A ‘parochial’ Bangali, with the traditional disdain for people of the neighbouring state of Bihar, discovers a huge array of dishes apart from the stereotype of Bihar cuisine, Litti-Chokha
For a ‘normal Bongo’, that is, a Bangali, anything Bihari is ‘khotta stuff’, the down and out ‘rustic’ people.
We Bongs never looked up to them, despite the facts of Nalanda University and FaHien(Faxian) and, first of all, Buddha.
And many other such issues like Jayprakash Narayan, and Gandhi’s idea of satyagraha which first blossomed in Champaran. (Not in any chronological order.)
Thus it is with such fastidious Bong disdain that I completely discarded the idea of a ‘Khotta’ restaurant (no, no, no, as a Bong I thought it was just an eatery… how can Khottas run a RESTAURANT, I asked myself!).
But like all parochial pigs, I was wrong.
While the usual staple exotic choices may be oft-repeated, I am sure what seems like a ‘No-No’, or simply LS for the snooty north Indian palate would, in realty, be quite a welcome addition to your long list of cravings.
One such rather little-known place is The Pot Belly Rooftop Cafe – the one-stop restaurant that serves only Bihari cuisine.
It should be a ‘must’ for gastronomes. For delicacies for a rare treat for all those gourmands for whom the Bihari cuisine is, sadly, synonymous with only Litti Chokha.
For me, it was almost serendipitous to come across such a lovely place that took me down memory lane and reminded me of homemade meals of Bihari spread that would be laid out for us in almost every place we had lived in.
And yet, it looked exotic in this sophisticated Bihari restaurant!
It’s always the first step towards starting a new venture that poses a major challenge.
And, quite gingerly, two young girls with no previous background either in marketing, any entrepreneurship or even cooking, decided to take the plunge.
The first set-up in Delhi, tucked away in the crowded part of ShahpurJat in the south of the capital ‑amid scads of mini restaurants ‑may not have been the ideal launch pad for many.
But Puja Sahu – co-owner, The Pot Belly, had a plan once she set out to start her business along with friend and partner Vivita Relan.
One is curious to know: why Bihari food?
”We decided to convert a terrace into a café in ShahpurJat on the fourth floor, but had apprehensions, for no one would come all the way to have regular meals because of our poor visibility.
“So we had to serve something special, even if it sounded ridiculous,” Puja laughs.
Her fears weren’t unfounded, for the young these days are hooked onto all that the MNCs like McDonald’s dish out in the fast food junk that’s available in every nook and cranny.
“Most people have this misconception about Bihar and Biharis,” Puja says with rare confidence.
“Hence, I worked on a mission to break those stereotypical mindsets.”
It must have been her grit and determination that kept her fragile idea grow stronger into more of a reality, since within no time she had carved out a niche for herself in a metropolitan Delhi teeming with eating out choices that catered to all- from the young college-going teenyboppers to middle class and the elite fine dining cognoscenti.
The initial idea was infectious within a small group,as no one seemed to have thought of a region that one had always associated only with political laughs, especially the rustic Lalu Yadav and Rabri Devi.
But she did have initial hiccups.
“Generally people joke about Bihar, and I didn’t think that I would be able to market something like Bihari food, but once I started the whole idea started to evolve smoothly,” Puja asserts.
Both Puja and Vivita assure that the cuisine is truly different.
“It stands out because the food has a lot of depth. One can easily make this out after having a meal here, that a lot of hard work and time have been spent into the preparations, besides all the rich variety of ingredients thrown into them.”
Both the ladies confirm that for all those who have grown up in small towns in India, there is a lot of nostalgia that their native place and its exquisite techniques of cooking evoke.
“That’s what makes nearly all our customers come back to us, as they recall how their grandmothers cooked in the earlier days,using the basic home grown masalas available in their vicinity when they were growing up.
“The packaged food industry,with its artificially flavoured condiments and processed products may have made life easier for many of us, but the quintessential Indian middle-class recalls all the rustic aroma of multifarious flavours that wafted through the homes of possibly every one of us.”
Understandably, it’s the geographical setting of place that decides what all herbs and plants would grow in that region to make way for the availability of ingredients that go on to define the region.
Hence, from the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh onwards till the far end of the northeast, the subsistence of the habitants is solely dependent on the natural vegetation and obtain ability and ease of use.
The distinctive methods used in not just Bihar, but also in Odisha, West Bengal, Assam and the entire region, thereafter offer a distinct flavour because of the newer techniques too
“It’s very different from north Indian cooking but equally toothsome, and definitely a healthier option,” insists Sahu.
“We also use mustard oil as the medium for most of our food.”
The sudden consumerism for electronic goods and a luxurious lifestyle boomed in the early 90’s economic liberalisation spread its wings far and wide.
It’s not just the novelty of lesser known simple essences of yesteryears that fill your senses as you zip past the busy lanes to enter this unusually rich place that has its origins in the rich ancient culture of India.
The fragrance takes you back to the exquisite practice and the multi-dimensional heritage of a bygone era that is infused with a blend of the tradition and the modern. Be it the spices, the aromas, and the seasoning that is essentially completely different in each of the preparations that are so meticulously prepared, every dish on the menu is as authentic as it can get.
And the list of delectable dishes is long.
From the most stereotyped ‘Khotta’ Litti mutton accompanied with three littis, baingan chokha, aloo chokha and mutton curry to a wide variety to choose from.
Also, the standard food comprising baingan chokha, aloo chokha, khara masala, chicken with paratha, stuffed paratha with Champaran mutton.
Then there’s more. For all those who want to order just snacks there’s ample variety: pakora basket, sabudana basket, bagiya basket and parotha baskets, meat pakora basket, phish phingers, keema goli, machhi goli, it is a delight.
For main courses, you have makhana, danajhamarua, Madhubani, Bhojpuri, tarkari, Bhojpuri, Maithili, Ranchi kapulao, dalpitti, ghunt, dal bhaat thali, chana dal and pyaz kachri basket, ghughni churra, fish chokha on marua roti.
For nonveg fantasies you have Golmirch chicken, Chicken Ishtew, Bihari chicken, Khada masala chicken, Champaran style mutton, pudina(mint) chicken, Biryani.
Jhinga(prawn) machhli, sarso machhli, Dehati fish n chips, Sarso machhli steamed, Posto dana machhli.
And that’s not all. There’s more.
“I want the Bihari cuisine to develop and evolve and finally make it a fine dining affair,” Sahu shares her dreams.
The four branches across India are:
116/C, 4th Floor, ShahpurJat, New Delhi
Bihar Niwas, No. 15, Tikendrajit Marg, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi;
Jawaharlal Nehru Marg, Bailey Road, Patna, Bihar;
1082, 12th Main, HAL 2nd Stage, Indiranagar, Bengaluru;
32nd Avenue, Sector 15 Part 2, Sector 15, Gurugram, Haryana.
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Arnab has been a journalist and a keen film enthusiast, and has worked with some of the leading national dailies like Times of India, Hindustan Times and Mail Today. He has been a business journalist and later focussed on features specialising in stories on music, films, music & film personalities; art, culture, books, and social issues.