As a five year old, the word ‘chokha’ that loosely translates to mash in English evoked a sense of wonderment. A few rotis (flatbread), aloo chokha (spicy mashed potato) with a side of onion, green chilies and some pickle would be our washerman’s lunch. He was from Bihar and from him I first heard about chokha and always hoped that he would ask me to taste some. But that never happened. Many years later when I had the popular Bihari dish called Litti Chokha at university, I still remember what a fulfilling meal it was. Perhaps because chokha stoked childhood memories.
Another dish that makes me nostalgic is Fuluri or deep-fried fritters. It’s a popular evening snack in Bengali households, ideally had with muri or puffed rice. Biharis have a Fuluri variant too that they call Phulauri that they like to have as snacks and accompaniment with meals. There are only slight variations between the first cousins.
The Bengali Fuluri is made of a batter mix consisting of Bengal gram flour, turmeric and red chili powder, baking powder, finely chopped onion and green chilies, salt and water, which’s deep fried in mustard oil. While the Bihari Phulauri is made from a batter mix of flour, yellow split-pea flour, turmeric, cumin and optional seasonings like ginger-garlic paste, chopped onion and green chilies, which’s also deep fried in mustard oil.
It’s almost impossible to miss a Bihari’s fondness for simple daily food. My brother-in-law who is from Bihar has a romantic attachment with dishes like Dahi Chura or flattened rice mixed with curd and Sattu Sharbat, a nutritious summer drink made with roasted gram flour. “Its poor man’s protein,” he likes to say. In the beginning I used to wonder how can these be someone’s favourite food? Gradually I understood that if anything most Bihari dishes fall under the ‘comfort food’ category. A cuisine where even the delicacies have a humble core. Here’s a look at the Bihari cuisine through the lens of two expatriate households in the UAE and their fond memories of their favourite Bihari food.
A look at the everyday food
“My all-time favourite breakfast is Dahi Chura with banana or mango [in summer]. During winter we used to eat the special Katarni chura with yoghurt and jaggery,” shared UAE-based Bihari expat Prakriti Rashmi. A winter delight Katarni chura is more aromatic than the normal chura. It is made from Katarni rice native to Bhagalpur district in Bihar. This dish is a much-relished breakfast in most Bihari households. Other popular breakfast items include parantha (flatbread) and sabzi (vegetable curry).
A typical Bihari lunch tends to be a vegetarian fare. It usually comprises parboiled rice, plain dal (lentil usually chana dal), two types of vegetables (dry and gravy-based) with sides of chokha, papad (poppadom), phulauri, pickle and curd, which is a must-have. Dinner is lighter and mostly includes roti, a vegetable dish and kheer or sewai (milk-based sweet dishes made with rice or vermicelli). What’s interesting is how non-vegetarian is considered celebratory food in most Bihari households.
“Growing up we used to have non-vegetarian dishes like mutton, freshwater fish and eggs occasionally,” Rashmi concurred. “Even the utensils to cook non-vegetarian dishes are kept separately in most Bihari households. Now when I look back, I think for certain large households affordability could be a factor why they don’t eat non-vegetarian regularly. Interestingly, as a child something that caught my curiosity was how farmers who worked in the fields used to have more non-vegetarian than us. Probably because they need a more protein-heavy diet and engage in poultry farming. They also tend to drink a lot of Sattu Sharbat.”
Another expatriate from Bihar, Archana Kumar agreed that Bihari food is more about simple dishes but shared a slightly different experience. “We used to have non-vegetarian dishes like Rohu fish in onion-tomato or mustard gravy quite often. Possibly because I spent my childhood in Hazaribagh, Jharkhand where there was a strong Bengali influence in our food.” At the same time, she fondly recollected how khichdi or khichri used to be their favourite Saturday meal. “Every Saturday we used to have hot khichdi cooked with a mix of lentils including black urad [lentil] dal with aloo chokha, pickle and curd.”
In between the bigger meals, a typical Bihari household in India also tends to snack on home-made dishes like halwa, chura badam or flattened rice mixed with peanuts, ghugni or spicy curry made with chickpeas and pakora or fritters with tea. “However, living outside Bihar for many years now, a lot of things have changed. My husband and I hardly have snacks now, although our sons eat some light snacks in the evening,” Rashmi said.
Over to the delicacies
Along with the everyday comfort food, the Bihari cuisine is also popular for some of its rich and savoury dishes. A few recipes that immediately come to mind are Champaran Mutton, Bihari Kabab, Malpua and Thekua, among others.
“Although on most occasions like Diwali and Chhath Puja non-vegetarian is not cooked, on Holi, mutton is a must-have in most Bihari houses,” Rashmi reminisced. In fact, one of her favourite mutton dishes to cook is the one-pot Champaran Mutton, something that her family relishes. “It’s very delicious and quite easy to cook. All you need are a clay pot and the ingredients.”
Other favourite dishes that make an appearance on almost every occasion are Dahi Vada or fried lentil dumpling fritters in creamy whipped yogurt topped with spicy and sweet chutneys, and sweets including Malpua, Balushahi, Khaja and Kheer to name a few. According to Rashmi and Kumar, “These are some dishes that almost every Bihari family loves to have.”
“While Litti Chokha isn’t really a delicacy, it’s our family favourite,” Kumar added. A popular and traditional Bihari dish Litti Chokha has two components. Litti is made of whole wheat flour dough stuffed with gram flour, mixed with spices and then roasted over fire and smeared with ghee. While Chokha is typically mashed brinjal and tomato with onion, garlic and green chilies.
Of foods and rituals
Certain food items in the Bihari cuisine are intrinsically linked to festivals. One such dish is Thekua, a sweet made of wheat flour, jaggery, dry fruits and fennel seeds and fried in ghee. It’s the centrepiece on Chhath Puja, the most important festival in Bihar that’s celebrated over four days.
Elaborating the key festivals celebrated in Bihar Kumar said, “Our festival calendar starts with Makarsankranti [harvest festival] in winter, January, followed by Holi [spring festival], Diwali [festival of lights] and finally the biggest one for us is Chhath Puja [festival celebrating the sun deity]. Every festival is marked by certain specific food items. On Makarsankranti, traditional Bihari families bathe early in the morning and perform a ritual of touching a plate of raw rice, til or sesame seeds and some coins five times, followed by a breakfast of chura, dahi, and gur with til. So, til is the central ingredient on Makarsankranti.”
Meanwhile fried items, mutton and sweets dominate Holi. “The night before Holi, most Bihari households cook fritters such as Barra made of urad dal, Chana Dal ka Pakora made of split chickpea lentils. An absolute Holi favourite fritter is Dhuska made from a batter of soaked rice, chana and white urad daal, ground with cumin, turmeric powder, chopped onion, garlic and coriander leaves and then deep fried. Then we eat Kadhi Pakora or gram flour dumplings in curd-based gravy with rice for dinner. While Holi lunch inevitably comprises Pua (fried savoury pancakes made from a batter of refined flour, fennel seeds, ripe banana, dry fruits and milk) and mutton curry.
“On Diwali we mostly eat things like puri or deep-fried bread with sabzi, Dahi Vada and different kinds of sweets,” Rashmi added.
Finally, it’s Chhath Puja that’s celebrated six days after Diwali. On Chhath Puja most Bihari families offer Thekua to the deities and distribute it in the community. Kumar shared some rituals from Chhath Puja and foods that are eaten throughout the festival.
“On the first day of Chhath, which is called ‘Nahaye Khaye’, devotees who perform the rituals bathe early in the morning gather around a waterbody and perform certain rituals. This is followed by a breakfast of jalebi and curd. For lunch it’s usually chana daal with lauki or bottle gourd, fritters and rice. The second day is called, ‘Kharna’, when devotees fast the whole day usually without even water, perform rituals and eat kheer or rice pudding with jaggery in the evening. The third day is a full day of fasting followed by a ritual called, ‘Arghya’, when devotees visit waterbodies or ghats. From the third day morning onwards, families start making Thekua. On the fourth day early morning another visit to the waterbodies marks the end of Chhath Puja rituals. That day we cook Charchari or mixed vegetable made with pumpkin, spinach, black gram, vari or dried lentil dumplings for lunch to be had with rice and dal.”
Rashmi too shared fond memories of Chhath Puja at her ancestral place. “Every year our whole family used to travel to our native place for Chhath Puja. My grandmother liked to celebrate the festival with the community. From making the chulha or a small earthen stove to washing and sorting out wheat for flour to make Thekua, we would do everything from scratch. But more than the food, as kids, we also used to be excited about wearing our new clothes.”
Another occasion that Kumar celebrates every year is Jitiya or a fast observed by married women for the well-being of their children. “I wake up before sunrise to cook at least five vegetarian dishes along with poppadum, fritters, rice, puri and kheer as offerings,” she shared.
Preserving the cuisine and culture
Now, as both Rashmi and Kumar have children who have been living outside India for many years, both consciously put in efforts to introduce the younger generation to Bihari traditions, culture and the cuisine. “Since both my sons have largely grown up in the Middle East, I made sure that they are in touch with our culture and are aware of the rituals of Chhath Puja. In recent years, we have been part of the Chhath Puja celebrations at a designated spot in Abu Dhabi among the Bihari community. That aside, every year, I make Bihari winter favourites like Tilkut as well as daily dishes such as chokha, dal and various vegetables,” Rashmi shared.
“Since I love to cook, I make various dishes at home for my children from traditional Litti Chokha and Thekua to cheesecakes,” Kumar concluded.