Litti Chokha is an inexpensive proletariat diet that even the rich enjoy. It played an important role in the First War of Independence in 1857. The freedom fighters virtually survived on it. Its simplicity endeared it to many including Tantia Tope and Rani Lakshmi Bai. Lily traces the history of this humble cuisine from Bihar, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths.
I want to talk about a dish that originated as a staple food in my own country, India. It may not have a big worldwide following like the Chicken Tikka Masala but it lives in the hearts of those that swear by its rustic simplicity. It is a part of the ethos and culture of the local people. This humble dish was eaten by farmers and peasants of Bihar, a state of India once famous for producing an incredible number of bureaucrats. It shot into fame due to our love for anything related to films and film stars. Priyanka Chopra’s dad had mentioned somewhere that since he is the son-in-law of a Bihari family, his daughter grew up eating it. Aamir Khan was spied eating it during his visit to Patna. Sonakshi Sinha, the daughter of a true blue Bihari Babu, Shatrughan also relishes it. Wherever there is a Bihari in the world, he remembers this simple, earthy but truly healthy repast with a glint in his eyes.
Along with Chokha, Litti is a complete wholesome meal. Originating from the Indian sub-continent, it is popular in Jharkhand, eastern Uttar Pradesh and the state of Madhesh in Nepal. It is a dough ball made of whole wheat flour and is stuffed with Sattu, which is roasted chickpea flour, mixed with spices and herbs. It is roasted traditionally over coal or cow dung cakes or even over wood. Litti is then tossed with lots of pure ghee (clarified butter). It may be often confused with the Rajasthani dish Baati but the preparation, taste, and texture are completely different. Litti can be eaten with yogurt, aaloo bharta, baigan bharta (roasted and mashed eggplant, tomato and potato preparation) and papad. One can eat a new, modern day fried version of Litti, but the actual technique is to bake it over a fire of cow dung cakes.
The taste of the stuffed Litti is enhanced with onion, garlic, ginger, coriander leaves, lime juice, nigella seeds and salt. Some families add tasty pickles for flavour and spice. For the non-vegetarians in western Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh, Litti is served with a creamy chicken curry called Murgh Korma.
Litti was a staple in the royal court of Magadh, an ancient Indian kingdom in southern Bihar. It was one of the sixteen Mahajanapadas (Sanskrit: Great countries). Litti was probably the more haute cuisine of Baati. It rose to prominence once again when it played an important role in the First War of Independence in 1857. The freedom fighters virtually survived on it. Its simplicity endeared it to many including Tantia Tope and Rani Lakshmi Bai. They made it their travel meal. Litti hardly needed any water and it could be baked without any utensils, which meant a lesser chance of being caught. A large metal sieve was used to bake the Litti, deep inside the jungles and ravines, feeding many people at a time. The popularity of Litti with marching armies was that it could stay for as long as two three days.
When Mughal emperors came to India, Litti underwent some changes. It was now served with shorbas and payas. With the Britishers’ arrival in India, the curry was served with Litti. History tells us that the classic combination of Litti Chokha was one of the favourites of the valiant Rani Lakshmi Bai.
With Biharis traveling all over the world, this taste is reaching international heights. Food chains serving Litti Chokha may well be on the cards in Patna. Delhi, which has a large Bihari population of migrant workers has interesting stalls on some railway platforms and around areas where the labour works. Lalu Prasad Yadav, the famous politician had Litti served in his daughter’s wedding.
A Facebook club called littichokha.com was founded some time back by the managing director of a Mumbai based textile machinery firm. It has a wide membership now and it connects Biharis all over the world.
According to Pushpesh Pant, the author of the voluminous India Cookbook, “Litti Chokha is a great health food. It demands no frying and it has almost every nutrient, including carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and calcium.”
It is an inexpensive proletariat diet that even the rich enjoy. If one has eaten Litti Chokha in the morning, one can go about for the rest of the day without a meal.
Sadly, Delhi’s restaurants do not have it on their menus and there is no Bihar Stall in the food court at Dilli Haat in South Delhi. The canteen in Bihar Bhawan in Chanakyapuri makes Litti Chokha only on order. Luckily, the best Litti Chokha is found in homes even across the seven seas. Electric ovens have replaced the cow dung fires there! Bhojpuri film star Ravi Kissen says that if Bihar becomes a super success story in the next 10 years, the fate of Litti Chokha will soon be that of Aaloo Tikka and Bhelpuri. He says, “And I’ll start a Litti Chokha franchise on the lines of McDonald’s.”
Good luck with that!
There is no food like comfort food, so whether it is the royals of the ancient kingdom of Magadh or the poor cycle rickshaw puller on the streets of a metropolitan city, all relish Litti Chokha with equal joy.
Photos from the Internet
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Lily Swarn won the Reuel International Prize for Poetry 2016, Global Poet of Peace and Universal Love, Global Icon of Peace from Nigeria, Virtuoso Award and Woman of Substance. A postgraduate in English from Panjab University, she taught at Sacred Heart College, Dalhousie. A gold medallist for Best All-round Student from GCG Chandigarh, she has University Colours for Dramatics. Widely published and interviewed, she authored, A Trellis of Ecstasy and Lilies of the Valley.