Sadly for the rest of India, Bihar is only associated with ‘Lalu and Litti’. Litti-Chokha! This one dish has become the face of Bihari cuisine. But can you recall other Bihari foods that might have excited your taste buds? Many people won’t be able to name more than one.
When Puja Sahu and Vivita Relan were exploring the idea of starting a cafe after designing garments for over 11 years, they decided to use the terrace of the building in Shahpur Jat, Delhi, which housed their garment store. But what sort of dishes should they serve? Hailing from Bihar, the duo plumped for Bihari cuisine.
Few outside the state are probably even aware that Bihar has a distinctive cuisine. The dishes have hardly ever been marketed commercially. But Sahu and Relan were confident. Sahu's mother became an unofficial food consultant and trained the chefs recruited for the restaurant. Potbelly Rooftop Cafe, as it was named, opened in August 2011, with an investment of a little over INR 20 lakh, serving all the Bihari delicacies and apart from litti chokha were Champaran mutton, dana jhamarua, keema aloo chop, khada masala chicken and more. In a year and a half, Sahu and Relan were able to break even.
Lately, Bihari cuisines have started getting attention from the food connoisseur and thankfully they know it is more than the humble ‘litti Choka’.
Why Bihari cuisine remained under the radar
Bihar is very rich (in food), but it has been looked down upon due to multiple political reasons. Therefore, its cuisine got left behind as well. Look at Bengal, for example, whose food has really travelled.
Another reason is that there aren’t many restaurants serving Bihari food because a lot of the authentic dishes, which need elaborate preparation, are no longer cooked in homes. Plus, one needs to add finesse to the dishes in the way it is served to make it a dining experience.
Most of the younger generation of Bihar themselves hasn’t eaten traditional Bihari food. And those who do cook it are conservative about the idea that it can be commercialised. Even in Patna, there aren't many people selling Bihari food. Thus the space for Bihari food culture in the popular imagination has remained negligible.
Bihar beyond litti chokha
Many renowned faces have come up lately to demonstrate the real cuisine of Bihar, the ingredients and the cooking style. Celebrated chef Manish Mehrotra has paid homage to his growing up years in Bihar by using the Bihari staple, makhana in some dishes at his restaurant, Indian Accent (Delhi, New York, London). Café Lota in Delhi serves a comforting plate of sattu paratha.
According to food historian and critic Pushpesh Pant, the Bihari story is a fascinating one, dating back to the Mahabharat. The geography of food zones is quite complex: Maithili is very different from the Purvanchali, Anga, Magadh, Bhojpuri cuisines. Then it gets further divided in Jharkhand, with its tribal food and regional variations. The food preparations vary according to social class, caste, religion and region. Some of the common food is chura matar, makhana, sattu, ghughni and Bihari kabab.
Bihari cuisine securing its place in commercialised markets
Similar to Potbelly cafe in Delhi, many food enthusiasts have ventured into the space serving more delicacies from Bihar. South Delhi based Gaon has been witnessing a positive response from the customers for their Bihari offerings.
The restaurant offers dishes like Champaran Handi Mutton, Ahuna Mutton and Chicken, lavang latika, chandrakala, sattu paratha, sattu cooler, thekua, ghughni chura, chicken taas, khaja, malpua, padukia and many more apart from litti chokha and has been instrumental in changing the perception.
“Most of the people are unaware of other dishes from Bihar and litti chokha has been widely popular for quite some time now because of its healthy attribute and preparation and taste but we are educating them about other dishes since five years now,” founder Alok Ranjan stated.
From one outlet in Saket in Nov 2017 to four outlets in Oct 2019, the brand has received exponential growth. It’s only the pandemic wherein the company have been forced to shut down a couple of the outlets as the whole hospitality industry has seen a huge downfall. Surviving the battle, Gaon has now added two more outlets in Gurgaon and opened a sub-brand by the name of Champaran Meat Company and are expecting to add ten more by the end of this year. “Today we are very confident to say that reaching 30 to 40k a day sales takes us less time than any other cuisine outlet,” Ranjan further added.
He is a firm believer of the fact that Bihari cuisine itself is being widely accepted across pan India. The restaurant chain has been getting queries from states like Assam, Bangalore, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Pune, different parts of UP, Bihar and Punjab to open outlets. “It’s just that we are looking into our logistics and modus operandi to operate in different parts of India,” Ranjan informed.
High potential in cloud business
Started in July 2021, Gurgaon based The Chhaunk, a cloud kitchen startup exclusively offers homemade Bihari food prepared with homegrown spices with eco-friendly packaging. The saas-bahu duo, Manjari Singh and Hiranyamayi Shivani are the co-founders of The Chhaunk.
In the span of just six months, The Chhaunk is going to open its seventh store by the end of this month. Outnumber of orders have increased 65 percent month on month with value growth to 56 percent. The best part is that the returning customer rate is 91 percent which is very encouraging and appreciating the Bihar culture and their traditional recipes.
“Being a big region and diverse culture within the state itself makes Bihari cuisine very complex. It has to offer you from very spicy Champaran Ahuna Mutton to mouth-watering sweet like Launglata. However, Bihari cuisine has not got as much exposure as other cuisines have because of this whenever consumers see any good Bihari cuisine restaurant, they tend to try different things. We have seen some consumers who ordered multiple times just to try everything which cuisine offers they either never heard of or never saw in any restaurant,” Singh commented adding that there are many more things to offer like sattu puri, dal puri kheer, bhnja tash, bajka along with endless options in sweet like parwal rasgulla, thekua, khaza, etc. Multiple options can attract consumers to try different items and to know deeper about more traditional recipes of Bihar.
The Chhaunk too has many queries on board. From Mumbai, Bangalore, Jaipur to Kolkata, Singh is getting multiple calls to open the outlets in their city which itself shows that consumers want to try it and there is very little availability. “This encourages us to focus more to expand fast to achieve our first milestone of 50 outlets pan India,” she spills the beans.
While beautifully varied, Bihari food is also one of the most understated. The truth being said, there are a lot of home-grown recipes that have not travelled out of Bihar but stayed where they are eaten. They haven’t had many spokespersons. But as restauranteurs dig more and more into the traditional Indian cuisines, Bihari cuisine is eventually getting the spotlight it deserves.