Ask any true-blue Bihari friend the defining dish of Bihar and I can bet you that you would find a near unanimous agreement on Litti-chokha. As your friend utters Litti-chokha, you can see a blissful, faraway look on her or his face.
A look of nostalgia, fascination and complete entrancement. If the questioner were a Bihari himself, he would immediately sense a burst of sensory stimuli; a wintry evening, star-lit skies, fragrance of fired cowdung-cakes, heady aroma of ghee being heated, and sounds of bantering men. Confusing?
That is the magic the mere mention of Litti-chokha casts on the Biharis. Welcome to the magic!
But before we talk about it, let us first talk about the humble sattu where all this magic starts.
One of the joys of being born and raised in Bihar is undoubtedly sattu. Most readers of this post may not be aware of it and it is my proud privilege to introduce to you the joys of this ubiquitous (at least in the Bihari/ East UP households) food ingredient. Burgers and Pizzas, take a walk, sattu (and its preparations) is the fast-food to beat all the fast foods! The source of culinary delights for the farmer, the traveller, the BPO guy (or girl) from Bihar or the retired person all by himmself. In summer or in winter. Or the rainy season.
Sattu is powdered chana. Chana is soaked in salt-water, dried and then roasted over hot sand by the friendly neighbourhood roaster, aka bhad-bhoonjha, in his, well, the bhaad. Once roasted, this is ground in the chakki. The ground powder is the magical sattu! Lest you still suspect of it being besan- which it is not- let me clarify to you the differences; sattu is chana dal with the seed-coat, soaked in salt water, dried and then roasted and ground. Besan is chana dal (without the seed-coat) ground without roasting.
And this humble sattu is the ingredient of many-a-joyous meal.
Travelling for an indeterminate time and distance and not sure where you will get your next meal from? No worries! Just carry a parcel of sattu tied in a thin muslin cloth, or more practically in your gamchha. And when you feel hungry, just stop-by somewhere on the way preferably next to a well in a village. If you have carried your own pinch of salt, good, or else feel free to ask for a spoonful from any baniya nearby who will never say no to you. You could either carry an onion with you, or could get it from any villager, even a pod of green mirchi. Draw some water from the well and settle down to prepare your repast. Segregate a quantity of sattu powder into a corner of your gamchha, add some water to the dry sattu powder, knead it into a thick mass, add some salt, knead it some more. Now you are ready for you meal. A portion of this dough along with a bite of the onion and mirchi taste divine. Tasty, nutritious and very convenient. Meal done, and off you go. Just remember to tie back the remaining quantity of dry sattu in the other corner of your gamchha so that it is ready for your next meal. Once you are done with this remainder in your next meal, wash the gamchha well and it is now ready for use as a towel after your bath the next morning. Rinse it well again and give it a few seconds to dry and it serves as a receptacle for your next supply of sattu you might buy at a road-side bania shop to take it along with you on your onward journey.
This recipe can be had at home as well, the only difference being that at home you have the luxury of a thali (or chheepa in Bhojpuri-speak). And if you have some sattu sticking to the thali- as inevitably there will be- add some extra water into the thali, stir it around to include as much of the residual sattu into the suspension you have just engineered, and there you have a wonderful liquid to wash down your repast with! This is called Libhri.
If you don’t fancy salted sattu, then there is an alternate solution as well. Replace salt with sugar, and add spoonfuls of ghee to taste. Add the requisite amount of water, enough to knead the quantity into strong dough. And then you can have, what is called “ghenvada”- by the mouthfuls.
But the piece de resistance, if I may be allowed a French phrase to describe something intrinsically Bihari, is the Litti.
Now, how do I describe this icon to a non-Bihari reader. Let me attempt.
You first prepare a mix of dry sattu with salt and spices and add a quantity of decanted spicy oil from a jar of mango pickles to make the mix even spicier. Atta is moulded into rounded hollow balls into which you fill this sattu mix. As the balls are getting formed, you stoke a “barbecue” with dried cowdung cakes (gointha). The atta/sattu balls are then inserted into the smouldering fire with potatoes, baingan and tomatoes following it for company later. After sometime, the vegetables are pulled out manually, followed by the littis. The roasted vegetables are peeled off their burnt skins and mashed along with spices, salt and mustard oil. That is the “chokha”. The littis, once they are removed from the fire, are sieved free of the ashes of cowdung cakes on a thin muslin cloth. The hot littis are then served along with chokha with bowlfuls of ghee. The diner pokes a little hole on the top of this litti spheroid and pours into this cavity a generous quantity of the melted ghee. And this is then relished with the chokha.
As you greedily bite into the hot litti you wonder whether it is its intrinsic temperature which makes you go “see-see-see” or is it the spicy mix which causes this. But you don’t care as the litti tastes divine. Period!
Given the amount of smoke a cowdung-cake barbecue generates, it is prudent to have this affair outside the house. And considering that preparing sattu means sitting around the fire, undertaking this activity in the winters makes a lot of good sense. And somehow, from my childhood I have seen men taking charge of the barbecuing bit, the preparatory work for the litti-chokha being done by the womanfolk inside their rasoi.
Ah! The joys of litti-chokha!
PS: Litti has now got commercialized, here is a sample of the banner of a stree-side hawker. Another hawker I saw even proclaimed that he was invited to run the litti stall at Laloo Yadav’s daughter’s wedding.
PS: You may read the first part of this piece here.