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. :D

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

We used
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?

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38 Comments

  1. Srivalli says:

    Beautiful pictures…nice dish…

  2. Chokha is masiyal in tamil! Nice info on Chokha! Lovely pesto too! :)

  3. Linda says:

    It does look pretty! I would love this with swiss chard, or maybe a tangy sorrel version…

  4. Siri says:

    ‘Chokhaas’ post Bee & Jai… ;)

  5. Anita says:

    Chokha can also mean ‘strong’ or ‘intense’- and this is one intense choka! Which it wouldn’t be if you heated up the oil! :nono:

  6. viji says:

    It looks gorgeous as usual Bee. Nice recipe. Viji

  7. Miri says:

    Good adaptation! and a really nice link research between the Caribbean and Bihar, something I was thinking about it too when I read Cynthia’s post about breakfast last week and then almost immediately after that was researching Bihari cuisine for this event.

    I read this book “From Jhelum to Tana” about her ancestors journey from Punjab to Africa – fascinating.

  8. Kaykat says:

    Ooo … I love the detailed explanation of Chokha – I remember asking a bihari friend about this a while ago – I think of that everytime I read Cynthia’s blog :)

    1/2′n’1/2 of mustard and spinach is pretty strong! I really like the idea of adding/substituting amaranth greens – that is fast becoming a favorite.

    Like always, love the pix :)

  9. Raaga says:

    Looks beautiful… with mustard greens in season here, I’m going to try this.

  10. Latha says:

    I have never seen mustard leaves before… are they not called kale too?

    kale is different. the leaves are thicker, and they are not as bitter. – bee

  11. sra says:

    Never thought mustard greens curled up like that – have quite a different memory from the time we had mustard plants at home.

  12. Nags says:

    lovely pic. dish seems a lil too healthy for me :D

  13. Meeta says:

    Gorgeous and funny as always. I love the flavor of mustard greens. Super idea!

  14. Rajitha says:

    love the last shot of the greens..i think food blogging opens our eyes adn minds to so many new things…

  15. RP says:

    Learned a new word! :yes:

  16. Asha says:

    Why call it Pesto, not Chokha?! Looks like a nutritious dish, love the photo!:)
    Happy Thanksgiving.

  17. lissie says:

    enjoyed reading about ‘chokha’! rare recipe… beautiful pictures!

  18. richa says:

    mustard greens…slurrrrp :D
    BTW chokha is rice in gujarati !!

  19. Happy Cook says:

    Well i was typing my comment and i must have pressed somewhere.
    As i was saying never have done anything with these leaves.
    I was laughing out loud while reading your comment “Stand still in front of Cynthia for five minutes, and you may end up as a choka.”
    I love your humour :) :laugh:

  20. sia says:

    now i am confused… the aloo chokha i made from one site explained chhokha means tadka.. :hammer:

  21. sandeepa says:

    Good chokha..no dhokha here :D

    Sups, “chaukna” or “chokhna” means tadka…see the “N”

    “Chokha” is the dish you had and which Bee explains

  22. musical says:

    Aha! looks yummy! i guess usually it is made with bathua which balances off mustard greens better than spinach. I love the look of the chopped green chillies on top!

  23. Namratha says:

    It is interesting to know they make Chokha in the Carribean! :no: you really have done your homework by asking around, the whole concept just plain confused me so I stayed away from the chokna dish :tongue: pesto looks good!

  24. shivapriya says:

    I saw chokha post on Cynthia’s. I should try this sometime. Nice picture.

  25. Chennette says:

    Ah the choka :-) I think in the Caribbean, we may have some people who use the mustard oil still – we still use mustard oil in our mango anchar (http://www.flickr.com/photos/chennette/166095735/)and kuchela(http://www.flickr.com/photos/chennette/166098960/), so it’s still an item in our kitchens.
    Nice post :-)

  26. kribha says:

    Never heard about this before. Good information and nice recipe.

  27. Latha says:

    As always Bee lovely pictures! Hats off to u guys! I am so weary when trying all these new dishes… have made sarson ka saag with mustard greens but thats about it! I use mustard oil for jhaal muri and thats about it!
    Should start trying out some adventures like u guys… only problem is, if it turns out bad then i’ll be stuck eating it for the rest of the week :-(

  28. Aparna says:

    This one is new to me. I like most greens but not the mustard oil. Personally, find it a bit of an acquired taste.
    Lovely pictures, as usual

  29. Cynthia says:

    HEY!!!! :laugh: I can’t wait to meet you face and face and then you’ll see what choka you become! I love this post!

  30. Pintoo says:

    Loved the choka, chokha, or maybe chokna. Loved the photos as well. You are right you have to heat up the mustard oil to smoking hot to remove the rawness and sharpness of the taste. I have never heard anybody using mustard oil raw. It is always used after heating it up.
    Cheers

  31. sudha says:

    Wow We also make aloo chokha, baingan chokha, tamatar chokha :yes:I am surprised after reading so much about “chokha” :)

  32. sudha says:

    loved the article. good work guys

  33. reeta says:

    Lovely insight into the ROYAl chokha that! VERY VERY interesting! :horn:

  34. Anonymous says:

    ;;) cool

  35. Jai Bihar says:

    Choka is great with little dhania (coriander)… and a little fried onions.

  36. [...] In Europe, mustard is used mainly as a condiment. In the Indian home, it is consumed almost with every meal, in one of five forms: 1. The whole popped seed for seasoning at least 75% of the Indian vegetable and lentil dishes we make 2. As a powder (see Lemon and Lime Pickles) 3. Mustard oil, either raw and strong as a finishing touch, or cooked and mellower (see Haak – Kashmiri-style Greens, Jahni Alu Posta) 4. As a pungent paste, especially in Eastern India, quite like this Homemade Dijon-style Mustard) 5. Mustard Greens are also highly popular in Northern and Eastern India (see Chokha – Pesto, Bihari-style [...]



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