History of Bihar Cuisine

Bihari cuisine has a history that can be traced to the cultures that flourished and waned in this part of the globe.

References to rice abound in a variety of sources. During the days of the Buddha, rice was the staple food. The elite consumed the superior quality of rice while the inferior quality fell to the lot of the poor. At Nalanda, Hiuen Tsang was given mahasali rice to eat. Each grain was as large as a bean, and when cooked, was aromatic, and shining like no other rice.

Centuries later, presenting an account of the different varieties of rice around the Gangetic basin, Abul Fazal said that if a single grain of each kind of rice was collected, they would fill a large vase. The Mughal chronicler described the rice cultivated in Patna as being ‘rare and unequalled in quality’. The shali rice was popular and much in demand in Europe, while Indians preferred the shahpasand and basmati variety of Patna rice. The Gangetic plain proved to be a fertile ground for litchis – a relatively new plant that arrived in India only during the end of the 17th century. Originally from China, Buddhist pilgrims brought the first saplings of this plant from China as a hommage to the land of the Buddha.

Bihari cuisine is a melange Edit

Bhat, dal, tarkari and achar (lentil, vegetable and pickle) have been part of Bihari cuisine since the days of yore. With the advent of Jainism and Buddhism, its followers took to a vegetarian diet, while others preferred goat, pig, deer, peacock, etc. In fact offering meat to a guest was as meritorious as performing the dvadasah (twelfth day) sacrifice. Thus slaughterhouses thrived alongside the Jain and Buddhist philosophies of ahimsa (non-violence). A variety of meat was openly sold in the market, and lavishly consumed during festivals. After inviting the Buddha for breakfast (this was also the Buddha’s last breakfast), Chunda, a blacksmith, served him a dish called Sukaramaddava, that translates to tender pork. Unlike Mahavira, the Buddha sanctioned fish and flesh as lawful though with some restrictions. Mahayana Buddhism rejected this altogether. The followers of this denomination believed that the sukaramaddava was some aromatic mushroom. Speculations abound about the unusual breakfast that none of the Buddha’s disciples were allowed to consume, and the remains of which were buried.

Bihari cuisine has innumerable rice-based dishes. The Buddha was usually offered rice cooked with milk, and mixed with honey. The Jatakas (legends on the Buddha’s previous lives) mention pua (prepared from the mixture of powdered rice, milk, sugar, ghee, or clarified butter, and honey), pitta (rice cake), khajjaka (also known as khaja, the finest variety of this sweet prepared from wheat flour and sugar, is sold at Silao near Rajgir), palala (modern day tilkuta made from pounded tila, or sesame seeds). Sariputta, one of the disciples of the Buddha was very fond of palala. Gaya is famous for tilkuta, that can be found only in winter, and the finest shops selling tilkuta are located at Ramna. Another delicacy from Gaya is lai, prepared with sugar and beaten rice. Along with the peras (sweetmeat made of sugar and milk) of Mathura, the ones prepared in Gaya continue to be popular.

The Mithila Brahmins who take great pride in their Vedic culture considered themselves to be ‘Aryanised’ much before other parts of Bihar. Most of their festivals and religious rites are in strict accordance with the shastras (ancient scriptures). A fine variety of beaten rice or chiwra, with a heavy coat of curd and cream continues to be a favorite dish in Mithila. Makhana, a water fruit, (gorgon or fox nut) prepared from lotus seeds, is considered pure enough to be offered even to the gods. According to a popular adage in Mithila, betel leaves and makhana are not found in heaven. So one should relish them on earth so as not to regret later. Makhana is eaten in various forms, the commonest being salted puffs. Kheer (a dessert usually prepared with milk and rice) prepared with makhana is a mouth-watering delicacy.

Favourite Morning Meal Edit

The people of northern Bihar rely heavily on the energy-giving sattu (powdered gram), and a number of preparations like litti, parantha (a sort of Indian bread) etc. are stuffed with sattu and spice. For breakfast in Bhagalpur and Patna, people often prepare drinks with sattu, salt, chopped onions and chilli. Litties come in a large variety and are often [roasted on hot coals.

Muslim's Delicacy — The Biryani Edit

Some seventy years efore the Muslim conquest of North India, the Turks had consolidated their hold in Maner (22 miles from Patna). Around this time, the region came under the sway of the Sufis (Muslim saints and mystics who came to India once the Turks had established themselves here. Of the three chief orders of Sufism in India, Firdausi’s Sufism particularly influenced Bihar). The influx of the Afghans, Mughals, Persians, and much later, the Bengal Nawabs, and the Europeans followed this. Certainly there was a synthesis of the local culinary genius and the art of the newcomers. Possibly this is called Mughlai. Otherwise the term in its true sense sounds hollow, for the Mongol nomads, associated more with warfare, hardly ever cooked good food.

Biryani, for instance, is a Persian world that means ‘a dish of meat and rice in which the meat is roasted or fried.’ Usually referred to as a Mughlai dish, biryani has regional variations, and tastes different in Bombay, Lucknow, Calcutta, Hyderabad and Bihar. Today one can spot even vegetarian biryani on a menu! Likewise, Mumbai sells boti kebab (meat pieces), Calcutta offers kathi kebab (meat roasted on wooden skewers), Hyderabad is famous for choti ki kebab (plaited kebab), while Bihar is reputed for its voluminous Seekh Kebab.

Other Non-Veg Delicacies Edit

Some of the dishes of Arabic origin like keema (minced meat), murgh masallam (a chicken delicacy), naahari (broth with chunks of meat, cooked overnight). Halwa, a dessert, is popular all over India, with slight regional variations. Persian delights like the kebab, zardah, biryani, sheer maal are available in all those cities of India that had a brush with Persian nobles. Baqarkhani is even named after one of the Persian governors in India, Baqar Khan. Some of the Bihari dishes like the curries, shahi tukra (a sort of French toast) and khichdi are supposed to be of European descent! While opinions are divided on whether the Mughal emperor, Jehangir, or Wajid Ali Shah is to be credited with the original recipe of the kichdi, the broth of rice, lentil and other leftovers seems to be a creation of Indian chefs at the behest of their white masters.

The Pre-requisites of Mughal Preparations Edit

Mughal recipes at their best would require a variety and quantity of ingredients that would simply cripple a modern housewife’s budget. When Nur Jahan, the wife of the Mughal emperor, Jehangir, was in the Rohtasgarh Fort during the birth of her third son, she requisitioned 60 pounds of ambergris of the sea, 160 pounds of khus, 2000 pods of musk, 2000 bottles of the essence of Egyptian willow, essence of flowers, 10,000 bottles of rose water from Yazd and 4000 pounds of saffron!

Saffron Rice went well with Mughlai fare. One still finds pulaos (a rice, vegetable and spice dish, often served with meat or fish) painted in rich saffron colour without its slightest flavour. Wedding menus continue to display dishes like halwa-i-maquti, muzaffar, etc. A man of fine tastes, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the founder of the Nationalist Muslim Party, judged Bihari dishes to be the finest.

The Tribal Cuisine Edit

Situated in the southern half of Bihar, Chotanagpur is home to numerous aboriginal tribes that differ from each other in their food habits and cuisine. Their general daily diet consists of boiled cereals, millet and a curry of boiled vegetables or meat, or edible roots and tubers seasoned with salt and chillies. Some of the tribal specialities of Chotanagpur are asur pittha (cake) prepared from the flour of mahua (a tree that yields the hallucinogenic mahua flower), rice, or maize. Similary, asur khichdi is cooked by adding mahua flour when the rice is half cooked. When maize is crushed and cooked like rice, it is called sauria ghata. It takes two days to prepare the korwa lata, which is cooked by mixing the seeds of mahua to sarai (sakhua fruit). Korwa jatangi is another dish for which jatangi is fried, pounded and its oil extracted. The residual cake is fried in earthen pots and eaten as a mixture with mahua. No other tree is as valued for its flowers as the mahua. March-April is the season for collecting mahua since at that time the leafless branches are laden with flowers.

The Handia — The Tribal Beverage Edit

The handia is an important tribal beverage that still sells on the roadsides of Chotanagpur. Most of the tribes cannot think of any occasion or function without a fairly good stock of Handia. It is made by fermenting rice with the help of biro – a medicinal cake that incorporates a dozen herbs (the manufacturers keep the ingredients a secret). The rice or millet to be fermented is first partially cooked over fire in a handa (earthen cooking pot). Only the amount of water that the rice can absorb is added. Next, it is cooked and mixed thoroughly with powdered biro. The new pot is then placed in a cool place for about a week following which the beverage is ready.

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