The Bihari cuisine

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But why Bihari kebab is not on the menu

Yesterday evening, I was at author Sadia Dehlvi’s home in Nizamuddin East who is on cloud seven. Her new book, The Sufi Courtyard: Dargahs of Delhi, has just come off the press. Since it carries a few of my photos, I too had a reason to be happy.

While we were having dinner, Dehlvi’s Karachi-born son musician Arman Ali Raza moaned about that just why we in India don’t get to eat Bihari kebabs. He wondered that why he finds it only in Karachi where he goes annually to meet his Pakistani relatives. Then, turning to me, Arman asked, “Bihar is in India, not Pakistan. Then why don’t we have Bihari kebabs, and they have?”

Point to ponder.

But just what is a Bihari kebab?

I never thought that Bihar has a great cuisine. But, then ‘it’ happened.

O my Bihari-kebab eating friends in Pakistan, if Bihar were a country, Delhi should be its capital and litti chokha its national dish. The capital is home to a large migrant population from Bihar, but… ‘Just what is litti chokha?’

Smoked brinjal and baked dough. A rustic two-dish combination symbolises the resurgence of a region that has been vilified for too long as wretched, lawless and corrupt.

Litti chokha began as the food of the poor in what is now known as Bihar, and rarely appears on roadside carts or restaurant menus of big cities. Instead, it has largely remained confined to the home kitchens of Biharis.

Litti chokha is soul food for people in Jharkhand and eastern UP too. In villages, peasants make littis by stuffing the staple sattu — roasted gram powder — into thick round balls of atta, which are then baked over goyetha (dried cow-dung patties). In cities, the baking is done in gas tandoors or ovens.

Chokha is prepared by roasting eggplant, boiled potato and tomato over a direct flame till the skin turns black. The vegetables are then peeled, mashed, spiced, mixed with chopped onions, garlic, green chilli and lemon juice, and spiked with raw mustard oil. Those who can afford it have their littis dipped in ghee.

“Litti chokha is a great health food,” says Pushpesh Pant, the Delhi-based author of the voluminous India: Cookbook. “It demands no frying and it has almost every nutrient, including carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and calcium.”

The streets of Delhi have litti chokha carts but these are difficult to find. One litti landmark is in Mayur Vihar Phase I, opposite the Supreme Enclave apartments, at the entrance of Acharya Niketan market (ask any rickshaw-walla bhayya at the Metro station to take you to “the place where litti chokha is sold”).

Another is, I’m told, on New Delhi railway station’s platform No 7, the point where most Bihar-bound trains are often pulled in for boarding as they prepare to commence their journey.

Mamu’s dhaba at Jawaharlal Nehru University also sells litti chokha.

There are stalls in the office sectors of Noida, just across the border from Delhi. I have sighted a stall in Sector 57. Cheap, filling and delicious, litti chokha is a great proletarian food. Most clients of that cart are rickshaw-wallahs and drivers. Three sellers sit near the police station in Sector 58.

One cart has been seen outside the Filmistan cinema, near Sadar Bazaar in central Delhi.

During the annual India International Trade Fair (IITF), litti chokha sells like hot cakes at the Bihar pavilion.

“Living away from Bihar for so many years, I rarely speak in Magahi, my region’s dialect,” says Shubha Sinha, who moved to Delhi after her marriage in 1980. “But the family remains wedded to its traditions on the dining table. I make litti chokha at least once a month in summer and every week in winter. Cooking it is an excuse to connect to Bihar.”

The turnaround in Bihar’s image – from corrupt and caste-ridden to development-focused– may help lift its cultural symbols out of obscurity. “If you are not in an economically advantageous position, nobody notices you. Traditions are maintained but only in homes,” says Delhi-based dancer Shovana Narayan, whose parents are from Bihar. “But with the state finally on the path of development, litti chokha may become the emblem of the new Bihari pride.”

The dish is difficult to find in the city’s restaurants. The canteen at Bihar Bhawan in Chanakyapuri makes litti chokha only to order.

Whenever you chance to visit Delhi, you must visit The Pot Belly restaurant in Shahpur Jat Village (near Coffee Garage, close to Slice of Italy) in south Delhi. Opened last year, the lovely rooftop eatery is perhaps the world’s only restaurant that specialises in Bihari cuisine, and its litti chokha platter (Rs 190) is magnificent. The presentation inclines towards minimalist philosophy. The accompanying channa daal is extraordinarily comforting.

But, of course, there’s no Bihari kebab on the menu.

Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website and four blogs. The website address: thedelhiwalla.com. The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos

1 COMMENT

  1. Original Bihari kebab was sold at Menhgu’s shop at Patna. It has largely remained confined to the homes of Muslims and Kayasthas. A variant of Bihari kebabs are sold as rolls in several places including Lexington Avenue South in New York City. Maulana Azad talked about it in his autobiography. Hope this and other items come out in restaurants and Bihari food does not remain just the delicious litti chokha.

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