Tripti Nath/New Delhi
Puja Sahu, a middle-aged entrepreneur climbs four flights of stairs of her tiny but well embellished fine dining Bihari cuisine restaurant Potbelly in Shahpur Jat in the heart of South Delhi, for surprise Kitchen inspections. The climb is somewhat discouraging but it keeps the kitchen staff on their toes and ensures perfect preparation, prompt service and excellent presentation.
While the ground floor section is called Light belly and serves tea, coffee and cookies apart from starters, the tastefully decorated rooftop restaurant, with potted money plants, is a writers’ delight in non- business hours. A quiet corner and truly satiating food works as a super combination for good output.
This restaurant adorned with Madhubani wall paintings, money plants and ferns is tucked away in the picturesque environs of Shahpur Jat. This urban village located near the ruins of centuries-old Siri Fort, has become a bohemian enclave. It is home to boutiques and quirky shops. Along narrow alleys decorated with vivid murals, cozy stores offer embroidered saris and tunics, elaborately packaged teas and pillow-covers printed with Indian motifs.
Although Puja is now based in San Francisco, she micro manages everything successfully and makes sure that she spends a good deal of time in the restaurant to know what is cooking and how well it is cooking. After all, Pooja has invested over a decade on pursuing her true calling.
Born in Muzaffarpur, Pooja ran her own boutique for 12 years till she figured out that this was her true calling. A Commerce graduate, Puja recalls, “ I began with a staff strength of a dozen people. I began 12 years ago and Shahpur Jat was the first outlet. This was a boot strap project. I had limited resources and I wanted to test the waters in a place where real estate was not very expensive. Rentals were cheap. It was highly experimental but it turned out to be a bigger project than I had imagined.’’
The business venture also helped Puja meet the man who is now her life partner. Their friendship started from the restaurant where he came to have a Bihari meal. The couple now has a seven year old daughter, Tara.
This friendly businesswoman says, “I was designing clothes for 12 years but I felt that I was not using my inner resources and showcase my potential to the fullest. You don’t always know what you want to do when you are in college. Sooner or later, you know what your calling is. I have grown to like cooking very much. It started with the thought that my mother, Mamta Sahu trained me very patiently.’’
Leafing through the colourful menu card which has printed water-coloured sketches of dishes, Pooja says that the variety of dishes are based on her mother’s recipes. The menu card reads, “Potbelly is a labour of love created with a clear vision- bring all the magic that was created in our ancestral kitchen in Muzaffarpur, Bihar to you on a plate. All our recipes are handed down from generations and carefully curated by us to ensure that we bring something special to you, Our hope is that through our food, we can also break some of the stereotypes that exist about Bihar and take you on a flavour adventure that is truly unique and authentic to our region. Every dish is made with immense gratitude and love and we hope that our food finds a place in your heart.’’
Cooking the good old staple nutritious Bihari food- daal, bhaat and bhaaji may be a child’s play for most homemakers but the hard to come by dishes like Bagia basket, Ghugni Choora, Liiti Chokha is not everybody’s cup of tea. It is for these protein rich dishes that people come here.
Litti is a whole wheat flour dough ball that is stuffed with an earthy, spiced mixture of sattu or roasted black chickpea or kala chana flour. Chokha, on the other hand, is a very basic mashed relish made of vegetables like brinjal (aubergine/eggplant), potato, tomato, etc.
Maithili Thaali, Dhamaka Maggi, Tarkari Thali, Madhubani Thali, Tomato Chokha, Aloo Lalu Chop are the most sought after dishes here. Among starters, the Poori basket, an assortment of Marua [Finger Millet] Pooris stuffed with spiced Sattu, Aaloo and onions served with Oal (Yam) pickle and raita, the Bagia basket and the Aloo Lalu chops, spicy cutlets with bun, corriander and tomato chutney and Saboodana pakoda, have many takers. Those who prefer non vegetarian food like to opt for Meat Pakora basket- assorted Pakoras made with mutton and chicken served with chutneys.
The menu offers several dishes- 13 vegetarian platters, 11 non vegetarian platters and a sea food platter. Puja says that although she likes simple food, on some days, she is in a mood to try the Dama Jhamarua thali (platter). “This is a special Bihari aubergine and potato in mustard gravy dish served with rice flour rotis stuffed with spiced poppy seeds. It is served with Parval Chokha, Jimikand chutney and Tissi chutney. Sometimes, I am in a mood to have Daal Pitthi. This is made from flattened whole wheat flour cooked in daal and beautifully tempered with spices. I love to have it with Aloo, Parval Bhujia. This is very staple food in Bihar.On most days, you want to havecomforting food which is daal, chawal and bachka with pickle. Bachkas are like pakoras but we dip it in batter and fry it. We also have Sarson (Mustard) Machcli (fish) different from the way the Bengalis make it. The fish is made in Mustard gravy and is packed with a lot of flavour.’’
Puja agrees that Biharis have a very different way of preparing Bharwa Baingan or Baingan Chokha (stuffed brinjal). “ This has smokiness because we roast it on fire. Bihari food derives its distinct flavour from Mustard oil which is a very healthy medium. In fact, we source our mustard oil from Khadi Gram Udyog in Bihar. We even fry Pooris and Bachkas in mustard oil. Only one per cent of our cooking is in refined oil. We mostly use Mustard oil or ghee. All oursubzis have a different taste. For example, the Bhojpuri thali is made in Garam Masala gravy, the Madhubani thali is made with Panchporan, the Jhamarua is cooked in mustard gravy. We don’t use tomato for our gravy. The Champaran Mutton without bones is cooked with ghee in sealed Ahunas (small earthen pots) on slow fire. We seal the pot and shake it at regular intervals. The mutton there is very tender. It has that nice earthy flavour. Litti Chokha is not so easy to make and is a long process. Spicing of Sattu is very complex. Traditionally, it is cooked on cow dung cakes in iron vessels, wiped with a muslin cloth and cooked in ghee.
For those who have a sweet tooth, Puja recomnmends Makhana Kheer, Ras Pua served with home made Kulfi, Mota boondi with Srikhand. " As a child, I relished Mota boondi. We get it as Prasad (offering to God). The other day, I made Anarsa made of rice flour, in order. In our retail section, we also sell Thikuva.''
Talking of the cultural influence of ot other communities on Bihari cusiine, Puja explained." Food of a region is shaped by history. How the cusiine of a region shapes up really depends on many factors-what is available, what is grown in the region, the belief system, the religious practices, the rituals, the faith and social structure. I feel that there is a lot of Muslim influence in the food we have- especially the way we make Mutton and Kebabs. Invasions by Afghans, Mughals and Turks may have refined the food. I am guessing that they may have added to the culture. Biharis like gourds and make all kinds of chutneys, Tillori and papad.''
Puja agrees that running a restaurant while bringing up her daughter and micro managing day to day affairs all the way from San Francisco is not an easy task. But her passion and efficient time management keeps her going. She did a pop up of Bihari cusine and got a housefull." It was something I did for fun but it was very well received both by the Ameriacans and the Indian Americans.''
A main course meal for two at Potbelly in Bihar Niwas near Delhi's diplomatic enclave in Chanakyapuri or Shahpur Jat costs about Rs 1000 but it is worth every penny. The oal (Yam) chutney is not just served here.
The food can also be ordered through Zomato but a visit to the restaurant is something I would strongly recommend for a refreshing get- away especially on a weekend. Those looking for privacy can opt for ordering food in a balcony in the restaurant.