Purvaiya--- the aromatic breeze from Bihar
A long, long time ago, there were jute mills in West Bengal. And, in those mills, the labourers were the migrated communities from Bihar, the neighbouring state. They brought a bit of their culture and a lot of their food in their own ‘promised land’. As they worked and lived in Bengal, they adopted the food habits of their new settlement and adapted to its living as well. But they did not forget the food of their motherland. They ate the simple meals at home and spread the flavours around. The merge and the mix were somewhat inevitable.
|With the man of the moment, Maneesh Srivastava, and other pretty ladies at the festival|
This simplistic deconstruction doesn’t really shed light on the plight of the jute mills workers when gradually the mills shut down one by one but it does one thing… point out how, with time, the food of the two cultures grew close. Yes, the foods of Bihar and Bengal have much more similarities than one might be aware of, but as I tucked into the Litti and Baingan ka chokha at the Bihari Food Festival called Purvaiya in Holiday Inn Mayur Vihar two days ago, I realised how the aubergine mash was reminiscent of the Begun Pora we have regularly when the winter breeze starts blowing.
|Chana Dal Pitha|
Here’s how. We buy big fat bringals from the market and dry roast them. Then we finely chop onions, ginger, green chillies and coriander leaves. After peeling the bringals, we mash the pulp with mustard oil and add the other condiments. Then we have it with warm home-made rotis. The Bihari bringal mash, or chokha is hardly different. Maybe it does have diced onions at times. As Maneesh Srivastav, the foodie who conceptualised the food festival with Chef Sanjay Mishra at the hotel to give us a taste of the food from his homeland, says, “Litti Chokha is a typical rainy evening kind of dinner at our homes in Bihar. And it’s a meal in itself. Sometimes we make the mash with potatoes also. We might have a mushy diced tomato chokha with it. Sometimes Motihari mutton curry. It’s simple.” (The Motihari mutton we had at the festival was deadly. Succulent mutton in a dry gravy of onions, garlic and black pepper amongst other spices, one will find it difficult to stop at one piece).
|Motihari mutton curry|
For the uninitiated, litti are little mounds of roasted wheat flour sold with a pulpy mash on thelas or stalls on the roadside (Kolkata and Delhi have them in abundance). Break open the litti to find a filling of spiced sattu. Sattu is a predominant feature amongst Biharis because it leads to one feeling full. So, the powder is made into sherbets as well that is downed by tall glasses. My understanding is that the workers ate littis and drank this sherbet before they went out to work because it made them strong! Back in Kolkata my mother has it daily to keep her irritable intestines from revolting.
|Laal Saag with kala chana|
So, while we did enjoy a spicy and salty sattu sherbet to whet our appetites (Maneesh concocted an interesting Sattu cocktail spiked with Old Monk), there is more to Bihari food than this humble staple as we discovered with happiness at the festival. Simple robust flavours and fresh spices ground on the seel batta that are rustled up with love and care, this was food from Bihar’s kitchens. Where a mother cooks for the family with much attention to details. I listened to all the stories that Maneesh and Chef Sanjay narrated at the table, how in the mornings breakfasts comprise thin crispy atta paranthas with aloo bhaji (the Bengali aloo bhaja is thinner and crisp. The one served at the festival was thick and soft. But it indeed was a great partner to the paranthas), that Bihari curries will never have tomato in them, how for the festival his mother made thekuas just like the way the Biharis have for bhog during religious ceremonies, and how no matter what, the food has to be cooked in pungent mustard oil. That used to be the case in Bengali homes, too. Till the Bangali bhodrolok’s tummy took a beating and he switched, in certain cases, to the insipid vegetable oil.
|Kala Chana with chivda|
There was too much food on the table. And you can try all of them for the whole of next week (the festival ends on September 8) when the dishes will be part of the buffet station and live kitchen. You might also discover latent similarities between the Bengali and Bihari food like I did. For instance, their Chandrakala is quite similar to our kheerer lobongolotika, our khajas are the same and the daal pitha also resemble. We have our laal saag with onions (sometimes with garlic, too) while Biharis have theirs with kala chana thrown in. You might also learn about the food from various regions of Bihar according to the demography, topography, climate and culture. If have a thing for spicy snacks, try the jhalmuri (the Bihari version has broken portions of chana dal pakodas thrown in), kala chana ghugni with chivda (what you know as poha maybe) and litti chokha. The chana dal pitha with a tasty tomato, garlic and green chilly chutney is mild yet flavourful.
|Rohu Fish curry|
For mains you must have the rohu fish curry. We Bengalis cook carp in a host of curries. It all depends on the mood and time of the year. The runny fish curry we had at the festival was spiced with mustard seeds, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, garlic, ginger and red chillies. The cardinal rule for enjoying fish curries of this sort is to have them with steamed rice. No rotis, no chapatis, no phulkas, no bread of any kind whatsoever.
The bhuna kaleji was delicious. But it came a close second to the Motihari mutton. Try the Dal Puri (atta puris stuffed with chana dal mash) with the sweet and tangy tomato chutney. The Bengali tomato chutney is sweeter and a bit mushier. There was a great spread for vegetarians as well. The colocasia leaves curry and the mock meat bhuna were distinctly different. Eventually, it was time for the desserts to arrive.
There were the Bihari usuals such as Khaja, Chandrakala, parwal mithai and thekua. Mostly fried sweets. But my meal felt complete with the subtle makhana kheer. It was seriously mellow and comforting. Like Purvaiya, the soft breeze that is known to blow from Bihar. This time it carried the aromas of food, froth and laughter that I’m sure, many have memories of…
At: Café on 3, Holiday Inn Mayur Vihar. On till September 8.
Meal per person: Rs 1,850 plus taxes
Ph: (011) 41105555
|For the festival I wore a Madhubani sari, depicting an indigenous art of Bihar|