Ask any true-blue Bihari, anywhere in India or abroad, about the defining dish of Bihar and he’ll say litti-chokha with a glint in his eyes.
Nostalgia-coated litti-chokha brings on a burst of sensory stimuli: memories of wintry evenings, star-lit skies, groups of bantering men and the heady aroma of melting ghee.
But before I wax eloquent about litti-chokha, allow me to introduce you to sattu, where all the magic begins.
One of the joys of being born and raised in Bihar is undoubtedly the early initiation into the making and eating of sattu. This ubiquitous (at least in Bihari-/ East-UP households) ingredient is the fast food to beat all fast foods. Burgers, tacos, nachos and pizzas, take a hike!
As a source of cheap and convenient nourishment for the farmer, the trader, the techie or the pensioner from Bihar, in summer or winter, sattu wins hands-down.
Sattu is powdered chana, where chana is soaked in water to which salt has been added. This chana is dried and then roasted over hot sand by the friendly neighbourhood bhad-bhoonjha, in his bhaad (kadai).
Once roasted, this is ground in the chakki. The resulting flour is the magical sattu. Lest you dismiss it as besan (which it is most certainly not), let me tell you sattu is chana dal with the seed coat, soaked in salt water, dried, roasted and finally ground. Besan is chana dal (without the seed coat), ground without roasting.
The humble sattu is the star of many a satisfying meal.
Say, for instance, you are travelling by road and aren’t sure where your next meal will come from. Carry a parcel of sattu in a muslin cloth. When you feel hungry, stop by a dhaba, a clean water pump or well. Ask the nearest man for a pinch of salt, an onion and a green chilli. Segregate a quantity of sattu powder into a corner of the muslin cloth, add some water to the dry sattu powder, knead it into a thick mass.
Adding salt, knead it some more. You are now ready for your meal. A portion of this dough, along with a crunchy bite of onion and mirchi makes a divine meal. It’s tasty, nutritious and convenient.
Remember to pack up the remaining dry sattu in the muslin pouch, so that you are sure of sustenance when hunger pangs strike again.
This dish can also be enjoyed at home, the only difference being that at home you have the luxury of a thali (plate). And if you have some sattu sticking to the thali — as inevitably there will be — add some extra water into the thali, swirl it around and enjoy the wonderful drink called libhri.
If you don’t fancy salted sattu, here’s a tasty alternative. Replace salt with sugar and add spoonfuls of hot ghee to the sattu. Knead with enough water to form a firm dough. This is savoured as ghenvada. But the piece de resistance, if I may be allowed a foreign phrase to describe something intrinsically Bihari, is litti.
Prepare a mix of dry sattu with salt and spices and add a quantity of decanted spicy oil from a jar of mango pickle to make the mix even spicier. This is the filling.
Make atta (dough) and shape it into hollow balls. Fill the spicy sattu mix into the dough balls. Stoke a barbecue with dried cowdung cakes (gointha).
The atta/sattu dough balls are then inserted into the smouldering fire using a skewer, followed by scrubbed potatoes, brinjals and firm tomatoes. The roast veggies are rescued from the hearth, their burnt skins are peeled off and the delicious pulp is mashed along with spices, salt and mustard oil. This is chokha.
Once the littis are removed from the fire, they are sieved free of the ashes of cowdung cakes. The hot littis are then served along with chokha and bowlfuls of ghee. The diner pokes a little hole on the top of the litti, pours a generous quantity of hot ghee into this cavity and relishes the simple treat with chokha. Given the amount of smoke a cowdung-cake ‘barbecue’ generates, it would be wise to conduct this affair outside the house. Making litti-chokha calls for sitting around a warming fire, so this glorious task is usually reserved for cold evenings. It strikes me as unusual now, but all through my growing years I have seen men take charge of the ‘barbecue’, while the women handle the prep work for litti-chokha inside the rasoi.