The undying love for food led this economics major to turn her passion for cooking into her profession. Chef Pallavi Nigam Sahay is a celebrity chef whose love for regional food can be seen in her book “The Bhojpuri Kitchen”. Hailing from Bhopal, she currently lives in Muscat and is following her passion. She is currently working on the second book while consulting several popular restaurants. Here are some of the excerpts from an exclusive interview…
From MP to Bihar and now Oman, you have come a long way. How has been your whole experience?
It can’t be defined in one word! Sometimes it has been very interesting and sometimes very challenging. I got to learn a lot about different kinds of cuisines and cultures. But there were times when surviving those cultural differences was tough.
Tell us about your first cooking experience and how was it?
My first tryst with cooking was when I tried to cook Dum Biryani. Before cooking, I properly took out all ingredients and arranged on the kitchen platform. I followed every step, marinated the lamb overnight, soaked in the rice and sealed the wok with “dum”. I also took out very carefully kept La Opala crockery from the crockery cabinet to serve the dish. A nice aroma was coming from the kitchen and I was sure the dish would turn out well. But much to my chagrin, the lamb remained uncooked, when the biryani was served. My mom had to pressure cook the entire thing again to make the biryani palatable.
You hail from Bhopal and are married into a Bihari family. Was it a cultural contrast?
The food in both places has a lot of difference; the cooking techniques are very different. In Bihar, while making gravies they never use onion paste, it’s always chopped onions, whereas I have never seen my mom, my aunts or even distant relatives in M.P. making gravy without the onion paste. Also, there is no concept of making fresh garam masala paste in Bihar, whereas in Madhya Pradesh, we always keep it ready in the fridge to make quick curries etc. Not just that, even the way of eating is very different. In Bihar, there’s a tradition of eating one grain at a time, lunch must be “Dal Chawal and Bhujia”, where bhujiya is the dry preparation of seasonal vegetables; and dinner “Roti Subzi”, where the subzi is the vegetables cooked in gravy. Whereas in M.P. we eat “Dal Chawal and Roti Subzi” for lunch and dinner both.
In most of the Bihari gravies, there’s a special mix of whole spices used to temper the oil before adding a mixture of ingredients, commonly known as Panchphoran which includes “kalaunji ke dane (nigella seeds), saunf (fennel seeds), methi (fenugreek seeds), rai (mustard seeds) and jeera (cumin seeds)”. This was quite new to me coming from Bhopal. Also, there’s a lot of use of black peppercorns, more than any other whole spice in Bihari cuisine.
What are the herbs and spices that you love the most?
I just love black cardamom for the wonderful smoky flavour it adds in a dish, and I also love mace a lot. I use black cardamom in my kheer instead of the green one and everyone loves it. And I use mace in most of my Biryanis and Pulaos as well and a little of it in my Carrot Cake and Souffles. On the other hand, when it comes to herbs, I love mint and coriander leaves, and rosemary comes second on my favourite list. I sprinkle the combination of mint and coriander on top of my everyday curries as well.
Tell us about 5 ingredients of Bhojpuri cuisine that never bore you.
The first in that list is Nigella seeds, I love them for the rustic earthy flavour they add to a dish. Second, in the list is Sattu, I like to use it in my milk every day and have it rather than any other protein powder. The third is the Fox Nuts or Makhana that I love munching on my movie nights. Fourth is the Oal or Yam, which is used a lot in the Bhojpuri cuisine. My Maa or my MIL makes a chutney with yam and it’s called ‘Oal Ki Chutney’, and I absolutely love it. They also use a lot of sesame seeds and make a mithai called ‘Tilkut’ during Makar Sankranti, which is made using sesame seeds and jaggery/sugar. When it’s there in the season, it is a constant companion to my tea.
What is unique about Bihari food?
It’s simplicity! From Fresh vegetables and minimum use of spices to simple cooking techniques, you have a beautifully done traditional Bihari dish on the table. Take Bihari Chokha for that matter, it is so simple yet incredibly delicious. It is not a very rich cuisine as they don’t use much ghee, cream and milk or paneer, but they always use fresh seasonal vegetables.
What do you love the most about Bihari cuisine and which is your favourite dish?
It’s the simplicity of cooking techniques. My favourite dishes are: Dhuska and Mutton Curry, which are traditionally eaten on the day of Holi. My other favourite is Litti Chokha, which is a classic Bihari dish.
Are there any lost recipes that are in dire need of revival?
Champaran is a district in Bihar, from where Mahatma Gandhi started his Satyagraha Andolan. It is famous for its mutton, it is said that the mutton from Champaran, after cooked, is as soft as butter and can melt in your mouth. There’s a dish called “Taash Gosht” from Champaran in which, very thin layers like carpaccio are scaled out of lamb, and are marinated with basic spices. This marinated meat is further cooked on top open tawa. This dish has a taste which is out of this world and I think is in dire need of revival.
When it comes to Bihari cuisine, there is nothing more popular than “Litti Chokha”. What are those dishes which you think need more recognition?
I think Dhuska, Fried Pancakes made of a spicy batter of rice and chana dal needs more recognition. Tilkut a sweet prepared by using white sesame seeds, Thekua, a cardamom-spiced whole wheat and jaggery fried cookie and Bihari kebabs need more recognition.
Tell us about some unique Bihari dishes that few know about?
Dahi Chura Gur is one of the most favourite Bihari breakfasts. You will be surprised to know but there have been such instances of baraat getting angry and returning back, because they didn’t get Dahi Chura Gur for breakfast. Another one is Chura Matar. Both chura or poha and matar are separately fried and mixed together. Peetha is another dish, which is cooked using whole wheat dumplings stuffed with spicy chana dal mix. It is steamed and is enjoyed as it is.