pop and crackle. Halve the whole red chili and add it to the fragrant oil. Once it turns slightly brown, add the bhindi and cook them on a low heat till crisp. Now add the bhuna masala and stir for a minute. And you’re done. Serve with paratha for a typical Bihari breakfast or with rice or chapati along with a cooling Sattu drink to wash it all down.