The Curious Case of Bihari Cuisine: Part 2

November 16, 2010

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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The Curious Case of Bihari Cuisine: Part 1

November 11, 2010

Despite the many Biharis across the country, and across the continents (Mauritius, countries of the West Indies and Fiji come to my mind easily), and Biharis in Bihar, of course, there is no popular recognition of the Bihari cuisine. We do not have restaurants announcing in big and bold that they serve authentic Bihari cuisine. No Bihari food festivals in five star- or even three star- hotels. Not even does the friendly neighbourhood restaurant announce: “Specialist in Chinese, Mughalai, Punjabi and Bihari cuisine”. A pity, the Bihari cuisine has failed to grab the attention of other fellow countrymen? Or is it that the Biharis have failed to position their cuisine as something unique. I understand that there is Gujrati thali, Bangal ranna, Andhra mealsu and Kashmiri waazwaan. But, alas, no Bihari cuisine. How come?

It is my humble endeavour in this post to educate the non-Bihari reader on the delights of the Bihari cuisine.

Maybe us Biharis are to be blamed. When asked for our favourite meal, we just utter “Daal-bhaat-chokha”. Or sometimes even “maad-bhaat-chokha”. I am in love with the aforementioned stuff as well; I am a Bihari and I understand the delicacy of what other people would believe is rather pedestrian.

Daal is something which all of us Indians have regularly, albeit with varying differences. But have you had the Bihari daal? Arhar dal, just watered down so, with a heavenly chhaunk of “panch-phoran”? (Can you visualize the description of this dish in fancy five star restaurants: “Toor lentils, cooked to the right consistency with perfection and seasoned with a unique, mouth-watering combination of five spices”.) And chokha, the exotic mashed potatoes with a liberal touch of mustard oil and a sprinkling of salt. Some would also add to it a burnt- and mashed- red chilli to impart to it spiciness and an exotic taste. Bhaat, you exclaim is the mundane rice? Well, mundane the rice may be, but have you experimented with various types of rice? Usina chaawal (parboiled rice) or Arwaa chawal (the long-grained rice, with a flavour of its own? And either variety of rice is cooked with varying degrees of consistency, depending upon the family traditions passed down the centuries.

A cousin of the above is maad-bhaat-chokha. Maad, the starchy fluid drained out of the pan (tasla) during an intermediate stage of cooking rice is used as a substitute to daal. Sometimes relished even without the chokha– with a piece of a pickle. Nimki, or the sour lemon pickle, made from large lemons, being a favourite. Sure there will be a quantity of maad left behind on your plate. Just lift up the cheepa, or chhipli (plate in Bhojpuri-speak) to your lips and quaff the residual elixir!

You find the above combos too cumbersome, all this effort to fix your daal-bhaat, or maad-bhaat? Fret not, you can always feast on khichdi, the ultimate comfort food. I have dwelt on this in much detail in earlier posts of mine. Suffice it to say that should you wish to have the khichdi, do not forget its traditional accompaniments as mentioned in the following ditty:

Khichdi ke chaar yaar,

Dahi, papad, ghee, achaar.”

I have written earlier about khichdi on my blog. Here is part 1 and there is part 2.

Oh, you are not in favour of chaawal, at all, and you wish to try some alternate stuff? What about Janera ke khichdi? Khichdi made of corn?

Or maybe you are a wheat afficionado. Multiple delicacies beckon you! Roti and paratha are mundane. Maybe you should try some varieties of makuni. Makuni of different pedigrees. Makuni is what others would call bharwaan paratha. With either mashed potatoes, or phool-gobhi (cauliflower), or murai (radish) as the filling. Technically correct. But this description equates it to the heavily commercial Punjabi fare and misses out on the unique combo of the Bihari spices, specially the two jewels in the spicy crown: ajwain and mangarial. Don’t understand? Head out for a dinner with a Bihari family!

The cuisine of Bihar is not limited to chawal, roti alone. You should seek out the vegetables that the Biharis eat. Lauki, konhda, nenua, jheenga etc. But the king of all Bihar vegetables would be parwal. Parwal is rather unique to Bihar and to some other parts of the East. (Notably in Bengal, where it is called potol. In fact, the Bengalis are so fond of it, some of them even occasionally name their offspring, Potol!).

If you happen to come to our local market and see a throng of men and women around the rare shop that sells parwal, you can be sure that the customers are nearly all Biharis or Bengalis. Each one in the crowd pressing this little yellow-speckled green sabzi between his or her finger-tips and evaluating if the parwal was “fresh” or “boodha” (over-ripe). Some would even break this tender vegetable between their fingers. If it gave way with a smart, crisp snap, then it was fresh (and by extension the entire lot). If it gave way reluctantly and ended up as a squishy mass then it was boodha!

But why this lavish attention on parwal, a sabzi which rest of the country does not even bother to consider in their scheme of culinary activities? The simple answer is, they are not aware of the magic you can work with the imperial parwal.

It can be made into a bhujiya (not to be confused with Haldiram, Bikaneri or generally speaking, the Rajsthani bhujiya- those are made of plain or spiced besan); sautéed slices of parwal with potato or on its own. (What a delight it is to crunch those lovely crisp parwal seeds!). It can be a gravy sabzi, either in glorious isolation or combined with aloo. You can halve each parwal and stuff it with a mix of spices- and you get kaluanji or bharwaan parwal. You could mash some boiled parwal, throw in a few table-spoonfuls of mustard oil and spices, salt, to taste and you get parwal ka chokha. Or, you can even prepare a totally delightful mithai with it. Just that instead of filling it with spices, stuff it with khowa and dry fruits. Parwal ki mithai!

You said you do not quite enjoy green vegetables? Maybe you should try a combination of veggies and some other botanical produce as well! Like pieces of vegetables coated with a batter of gram flour- besan– and deep fried in oil. Sounds familiar? Of course this is bajkaa, aka “pakoda” in all-India speak. Or would you prefer green leaves wrapped in a batter of besan; “rinkwachch”? (Aka patra in Gujarati, one of those famous starters of a Gujarati thali, farsaan). If you really do want to avoid vegetables, worry not, the Bihar cuisine has khandera, cuboids of fried besan cooked in a spicy gravy. Best relished with chaawal. And so many other varieties!

You want more adventures into Bihari cuisine? Wait a bit, I will soon write about the ubiquitous, and multi-faceted,  “sattu”. Here I come, part 2 of the curious case of Bihari cuisine!


Blast from the past: AMAR AKBAR ANTHONY

November 7, 2010

To me, “Amar, Akbar, Anthony”, a 1977 release, defined the Bollywood of late 70’s to mid-80’s. The ubiquitous lost-and-found formula, rocking songs, maar-peet, vendetta, incredibly hirsute villains…. you name it and it was there. It was a multi-starrer too, multi-starrer being a buzz-word in the era. A multi-starrer to beat all multi-starrers!

Amitabh Bachchan paired with Parveen Babi, Vinod Khanna falling in love with Shabana Azmi and Rishi Kapoor serenading Neetu Singh. With supporting cast like Shivraj, Kamal Kapoor, Nazir Hussain who played the foster fathers of the three lost-and-found brothers Rishi, Vinod and Amitabh respectively. Jeevan as the villain with henchmen Ranjeet and Yusuf Khan. Pran and Nirupa Roy play the roles of the real parents. Mukri is the father of Neetu Singh. You even spot the dialogue writer Kadar Khan voicelessly lurking in a scene in Jeevan’s den.

The story in brief: Pran (Kishanlal) is a driver in the employ of a smuggler, Robert, (Jeevan). His family of five (husband, wife, three sons) get separated on a tragic morning of 15th August. The details are too complex to recount here. However, suffice it to say, Pran ends up being a smuggler, his wife runs away to commit suicide but has an accident, turns blind but survives. Their three sons also get separated, and each ends up being raised differently, one a Hindu, another Muslim and the third a Catholic!

The eldest gets adopted by a Hindu police inspector, Kamal Kapoor. Hence Vinod Khanna retains his original Hindu name, Amar. He also takes up his foster father’s profession, that of a cop. The middle fellow lands up at Mount Mary Church, Bandra (though the movie places the church in Borivali) and is adopted by the priest and christened Anthony Gonsalves. Anthony, Amitabh Bachchan, grows up to be a country-liquor vendor and a local mawali. The youngest chap is adopted by a tailor-master and is named Akbar. He becomes a qawwali singer. Their mother, Nirupa Roy, now blind, thinks her entire family has perished in a car crash is now eking out a living selling flowers.

All this goes to prove the syncretic nature of the Indian culture typified by this oft-repeated ditty:

Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Eesai,

Ham sab hain bhai-bhai.”

(Whether Hindu, or Muslim, or Sikh or Christian, we are all brothers.)

Bhai-bhai, of course!!

I bet if Pran-Nirupa had son number four, he would have been raised in a Sikh household!

Very tellingly, early on in the movie, the three brothers -all grown up now- and unknown to each other, get together to donate blood to a street-accident victim, Nirupa Roy, their mother. Of course they do not know who the other is, or that the beneficiary is their mother! You see these three young men, next to each other on hospital beds, with tubing into their arms carrying their blood directly into their mother’s body. Forces of gravity be damned! Blood is thicker than water, and it has properties which negates all principles of physics. Period! When asked what their names are, each speaks out, even as their blood is being drawn, “Amar”, “Akbar” and finally the baritone of Amitabh, “Anthony”. Then starts the credit roll with Rafi’s song in the background: “Khoon, khoon hota hai, paani nahin” (Blood is thicker than water). Taaliyan from the spectators! More taaliyan!

The sons grow up, and they fall in love. Vinod fancies Shabana who is a part of an extortionist gang. Amitabh is in love with Parveen, the foster daughter of Pran but who is actually Robert’s daughter. Rishi is besotted with Neetu Singh who is a doctor at a local hospital. Nirupa Roy, the flower seller, keeps bumping into her sons without realizing that they really are her sons. Pran, now a smuggler, reduces Robert, his ex-employer- and tormentor- to penury. He even kidnaps his daughter. If your mind reels at all this, worry not, check out the movie!

Over time, all pieces of this jigsaw come together. Each member of the family of five discovers the other eventually. Mom dearest even gets her eyesight back in a Shirdi Sai Baba temple. And all is well in the end.

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This film is directed by Manmohan Desai, then the king of Bollywood. Remember “Dharam Veer”, “Parvarish”, “Chacha Bhatija”, etc.? He was the man with the Midas touch. Whatever he touched, turned to gold (jubilee). By the way, all the above-named movies were released in the same year- 1977- as also AAA, the movie under discussion. Needless to say all were bumper hits!

Manmohan Desai., MKD, would have been an outstanding cartoonist, if he had not taken upon film making. Larger-than-life characters, totally improbable situations, lots of action, tons of emotions, complex and confusing story lines, but all converging to an altogether satisfying conclusion. It seemed each of his movies had scenes ripped off from pages of comic books, but strung together so entertainingly. A pity he died early; he committed suicide in 1994, when he was in his late 50’s.

One short section of AAA encapsulates the utterly engaging comic-book approach of MKD, this song “My name is Anthony Gonsalves” and the events which follow after that. Amitabh, who is besotted with Jenny (Parveen), shows up at the Easter party where she is a guest. And how he shows up! Ensconced into a giant Easter egg wheeled onto the stage which opens up to reveal Amitabh in a dark suit, bow-tie and monocles. Carrying an umbrella which he uses as a prop to execute his dance moves. The bi-lingual lyrics are utterly zany. Specially the incredibly-worded English bits.

Amitabh gets beaten to pulp by Jenny’s bodyguard (Zebisco- played by Yusuf Khan) in the party. In the classic scene which follows, a drunken- and badly injured – Amitabh chats with himself in his bedroom mirror administering first-aid to his image. This scene is one of the most hilarious ones I have ever seen in Hindi cinema!

And from an acting stand-point, this is one of the best movies of Amitabh Bachchan I have ever seen.

Without further ado, I will now let you enjoy this song: “My name is Anthony Gonsalves”.

PS: I saw this movie twice, when I was in my 10th standard; just before my school-leaving ICSE exams, on 8th and 12th October, 1977. And the third viewing was on 30th November a day after the exams got over. Not that on the intervening day I was idling. On 29th November I watched “Zanjeer”, an older AB movie I had missed earlier was in town for a rerun. The movie that started the phenomenon AB is!

What a way to end my school-going days!!


Blast from the Past: KHOON PASINA

November 1, 2010

The charm of Hindi films for me began the time I began watching them avidly. The charm lay in those unique features of the Hindi film; multi-starrer, great fight scenes, action-packed, zingy songs and scintillating dialogues. If this was coupled with a lost-and-found brother/friend plot, with messages on religious harmony, and with good triumphing over evil, what more could a teenager want!

Yes, it was better if the movie had Amitabh Bachchan! And if AB was paired with Rekha, it was sheer bliss! If you were born in the 60’s can you think of a more exciting plot than mentioned above?

“Khoon Pasina” was one such movie.

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It had AB and Rekha. And Vinod Khanna. And in supporting cast it had the motherly Nirupa Roy, and the villainous Ranjeet and Kadar Khan. A true multi-starrer, if you ask me! Fight scenes; one every eight minutes on an average. Songs galore, not the really class ones for a music connoisseur, but great nevertheless. And the plot had all the elements of what I have mentioned above. Let me give you a snapshot of it:

Ram and Rahim are the thickest of friends, circa 1947. They, as their names connote, are Hindu and Muslim. And appropriately enough, Yunus Parvez- a Muslim- plays Ram, and a Hindu- whose real name I forget- plays Rahim. They are really close, close enough for one to remind the other of his festivals. Like the Hindu forgets his Diwali and the Muslim forgets his Eid till the other reminds him, they are so thick! They have an offspring each, Shiva and Aslam. And they have adorable wives too.

The tyrannies of Zaalim Singh (please note the tyrant is a Hindu played by a Muslim, Kaadar Khan) eventually destroy this dream world. So much so that the fathers are killed in the mayhem of the 1947 partition and Shiva goes on to stay with Aslam’s mother. Aslam’s mother has lost her husband in the madness and also, she thinks, of her young child, Aslam.

Shiva, now popularly known as Tiger, grows up to be the local Robin Hood and Aslam Sher Khan, now known as Shera, when grown up, surfaces as yet another Robin Hood of sorts.

Note the close resemblance between “Tiger” and “Shera”, both from the same feline family! Uncanny?

The “Tiger” nickname is justified when Shiva, in a fit of madness accepts the challenge from a nubile lass (played by Rekha) in a mela, and grapples with- and bests- a tiger.

I shall not narrate the entire story to you, suffice it to say that the good guys win in the end and the bad guys lose. Which was a concept altogether appealing to me those heady days when I was a teenager in the 70’s. (It still does!).

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What added to the charm of this film from “Prakash Mehra Productions” were its captivating dialogues.

Dialogue, as you would rightly imagine is an exchange of thoughts between two people- two people- hence “di”-a-logue. In Hindi movies the descriptor “dialogue” is given to any utterance which is essentially a monologue but carries enormous punch- or import.

Khoon Pasina’s dialogues are supreme, coming as they are from the maestro Kadar Khan, could they have been anything else?

Here are some vignettes:

Zaalim Singh (a gunda, played by Kadar Khan himself) tells his henchmen:

“Loge hamein gunda kehtey hain. Gundon ka mazhab gundagardi hota hai, aur gundagardi mein paap aur punya ki koi jagah nahin hoti.”

(People call me a toughie. The religion of a toughie is being a toughie. And “toughness” has no space for right or wrong!”

AB (Tiger) to his surrogate mom:

“Jaanta hoon, maa, jaanta hoon! Wohi toh chingari hai job arson se apney seeney mein liye ghoom raha hoon. Wohi zakhm hai jo bachpan mein laga aur aaj tak bhar na saka. Din-ba-din nasoor banta jaa raha hai.”

(I know, I know. This is this fire alit in my heart for ages. That’s the bruise I suffered in my childhood and it has not healed as yet!)

VK (Shera) in an introspective mood:

“Sari zindagi mein maut ko dhoondhata raha, aur maut daaman chhudakar bhagti rahi. Aisa lagata hai mujehy zindagi sey bair hai aur maut ko mujhsey.”

(I have hunted for death all my life while death has been evading me. I think, somehow, I dislike life and death dislikes me.)

Shera- now menacignly:

“Pistolein, bandookein aur tamanche aajkal bachchey bhi chalaate hain…..”

(Even kids are comfortable with pistols, guns and shotguns….)

AB to a bunch of goons:

“Aisi dhulayi karoonga ki saat pushton tak aapki aulad ganji paida hogi.”

(After I thoroughly bash you up, please do remember that for seven generations henceforth your lineage would be born bald!)

And here is the killer:

AB proposing to a hitherto stranger Rekha in the village mela:

“Meri baat maan ley. Mera haath thaam ley. Tera husn, meri taaqat. Teri teji, meri himmat. Is sangam sey jo aulad paida hogi, who aulad nahin faulad hogi.”

(Listen to me! Hold my hands. Your beauty, my strength. Your passion, my courage. The union of ours would give birth to men of steel, not wimpy kids.)

The gutsy –and busty- Rekha then sets off into motion a clash between the biped Tiger with his quadruped namesake. The hapless tiger, which had been brought into the mela to fetch some money for the mobile “zoo” owner ends up doing something even more noble. Losing to AB in a fair-and-square fight. AB defeats him in their “wrestling” game resulting in the nubile lass singing the song, “Tu mera ho gaya, mein teri ho gayi”.

Resulting in the marriage of these two dashing young persons. Rather early in the movie.

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Which is rather different from what happened/ happens in the ordinary Hindi films, “he” and “she” meet in the end. After all the song-and-dance and maar-peet (bashings).

Remember this is no ordinary movie, this is Khoon Pasina, the epic tale of two friends lost to each other since childhood. Yes! To be sure, “he” and “he” meet in the end, in rather dramatic circumstances.

I shall leave you to enjoy the movie, for now, just enjoy this lovely song!

(I wrote this a few months ago for an excellent blog of a friend of mine on Hindi film songs I have reproduced this piece here with his permission. Do visit Atul’s site: http://atulsongaday.wordpress.com/