An inside look at what makes this rustic wheat cookies not only the main highlight of Chhath Puja but also one of the finest masterpieces of ‘cookie-making’.
By Madhulika Dash; Photograph courtesy Conscious Food
Contemplate Thekua. In appearance, it looks much like the multigrain cookies we get these days, replete with a design and a fine honeycomb texture that is a hallmark of how crisp it is. Taste-wise, it is on par with its British peers when it comes to that right marriage of a crisp and crunchy outside and a gooey inside. And yet, says food connoisseur Pawan Hora (Owner, Wishbox), “when it comes to making it, Thekua or Khajuri as the people of Mithila called it, is much more a cousin of the anarsa than a biscuit – and has never seen the crevices of an oven or a kiln.”
Continues Hora, “Instead, it is fried like a Maharastrian Karanji. Deep frying not only gives it that crackling, honey brown texture and colour but also the chewiness that it is known most for. In fact, the mouthfeel is much like a hobnob biscuits with that distinct rich buttery aftertaste.”
The best time to enjoy this, says the proud Bihari, “is during Chhath Puja and the rest of the winters when this treat is made in every household and every nook and corner of the state, where you would find not one but thousand different ways of making this farmer’s treat, which ranges from ones made with sugarcane juice, another that has both sugarcane and jaggery to one that is pure decadence with loads of nuts and a stunning stencilled design.”
In fact, it is a bowl of Thekua, recalls Hora, “that announces the arrival of not only the four-day long Chhath Festival but also of the new harvest of sugarcane and wheat, and the beginning of the coldest months of winters – and with that changes the food habits in the state that harbours more towards fried and sweetened dishes along with loads of vegetarian chokhas and littis.”
Fascinatingly, it is also the time when snacking too takes a big leap with sweetmeat shops churning new styles of fried goodies made with the new wheat kernels. It is almost customary, says Hora, “to find these little brass jars filled with thekua at home. It is that little bite one starts a day with and reaches out for everytime there is those unquenchable lonely mouth cravings, when you need something fried and sweet just to keep your palate happy.”
Which makes one wonder: how did thekua, a simple delicacy created by frying hand pressed rolls made from the dough of wheat flour, sugarcane juice/jaggery, salt and ghee (with cardamom, sooji and desiccated coconut making a later entry) became such a handcrafted masterpiece?
Story goes that thekua, at least the one that was made with jowar flour instead of wheat dates back to the an era that predates Buddhism. Then, it was created as a treat that could be stored for the rainy day, as well be taken for travelling. Things changed with the arrival of wheat back in 1900 BC in Ujjain and then proliferated the regions because of its quick yield at minimum labour. Mithila, which by then a rice, jowar growing society, took to the easiness of this rabi crop – and once they realised the profitability of wheat, it became a part of their food habits.
Incidentally it wasn’t just the quick profits of wheat that made it an acceptable commodity of the farmers and pandits of Mithila, who are credited for creating the legacy of pithas in India, but the taste as well. More accommodating than jowar and bajra, wheat became the proverbial ‘all purpose flour’ of the time that could be paired with any herb and would yield beautifully to culinary techniques back then, especially frying, which was believed to be the safest mode to cook fast while keeping the nutrients of a grain intact.
Historians believe that the version of thekua we know and love today was a re-accommodation of an old recipe where the flour was replaced with sugar and other spices, hand rolled into a dough (that resembled that of a litti) and then flattened on a mould and fried. What however separated from a good thekua from an average goop was our clear mastery of two things: frying, we were known to produce fried delicacies that had next to nil residual oil; and, the making of a shortcrust pastry that would give the cookie its crispness. In colloquial term we called it moin – the art of mixing dough and fat (butter, ghee) to create flakiness in the dough – and final product.
Even today, adds Hora, “how flaky is your dough and then temperature of oil is what benchmarks a good thekua.”
The association of thekua with Chhath Puja is for two reasons: one, wheat is one of the harvest around this season and is available in plentiful to share with people; and two, thekua by its preservative nature has a shelf life that goes up to a month or more, and hence could be part of a rituals that involved prasad being sent to neighbours and relatives staying afar.
For nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, the role of thekua and the craving for it is for one more reason: nourishment. “If you look at the ingredients of this festive treat, it has all the makings of a food build for wellness. It has wheat whose complex carbohydrates are broken down into simple, easy to digest sugar thanks to frying; the use of sugarcane juice or jaggery is for the burst of instant energy that the body needs to function well in winters; the pairing of sugar, wheat and cardamom works to calm the stress hormone of the brain; and dried coconut is a rich source of magnesium, which helps regulate the sugar levels in the blood. Bonus, since thekua has the chewiness, it satiates your faster which helps keep gluttony in bay. All in all, it almost has the same advantage that a good paratha would or for that matter halwa too.”
Clearly, our ancestors didn’t just create treats to feast the palate but the senses too.