Smoked brinjal and baked dough. A rustic two-dish combination symbolizes the resurgence of a region that has been vilified for too long as wretched, lawless and corrupt. If Bihar were a country, litti chokha would be its national dish. It began as the food of the poor, and rarely appears on roadside carts or restaurant menus of big cities. Instead, it has largely remained confined to the home kitchens of Biharis. Until now.
Last month, novelist Chetan Bhagat tweeted: “Litti chokha, a Bihari dish, totally needs to be available everywhere. Superb.” Actor Sonakshi Sinha, of Bihari origin, tweeted back, asking him to get the dish from her in Mumbai.
Or Bhagat can fly to Delhi. On 9 April, about 150 litti chokha fans will meet in Vasant Kunj. They are members of a Facebook club called Littichokha.com, which was founded last year by the managing director of a Mumbai-based textile machinery firm. The group has more than 1,500 members.
“The idea was to connect Biharis spread all over the world,” says Pradeep Sinha, the founder. “The club was named after litti chokha because this is one thing that every Bihari identifies with.” Referring to the fact that the state has only recently started showing positive development indices, Sinha says, “It is now time to take pride in Bihar.”
Rustic flavour: (from top left) The best chokha and litti are to be had only in Bihari homes; Shubha Sinha makes litti at least once a month. Priyanka Parashar/Mint; Bihar deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi eats litti chokha at the Chilli Pepper restaurant in Bangalore. Courtesy Chilli Pepper; and the stylish Chilli Pepper version. Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Not exclusive to the present-day boundaries of Bihar, litti chokha is soul food for people in Jharkhand and eastern UP too. In villages, peasants make littis by stuffing the staple sattu—roasted gram powder—into thick round balls of atta, which are then baked over goyetha (dried cow-dung patties). In cities, the baking is done in gas tandoors or ovens. Chokha is prepared by roasting eggplant, boiled potato and tomato over a direct flame till the skin turns black. The vegetables are then peeled, mashed, spiced, mixed with chopped onions, garlic, green chillies and lemon juice, and spiked with a little raw mustard oil. Those who can afford it have their littis dipped in ghee.
“Litti chokha is a great health food,” says Pushpesh Pant, the author of the voluminous India: Cookbook. “It demands no frying and it has almost every nutrient, including carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and calcium.” Ashok Chopra, father of actor Priyanka Chopra and a member of the Littichokha.com group, says: “I’m the son-in-law of a Bihari family and so my daughter has grown up on litti chokha. It is an inexpensive diet that even the rich enjoy. Have litti chokha in the morning, and you can go about for the rest of the day without a meal.”
The streets of Delhi, home to a large migrant population from Bihar, do have litti chokha carts but these are difficult to find. One litti landmark is in Mayur Vihar Phase I, opposite the Supreme Enclave apartments, at the entrance of Acharya Niketan market (ask any rickshaw-wallah at the Metro station to take you to “the place where litti chokha is sold”). Another is on New Delhi railway station’s platform No. 7. Mamu’s dhaba at Jawaharlal Nehru University also sells litti chokha. There are stalls in the office sectors of Noida, just across the border from Delhi. One cart has been sighted outside the Filmistan cinema in central Delhi. During the annual India International Trade Fair (IITF), litti chokha sells like hot cakes at the Bihar pavilion.
“It is a great proletarian food. A plate costs a mere Rs 10,” says Sheema Mookherjee, a senior editor at HarperCollins India who often orders it from a stall outside her office in Sector 57, Noida. Most clients of that cart are rickshaw-wallahs and drivers. Three sellers sit near the police station in Sector 58.
The dish is not available in the city’s restaurants and there is no Bihar stall in the food court at Dilli Haat in south Delhi. The canteen at Bihar Bhawan in Chanakyapuri makes litti chokha only to order. The best litti chokha is still found only in homes.
“Living away from Bihar for so many years, I rarely speak in Magahi, my region’s dialect,” says Shubha Sinha, who moved to Delhi after her marriage in 1980. “But the family remains wedded to its traditions on the dining table. I make litti chokha at least once a month in summer and every week in winter. Cooking it is an excuse to connect to Bihar.”
The turnaround in Bihar’s image—from corrupt and caste-ridden to development-focused—may help lift its cultural symbols out of obscurity. In four years, the Bhojpuri film industry—popular in Bihar and eastern UP—has doubled its output to 100 films annually. “If you are not in an economically advantageous position, nobody notices you. Traditions are maintained but only in homes,” says Delhi-based dancer Shovana Narayan, whose parents are from Bihar. “But with the state finally on the path of development, litti chokha may become the emblem of the new Bihari pride.”
In 2005, a month after Nitish Kumar—the politician whom many credit for Bihar’s resurrection—became the state’s chief minister for the second time, a Malayali entrepreneur opened a restaurant called Chilli Pepper in Bangalore. It serves, among other things, litti chokha. Bhojpuri film star Manoj Tiwari, Bihar’s deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi and former Jharkhand chief minister Shibu Soren have dined there.
“There was no restaurant in Bangalore that served food from Bihar or UP,” says Dharam Raj, the owner, who lived in Dhanbad, Bihar, for 35 years. “So, other than Punjabi and Chinese food, we also included Bihari dishes.” The “Taste of Bihar” section of the restaurant’s menu offers sattu paratha, sattu lassi and litti chokha—with options of chicken or mutton curry. Since the litti clients are still Biharis living in faraway suburbs, the dish is available only on weekends.
If Bihar becomes a super success story in the next 10 years, what will be the fate of litti chokha? “It will become as common in Delhi and Bombay (Mumbai) as aloo tikkis and bhelpuri,” says Bhojpuri film star Ravi Kissen. “And I’ll start a litti chokha franchise on the lines of McDonald’s.”