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.”
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!