What Rosogulla is to Kolkata, Dal Baati Churma is to Rajasthan. You can’t visit the place and not have baati. Synonymous to Rajasthan, this rustic globe of baked deliciousness is revered as much for its simplicity (c’mon they really are balls of dough) as for its unforgettable taste. And yet when it comes to tracing the story behind this culinary masterpiece – the dish is a meal in itself — there is near to nothing available, except for Ibn Batuta’s mention of sun baked wheat chunks as early as the Magadha Empire, during which time grains like wheat, jowar, bajra and other millets were common and a part of the meal.
So where did Baati really originate? This little wheat globe made of unsalted wheat, ghee and camel milk was first mentioned during the time of Bappa Rawal – the founder of the kingdom of Mewar in Rajasthan. Known as a nomadic warrior tribe before they settled into the tapestry of a kingdom and got Chittor in form of dowry from Maan Mori, Baati was the Guhilot’s official war time meal.
It is said that soldiers would break the dough into chunks and leave it buried under thin layers of sand to bake under the sun. So when they returned, they could find perfectly baked roundels that was dunked into ghee and had; on a good day there would be curd or buttermilk as well. Churma and the Panchmael Dal came as a later addition as civilization set in. And though a few anthropologists believe that at grass root level, baati was still paired with ghee and buttermilk or curd made of camel or goat milk, it was the upper caste who enjoyed the combination of dal and baati. This could have been the result of traders settling in Mewar, or what many believe, the influence of Gupta period cooking style where Panchmael Dal was considered a delicacy and was eventually adopted by a royal chef and it became popular.
The inclusion of churma, which is an integral part of the meal today, was yet another innovation that is credited to the House of Mewar, and in all likelihood to the Guhilot Dynasty, who could have been aware of sugar and gur. Folklore says that it was during one of the war marches when a cook accidentally poured sugarcane juice into the baati that the churma was found. Others tell tales of homemakers who would dunk baatis in sugar/gur water in an attempt to keep the baatis fresh for their husbands that eventually became churma.
Whatever be the case, one has to give it to the House of Mewar to come out with a combination of bland, spicy and sweet to create an unforgettable meal that is known as Daal Baati Churma. Of course with inter-kingdom weddings, the tribal fare reached to the other gharanas of Rajasthan, who added their own combinations to the baati ranging from kadi to saag. And eventually baati became the biggest import into the Mughal Court with Rani Jodha Bai.
Yes, culinary ingenuity in court did lead to the rather simple looking baati giving shape to two new iterations: the bafla baati and of course the traditional porridge called kheech, daliya porridge, which was also made of bajra after it made its way to Rajasthan some 400 years ago, 1600 years after it arrived in India from South Africa.
Legend has it that when Rao Jodha, founder of Jodhpur, who had to fled from Chittor after being attacked by Rana Khumba of Mewar was finally able to take back his state after 15 years thanks to one bowl of kheech. It is said that after losing his men and horses Jodha was roaming the street when he stopped at a Jat farmer’s house, where he was served with the traditional kheech. Famished, Jodha put his fingers in the centre of the bowl and burnt his fingers. To which the farmer’s wife chided “You are making the same mistake as our king (Jodha). Kheech is hottest in the centre and coolest at the edge. So eat from there”. This prompted Jodha to stop worrying about Mandore and just focus on outlying forts, which he managed to win with ease and won back Mandore.
In fact, a famous folklore talks about the time when Sher Shah Suri attacked Maldeo. And though the Rana left the field after Suri created a misunderstanding between the Rana and his generals, Maldeo’s generals Kumpa (his progeny are Kumpawat Rathores) and Jaita (his progeny are Jaitawat Rathores) held fort till the cold January morning of 1544AD on a good supply of baatis and bajra rotlas and took the huge army by surprise. So much so that Sher Shah Suri had almost declared, “For a handful of bajra, I will give up the entire kingdom of India.” Suri did win the war, but only if he knew the real secret to the army’s strength was Baati, which could be stored well.
Remarkably, along with the rise of baati, the Magadh kingdom gave birth to yet another culinary wonder called ‘litti’. Known to be a Bihari specialty today, litti was a staple in the court of Magadh and outside as well. Perhaps in that relation, litti and baati could be cousins, only with litti being the more haute one.
Litti, which surprisingly had similar ingredients as baati – it is made of wheat, ghee and water and baked in the sun – had one ace up the rustic cousin – it had a spicey filling of sattu. This could have been the reason that litti didn’t travel as early as baati, but it still rose to prominence when it played an important role in the War Of Independence of 1857. Its simplicity was said to be the real reason that many including the likes of Tantia Tope and Rani Lakshmi Bai made it their travel meal. Litti needed very less water and could be baked without any utensils, much like baati, which meant lesser chance of being caught. But what really worked with litti was these could stay for as long as two to three days and were softer than baati.
Of course, litti underwent changes as new rulers came in. With the Mughal Empire, litti was served with shorbas and payas; with Britishers, curry came in and so forth. But it was the classic combination of litti-chokha, which was a mash of roasted eggplant, onions and tomatoes, and chutney that survived. It is said it was one of the favourites of Rani Laxmi Bai.