To chokha or not to chokha? That was the question.
We have a dear friend from the Caribbean who likes to ‘choka’ many of the veggies she encounters. Tomato choka, eggplant choka, potato choka. Stand still in front of Cynthia for five minutes, and you may end up as a choka.
When we first read the word ‘choka’ on her blog, it had a familar ring to it – as though it came from an Indian language.
We suspected it came from Bhojpuri, since most of the dishes of Indian origin in the Carribean came from Bihari immigrants. It was when the Regional Cuisine of India – Bihar event rolled around that we realised how ubiquitous chokha and litti are to one of India’s most populous states.
Isn’t it telling how it takes someone from halfway across the world to introduce us to our own regional cuisines? The Caribbeans have dropped an ‘h’ from the ‘chokha’, and probably the mustard oil as well, but the principle remains the same.
So what is a Chokha?
Pushpesh Pant demystifies the chokha in The Tribune:
Whenever we quizzed a Bihari friend about their cuisine, the chokha (with litti) figured prominently in the responses. What was confusing was that like the proverbial elephant being described by five blind men, the descriptions seldom matched.
One worthy told us that the word derived from pure as contrasting with khota, flawed/debased. Other, claiming to be equally knowledgeable, insisted that it meant sharp as in pungent. Pointed—teekha—as a comment, that evokes an ouch. Some informed us that chokha was made only with alu; others refuted this and maintained you could enjoy a tamatar or baigan ka chokha equally.
There were those who held that chokha was savoured best with rice and arhar ki daal. Friends who preferred roti as its ideal accompaniment contested this. To borrow a memorable line, ‘some like it hot’ while others wax eloquent about the cool comfort it provides in summer. What can’t be denied is that it is an easy-to-prepare rustic delight—filling, nutritious and tasty.
… Chokha is not to be confused with bharta of any kind; it is seldom complicated with fancy adornments like finely chopped onions or addition of aromatic garam masala. Tempering with zeera is almost testing the permissible limits.
Simply speaking, chokha, as they call it in Bihar, is a rustic dish of veggies cooked and coarsely mashed, topped with fresh flavourings like green chillies and garlic, and a drizzle of mustard oil. It can be eaten hot or cold.
The membership to the elite ‘chokha’ club is by invitation only. So far, there are just three members – potato, tomato and eggplant/brinjal. If you extend the same treatment to other veggies, like greens, you need to call it something else.
That’s why, Madhur Jaffrey calls her chokhafied greens ‘Spinach Cooked in a Bihari Style’. She explains:
This dish, traditionally made with mixed greens such as spinach and mustard, resembles an Italian pesto, though it is much thicker in consistency. In place of olive oil, mustard oil is used, and apart from the taste of the greens themselves, the other strong flavors include raw garlic, raw ginger, green chilis, and cilantro. If you can’t obtain the pungent golden mustard oil which is called for in this recipe (available in Chinese as well as Indian groceries), steep 1/2 teaspoon powdered dried mustard in 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil.
In Northern India, this dish is eaten at room temperature for breakfast, along with fried bread and tea. While raw garlic may seem alarming first thing in the morning, Indians consider it a medicinal necessity, and many swallow a crushed clove every day.
We used equal parts of mustard greens and spinach – the way it is traditionally made.
PESTO, BIHARI STYLE with Mustard Greens and Spinach
Equal parts of mustard greens and spinach to make 1.5 pounds
1/2 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1 garlic clove, mashed
1/2 teaspoon finely minced green chilli
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons finely minced cilantro
2 tablespoons mustard oil
1. Blanch the greens for 30 seconds in boiling hot water until wilted (a minute or two). Dunk them in cold water, drain and squeeze out excess liquid.
2. Save a cup or so of the liquid. Process the greens in a blender with a bit of the reserved liquid until smooth and thick.
3. Whisk together the remaining ingredients, pour over the greens and mix.
We added a squeeze of lime.
Verdict: This dish uses raw mustard oil, which is really sharp, unlike mustard oil that mellows down when introduced to heat. Mustard greens are bitter to begin with, and with raw mustard oil, it was a turbo-charged mustard flavour. With plain yogurt and rice, however, it was a decent combo.
The next time, we’ll try it with milder greens like all spinach, or swiss chard, or amaranth, and either heat up the mustard oil before adding it, or use some other oil. We’re wimps, what can we say?