Mom's enraged voice echoed across the living room, where I was watching the highlights of Germany thrashing Brazil in the World Cup semi-final. She ordered me to heat the chicken korma that had been sitting in the fridge for the past hour. Incensed by my refusal to pay attention, she dashed forward with her surprisingly fast cheetah-like reflexes to turn the TV off. With a belan in one hand and an unbaked litti in another, her effort to ruin my relaxing Saturday evening had effectively worked.
Saturday evenings were a thing of unbridled joy in my expat Bihari family. Having stayed in Hong Kong for a decade at the time, weekends translated to family time and we met a congregation of other emigrated Biharis for dinner every second weekend of the month, the host of which would be decided by a draw of luck. Given that, my mom with her unbelievable luck had managed to draw her name as the first host in this series of potluck dinners.
My mother’s choice of cooking an authentic Bihari dish had resulted in my brother and I dedicating our Saturday evening in helping her fill her littis with sattu, a flour consisting of a mixture of ground pulses and cereals. Having not really embraced all aspects of my Bihari heritage, this dish was certainly one I had managed to develop a deep craving and connect for. A delicious combination of litti with chicken korma was my unrestrained and only source of happiness from this, what seemed to me at least, a pointless party.
Traditionally, Litti has been an extremely popular and convenient meal for the locals of Bihar, Jharkhand, and Eastern Uttar Pradesh. It is made of wheat and stuffed with sattu, mixed with herbs and spices, and shaped into a ball. It is then roasted over goitha (a contraption very similar to a stove, but is made out of cow dung) and topped with a lot of desi ghee. As unappetising as it may sound, the goitha plays a critical role in distinguishing the taste from just an ordinary oven. Properly used during wars, an added advantage of the dish was its ability to be fresh for up to three days.
Aman Sahu, an entrepreneur hailing from Patna in Delhi, recounts his fond memories with the dish, "An important part of my childhood and one that I always look back upon fondly are eating litti choka. I grew up in a house with at least fifteen people at all times and any meal was an event. Starting as early as 5pm, my grandfather would sit in the garden with the cook, monitoring the goitha and making sure the littis were cooked to perfection.”
"It is hard to cook Litti Chokha in a classical way as it is done back home. Here, instead of having it with baingan chokha which is quite difficult to make due to the unavailability of the vegetable, we have the dish with chicken korma or chicken curry", adds Sarita Jha, 46, an expat who has been living in Hong Kong for over a decade.
Traditionally, litti is the poor man's food, a staple for labourers and easily accessible to farmers working on fields. With sattu available at relative ease across the span of the state, no gas connection is required to make this Bihari staple cuisine. Such was its simplicity and convenience that the delicacy could be cooked out on the fields. Furthermore, it was extremely filling and healthy with ghee added in abundance.
Today, it’s no longer just available in Bihar. In fact, it is available in popular new-age restaurants such as Magadh and Awadh in Gurgaon. Their modified version of the traditional Bihari dish, Litti Chat, is served with ghoognis, onions, sev, and chaat masalas. Arth, a fine dining restaurant in Mumbai that uses only a chulha for cooking (no gas), also serves the conventional Bihari dish. Known as Litti Chokha on their menu, the charcoal fired dough balls are served with aloo and baingan chokha along with tomato chutney.
Puja Sahu, who runs PotBelly, a casual dining cafe in Shahpur Jat offering a wide range of Bihari delicacies, explains how traditional Biharis like the sattu stuffing to be dry - a contrast to the taste-buds of the locals of Delhi. She describes how she has managed to contemporise this rustic Bihari dish to match the flavours of Delhiites. "In the restaurant, we add ghee and mustard oil in larger quantities but we also serve it as authentically as possible. We do not alter the essence of the staple. However, by not cooking using a goitha, we do miss out on the smoky flavour that it should carry," Sahu concludes.