Last week, as the rest of the world carved netherworld faces on pumpkins for Halloween, chefs Manish Mehrotra, Prateek Sadhu and I (in my capacity as a food historian) found ourselves in another world, quite off the map.
Vishrampur is a dusty little village in the Kanker district of Bastar in Chhattisgarh. Tourists — even the few who do visit the state — rarely come here, preferring instead the region’s mighty waterfalls, the deep quiet of its emerald forests, and the colour and pageantry of its tribal culture. The chefs and I, however, are on a voyage of another kind — to discover the region’s ingredients and cuisine, on a state-sponsored visit that eventually aims to promote gastronomic tourism in the region.
By the time we drive in at noon, Vishrampur (literally ‘a place of rest’) is belying its name; it is caught up in the bustle of its weekly haat (market). Villagers from the interiors are here with whatever they have grown, caught or made, seeking to make some Diwali profit. There are beautifully glazed clay diyas (earthen lamps), 12 for ₹200, which may command 10 times the price in the metros, thick metal work anklets, dhokra art and colourful cloth bags and sheets. And then there are the giant pumpkins.
A solitary reaper sits beside two to three of these, each seemingly weighing 30-40 kg. Next to her is a tribeswoman selling tumba or the equally gigantic bottle gourd, still green. Here is the raw material for the tumba art (where the dried vegetable is used to make lamps, sculptures and bric-à-brac) that shows up in arty living rooms in Delhi and Mumbai. But I want to know more about the vegetables. “What are these?” I ask Mukesh, the affable security officer who has been accompanying us. “Containers for water,” he says simply. The gourds and pumpkins, allowed to stay on the vine for months to grow to this size, are harvested, scooped hollow, dried and used as containers to store water (or salfi , the local fruit ‘beer’). Kamandal , or the ancient water pot of wandering holy men in Indian myth, was apparently a hollowed out pumpkin too, I later hear.
Sometimes, these are also used to make musical instruments, much like the four-stringed tanpura from Miraj in southern Maharashtra, a town revered for its now disappearing art of making stringed musical instruments. This ‘plant art’ must have possibly originated here, in the depths of the jungle, where ancient sounds and customs persist.
Flavours from the haat
The chefs, meanwhile, are besotted with another tradition: bhajiyas (fritters)! Fresh from a wok, these are irresistible anywhere in the markets of India. Here in Vishrampur, Mehrotra and Sadhu are studying the technique of crispiness and quizzing local makers about batters. But the proof of the pakora is in the eating. So, I am called to pass the verdict. I bite into a crisp green chilli fritter that could give any tempura in a good Japanese restaurant a run for its money.
When it comes to fried snacks, gulgul bhajiya is Chhattisgarh’s most interesting offering. It is usually sweet, and made with gram dal . It reminds you of the gulgule of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Bihar, which are sweet round fritters made from refined wheat flour batter.
Because so many dishes from the state are similar to others from around the country, chef Mehrotra wonders “what can distinguish Chhattisgarh food from other cuisines”. He also has in mind the meal from the night before — where we were served the local version of bari (fermented dal dumplings), which is more spongy than its counterpart in Punjab or Bengal, yams, greens such asbohar bhaji that’s grown uniquely in Chhattisgarh, and urad dal (black lentils). He advocates an approach where just 10-20 dishes unique to Chhattisgarh are catalogued to showcase to tourists.
When borders blur
But I am leaning towards a deeper approach: one where, if uniqueness must be studied, so should similarities and parallels, since this region of central India has a continuity of culture with parts of Maharashtra, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh, from which it was carved out.
My most interesting discovery happens while we taste a simple dish of black lentils for dinner. A distinct goda masala flavour from Pune is at once apparent. But why would black lentils in Chhattisgarh taste of this spice mix?
The next day, I quiz the cook, who brings me the packaged spice blend she uses. Made in Jagdalpur (Bastar’s capital), it has writing in Oriya (the region has many cultural similarities with tribes of Orissa), but the ingredients fortunately are listed in English. Among these, I find a rather colourfully-dubbed chabila spice, roughly translated as somebody who is “pretty and cultivates their appearance”.
Chabila turns out to be none other than that most powerful and unique of Deccani spices, the dagadh kaphool , or lichen that grows on rocks. Alternatively called kalpasi , it gives the distinctive deep favour to Maharashtrian, Hyderabadi and Chettinad spicing. It later occurs to me that this region saw Maratha rule in the 18th century. Culinary history often follows political conquest, we must remember too.
Building on the local
There are other cultural similarities. That we are in the rice bowl of India is evident in dishes such as farre , or pasta-like dumplings sprinkled with sesame, a breakfast item. Farre is now disappearing from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bundelkhand (where maida casings are filled with ground gram dal ). I am yet to establish a connection. Meanwhile, the chefs are unanimous that farre can be gentrified in their restaurants with bits of bacon and whatnot.
Then, there is the culinary congruence with village practices from Orissa, where paddy fields give a valuable source of protein to the poor — fish. My Oriya friend, Sujata Dehury, says that smoking small freshwater fish ( jhuri ) was a practice in her home, when paddy fields were drained. The fish was caught, sorted according to size, and the smallest was smoked on tin sheets on open charcoal fires, to be preserved for later use. This seems to be the practice here, too. The women at the haat say they fry the smoked fish in oil and add it to any bhaji or green they are cooking that day.
Where is the fabled red ant chutney, though? We have been ruing its elusiveness and the fact that it is only available immediately after the monsoon (as also some varieties of mushroom that chef Sadhu is interested in). “We should come back for longer, spend at least 10-15 days here looking at ingredients like bamboo and berries,” says chef Sadhu, for whom Vishrampur is foraging heaven. He has been plucking bits of lavender-like grass to determine if it could be made into a chutney.
Back in Raipur, Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel invites us to his home for tea. He has gone out of his way to procure all his favourite local sweets and snacks. There is khurmi , made with rice and wheat flours, and deep fried, khoya jalebi made with milk solids, mahua, dried ginger laddoos and more. As we sip a mahuasherbet , cooling and fragrant, it is clear that this is not the stereotypical alcohol liqueur we all associate with the flower. Ingredients can have diverse uses, and there is potential for Chhattisgarhi dishes to be widely popular. We just need to come back and delve deeper into the state’s bounty.