The day after Pallavi Nigam Sahay’s wedding in 2011, one of the celebratory dishes rustled up in the kitchen of her Bihari in-laws was a preparation of pumpkin. The young bride from Bhopal found that curious but played along till she tasted it. Called Panch Phoran Kohra, it was a delicate mix of sweet and spicy and not loaded with spices that otherwise overpower the flavours of the key ingredient. Nigam Sahay’s arranged marriage became the starting point of her love affair with Bhojpuri cuisine. Her recently-released book, The Bhojpuri Kitchen, archives the cuisine from the region.
Nigam Sahay, who eventually quit her job in the financial sector to turn pastry chef, is currently hosting a Bhojpuri food festival at Trident BKC in Mumbai. The festival, on till December 22 at their restaurant Maya, is part of the Rivaayat series where the hotel organises a food festival aimed at reviving traditional recipes from across cuisines. “I was fascinated by the fact that the preparations depend more on the process than the ingredients. The cuisine uses a lot of slow cooking and simple tempering. There is very little use of whole spices — black peppercorns and green cardamom are used most. Tomatoes and onions are chopped, rarely ground, which makes the preparations lighter yet flavourful,” says Nigam Sahay. She cites a lamb preparation. “Usually, the onion, tomatoes, ginger, garlic and spices are ground and sauteed for long to make a gravy in which the lamb cooks. In the Bhojpuri preparation, the lamb is first sauteed and then onions, tomatoes and the few spices are added.”
A guest chef at the hotel, Nigam Sahay’s menu for the festival features highlights from The Bhojpuri Kitchen. It includes dishes that few beyond the region know of, such as Champaran ke Murg ki Tikki (chicken mince kebabs with sour wood apple), Ber ki Sabzi (Indian berry braised with spices) and Sabz ki Tehri (vegetable pulav).
There is also Litti-Chokha on the menu. She doesn’t believe that it is overrated but does assert that so many other dishes from the cuisine are “up there with it”.
“Litti-Chokha is to Bihar what pasta is to Italy. But the cuisine has a vast variety that is unexplored, chiefly because it hasn’t been marketed the way other cuisines have,” says Nigam Sahay. She talks about Dhuska, a fried pancake made out of batter as opposed to dough. “Rice and dal are soaked overnight, ground with whole spices and deep fried. But the batter is tricky to deal with it is loose and can split if the oil is not hot enough.”
The cuisine borrows from Bengal, though, contrary to popular perception, people from the Bhojpur region are not chiefly vegetarian. “Those who speak Maithili have some very unique preparations of sweet water fish. Machli ka Chokha is made by lightly grilling the fish, then mashing and sauteing with onions, green chilli, lemon and rock salt in with mustard oil.” The other popular meat is lamb or mutton, referred to as ‘khasi’.
The use of vegetables is not uncommon in Indian sweets but the Bhojpuri have Parwal ka Meetha, made using snake gourd. The version Nigam Sahay writes about in her book has cottage cheese and almond flakes as the filling. The one she serves at the festival is a more glamourous version. It has the parwal poached in sugar syrup, served with a stuffing of mawa. “The Bhojpuri cuisine is full of surprises. People only need to give it a try,” says the chef.