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THE DIARY OF CHOKHA

Said to be one of the oldest surviving dishes in World Culinary Ledger, Chokha – or mashed vegetable – is perhaps the best travelled dish with as many renditions as the continents it touched.

By Madhulika Dash

Moons before French innovator Antoine Parmentier discovered the great mashed potato, the secret to making a killer one; mashed vegetables had made its in-roads to every single culinary kingdom.

Some called it pithika, some addressed it as chokha, and some babaganosh or even moussaka. In fact, not only traders and farmers but warriors and royalties too swore by this 5,000-year-old dish (recipes have found that date the existence of the dish to the time of Mahabharta) which was an ode to the goodness of roasting (the first culinary technique developed and mastered by civilisation). So popular was the dish that it was the first survival trick taught to anyone crossing the village wall. Roasted mashed produce was in fact one of the key dishes for monks and forager as well for two reasons: one, they made food safe to eat (old wisdom believed that fire could purify anything) and two, was the taste. Roasted vegetables as a matter of fact taste infinitely better than those that are steamed, boiled, poached. A reason for this is the flavour re-composition that happens when heat starts working the natural sugar and sodium in a fresh produce. This explains why roasted peppers and cauliflower taste less pungent or raw when roasted, while fleshy produce like eggplant, potato, sweet potato and tomatoes have this delicious creaminess. Add to that the easiness roasting gave to creating a dish – all one has to do is roast it till done and then season it with spices and voila, a dish/dip/accompaniment is prepared in no time.



Little surprise then that it was a dish that travelled most on the Silk Route, and was adopted by other civilisation with relative ease. Like Baigan Bharta that went to create the famous babaganosh and the 130 bharta recipes that the kitchen of Suleiman the Magnificent boasted about; or the salsa that landed on the ports of Konarkpatnam and became the tomato khatta. In fact, over the years, bharta remained a constant on the Indian dining table. What changed is the produce – which ranged from fresh produce to meat – and the consistency. Like bharta mostly is more creamier and moist – and in some cases can be fried and cooked again- while chokha is runny and follow the ancient art of roasting with skin, deskinning, mashing and then seasoning.




MORE THAN JUST TASTE
The art of making bharta in fact was at the core foundation when Rajput warriors and farmers began working on the minimal produce to add to their meal. The mirch ka kutta (that is served with dal batti) was in fact a clever way of keying in vitamins in the meal. Fascinatingly, for Assam and its brethren, bharta of pithika was part of their “food philosophy” that promoted consuming produce with minimalistic cooking, especially those that are in season and tender. On the ground level though the art of roasting and mashing vegetable popularity was more about convenience. Most traditional meals were designed to have all the nutrients but didn’t take much time to cook. And bhartas made sense as it needed minimum cooking effort – one still had to be wary of how much to roast a vegetable – with maximum taste.



Result, today we have more than 100 dishes of bhartas – some purely roasted and seasoned, some chopped seasoned roasted and cooked and others fried and mashed. What makes them such a hit today? Its wholesomeness, believe nutritionist Sveta Bhassin. Aside the great taste, adds Bhassin, “the thing about traditional chokha is that it is amazing source of other nutrients. The trick is not to overdo it.”



THE CHEF HACK
Roasting of a vegetable, says Chef Gautam Kumar (Executive Chef, Country Inn & Suits By Radisson), “depends on the nature of the vegetable. So while peppers, onions and tomatoes take lesser time, yams and others will take more, and for leafy vegetable just a flash is more than enough. The trick to knowing that the vegetable is done is for looking for their fragrance, and charring of the outer skin. That indicates that the vegetable has cooked much. However, for tubers and others you may have to do the poke test like you do to know cake.”



The other thing to keep in mind is the oil. While many vegetables have their own fat and don’t need additional fat. A good example of this, says Bhassin, “is the eggplant. Try using moisture and fat from other resources like roasted onion or garlic to add the taste and then crank up the taste quotient with spices.”

Agrees Chef Kumar, who insists that a good chokha usually follows these common steps:
1. Roast the main ingredient under open fire. If it is too soft, use a wrapper – banana leaf is a good option. If not try an aluminium foil.

2. For best result, mash the vegetable when slightly warm. Keep the texture chunky, as salt would get some moisture out.

3. Add warm mustard oil and then incorporate other ingredients and spices. Salt should be added half an hour before the bharta/chokha is served. This ensures that the chokha is just moist enough to add to the taste.