Makhana: The White Gold Story

From fisherman's sustenance to Janmashtami prasad to finding its niche in the gourmet aisle, here's how  Mithila's superfood became the byword for wellness and indulgence.

By Madhulika Dash

Three years ago, when the Geographical Indications Registry (GIR) granted their tag to Bihar Makhana calling it 'Mithula Makhana', few were surprised. After all, eighty percent of our makhana is produced in Bihar, which also holds the record of supplying the king size  52,000 plus shipments of these nuts globally, each year. 

This made many wonder: What did the GI Tag garner? Two things: first, getting the laurel to the erstwhile kingdom of Mithila that has been producing,  exporting  and popularising makhana since the beginning of the Silk Route. Two, bringing this neolithic era superfood to the fore globally again. 

For India though, it was a one-nut-suits-all kind of reminder. Makhana, lotus seed or gorgon nut needs little introduction to the Indian palate. Much like the puffed rice, Makhana too has been an inseparable part of our culinary ledger both as nature's ready to eat snack and in various culinary format including the popular kheer, as the crunch in mutton or even as the all-loved Makhana Paag that is a Janmastami special, and as a wellness food that even Gautam Buddha endorsed.

The Case of One-Nut-For-All

Revered in Samhitas as in The Chinese Medicine (TCM) for its nutritive superpowers, the fox nut has been a part of quite a few therapies as well, and this included the traditional snack trail made by combining a bevy of indigenous nuts, seeds and dry fruits tossed in ghee, khand (mishri) and a hint of pepper with makhana as the main ingredient. The trail though rich in calories till date is considered to be the best nosh for all kinds of cravings and is happily recommended not just for pregnant women and new mothers, but those with any form of lifestyle or stomach related ailment.

As a low carb, low sugar, low GI food, makhana is possibly the only 'no-guilt' indulgence that doesn't need portioning. It has this timer, says nutritional therapist Shaveta Bhassin, "that stops you from going overboard and yet keeps you full for a substantial amount of time besides providing R&R to the body, especially during the rainy season and post that."

It is these virtues that made Makhana, otherwise a neutral tasting ingredient, a staple among fisherman, farmers, traders, commoners, and kings alike, who used it as a power meal when on the road, but also earned a prime spot as a prasad, especially as a favourite of Lord Krishna who is said to be close to the farmers and herdsman and hence enjoyed their local dishes.

Proof, says Chef Akshraj Jodha, Executive Chef, ITC Grand Bharat, "is that even today for Janmastami, a festival that chimes the new season, makhana is one of the chief ingredients that is used across all offerings, be it the kheer, meethe makhanae or the delicious mewa paag."

Just imagine, says Chef Jodha, "an ingredient that once processed serves you as an instant food that can sustain you through long journey, that can take on any flavour, mild, delicate, or otherwise and elevate it, and one that is an easy alternative not just for adding a new element of deliciousness into a dish but one that can alter a dish without affecting the taste or the texture. Makhana back in the day – and even today – was like having a Sōhei in the kitchen arsenal."

Primed for Taste

A curious example of fox nut's wonderment is the kheer, continues the culinary custodian, "where makhana, which is added towards the end, not only lends it a rich, creamy texture but also makes for a delicious treat for those who have dietary restriction. Makhana's versatility also makes it a wonderful 'gluten-free' option in many dishes, especially chapatis. Roast and pulverise into a flour and it can be added not just to curries for consistency but also be used as traditional flour."

Like Chef Jodha's rotla, a traditional Rajasthani roti, which is made with makhana instead of wheat at ITC Grand Bharat. Or as Dahi Bara, says Chef Manish Mehrotra, Culinary Director, Indian Accent, who uses the bigger size kernels as an alternative to baras in the dish by roasting it to give it that interesting texture. And as the crunch in Chef Ravi Tokas, Executive Chef, Parat, mutton curry where he tosses the fox nut with a light caramalised coating made with jaggery and pepper to give the curry an interesting bite and richness.

In fact, says Chef Tokas, "using Makhana to give texture to an otherwise monotonous gravy dish has been an age-old technique used in the kitchens of erstwhile Delhi Sultanate. This addition of roasted, and at times flavoured makhana added a new taste dimension to the dish and helped create dishes like the sabz milan makhana."

Concurs Chef Pradeep Khosla, VP Alcor Jamshedpur, who often uses makhana to lend a dimensional contrast to a dish, especially when two of the dishes have common flavour matrix like his signature dish, Channa Gosht. The dish, says Chef Khosla, "is inspired by the kaju matar makhana where fox nuts not only elevate the jugalbandi of two distinct flavoured ingredients but also creates the contrasting neutral space for a palate to enjoy the nuances of kaju and mattar individually. Plus, it also helps create this rich gravy. The lightly salted makhana does the same in chana gosht as well where it lends this amazing crunchy-chew texture to the dish and compliments the lamb kofte creating a delicious bite."

Many Shades of Goodness

Makhana's ability to deliver in all formats in fact plays a decisive role in not just its traditional usage but also modern adaptation where fox nuts has been a part of various innovation that, says Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, Founder, Fabrica By Saby, "have used this Neolithic era's foraged food both for its novelty, goodness and the fact that it has an unmatched ability to play out the flavours."

A proof of this is Chef Gorai's Ponchiki, where the gooey makhana paste becomes an easy foundation to pair a variety of different flavours, says Chef Gorai, "not just chocolate but those with delicate notes like roselle, rose, blue pea flower, kewra and even sandalwood." In fact, recently for a pop-up, Chef Gorai created a platter of Ponchiki with fillings that ranged from a mild-rose scented custard to Indian-styled kewra one with one common base for all – the makhana paste created the same way as it is done for Chinese moon cake.

Interestingly, Chef Gorai isn't the only one who finds makhana, the  'white gold' is today a preferred ingredient to play with for many seasoned culinary minds. , "The beauty of makhana in its paste form is that it can create this gooey contrast to all flavours bringing in a kind of balminess to an otherwise overpowering flavour too, " adds Chef Gorai.  A case in point is the Salted Caramel Berliner, where the makhana addition elevates the taste of the rock salt.

It is this facet of Makhana that also has inspired Chef Rajiv Vimal, Executive Chef, The Leela Ambience Convention Hotel Delhi, to create Makhana and Almond Granola Bar and Kumudh Ka Halwa. Curated as an ode to the hotel's signature collection Tishya, says Chef Vimal, "the dessert is an ode not just to Tishya fragrance of lotus and Neelakurinji flowers, but to the many ways I had makhana as a kid, especially around this time of the year when one was constantly craving sweet things. 

The beauty of the Makhana and Almond Granola Bar and Kumudh Ka halwa is that while it doesn't nix on any of the richness we associate with sweet and yet is healthier. Much of the taste making here is thanks to fox nuts' ability to pair well with not only flavours but aromas too. Result, the indulgence begins with the aroma itself."

Of Nostalgia and Foreplays

The flavour-texture-aroma play is a facet that makes the core of Chef Abhinav Singh, Pastry Chef, Hyatt Regency, Dehradun, creation is Fox Nut Pate Mousse with Caramelized Fox nut. The dessert, says Chef Singh, "is an ode to the different sweets that makhana has inspired, especially the milk-based ones, which have given us the kheer and the rabri among others. One can experience how this seemingly tasteless ingredient when paired right not only adds the richness but also textures that make for a pleasurable, less guilty treat."

For Chef Dhruv Oberoi, Head Chef, Olive Bar & Kitchen that nostalgia translates into Fox nut Brookie with Pistachio Semifreddo Sandwich. In which, says Chef Oberoi, "I have replaced the typical refined flour with toasted fox nut flour and baked into this gooey brookie (brownie + cookie) and layered with a very decadent pistachio praline semifreddo. And fascinatingly, the one ingredient that not only supports this gluten-free, sweetened with monk fruit dessert is the makhana. You can taste not just each ingredient separately but also how well they come together with one bite of this sweet sandwich."

The unique way in which makhana renders itself to dishes is in fact the other reason that the Mithula special is such a key part of Indian Accent's menu. Says Patna-born Chef Mehrotra, "Makhana is a big part of who I am, both as a person and as a chef. In fact, it is an extension of who I am, and thus is omnipresent in all our menus – be it as a dahi bada, as garnish to many of my mixed vegetable dishes, as a crispy add with the duck khurchan, as this chapati Churan Makhana snack for our bar or even as the makhana crème brulee which is an ode to the kheer I have had growing up. The other reason for making it an integral part is also to support the farmers who cultivate makhana. Even though it grows naturally, the process of extracting the white kernels from the seed is a tedious process and needs immense labour. One of the many reasons is that makhana, in spite of growing wild in still ponds and water bodies, even back in the day fetched a premium."