The Mahua Magic

I was two hours outside of Nagpur in the Melghat region sometime ago. I chanced upon a tribal hamlet and spent two days in the village. It was April and fragrant mahua flowers were spread for drying in front of every house. The residents said they were preserving the flowers for the rainy season to make mahua bhakhar. It is a sweet bread made of dried mahua flowers and sorghum flour. Locals believe the warm properties of the flower protect from chills and aches during the rains. Amused by my curiosity an elderly lady in the hamlet prepared two bhakhars for me and offered a bag full of dried flowers to take home.

I tried my hand at making it at home. Instead of patiently molding it with hands as the elderly lady had shown, I rolled it out with a rolling pin and proudly showed it to my mother-in-law. A few bites later we were deep into our first woman-to-woman conversation about food. She first explained how much the shortcut technique of using a rolling pin changed the flavour and then told me about the varieties of mahua breads she used to eat as a child. Bhakhar is a big chapatti made of wheat or sorghum flour kneaded with crushed mahua flowers and pooran poli and cooked with mahua flour stuffing.

The incident started a discourse on bhakhar between us. Over the season she introduced me to splendid bhakhar varieties that were eaten regularly but now either forgotten or eaten only rarely.

During the rains it is good to eat ambadyachi bhakhar made with the sour leaves of Deccan hemp called ambadi and sorghum flour. In the winters bhakhars are made from pulses like black gram, and horse gram and greens like sorghum and pearl millet. There is a recipe for ambil, a cooling drink for summer months prepared by adding buttermilk to a thick soup of jowar flour. The older generation believes that moulding bhakhar, almost twice the size of a regular chapatti, between two palms is the best way to bring out the flavour of the grain. I could not see why the rolling pin would not do just as well. It took years for me to develop the refinement to realize that the old lady was right. I eventually arrived at a midway arrangement—patting small bhakhars by hand on a flat surface.

Wild vegetables like garota, kundar, and latari have nearly disappeared. These are greens that are gathered and cooked for children and with repeated bhakhar meals at home and during my tours, the hot oily rassa, thin kadhi (soup of buttermilk and gram flour), and boiled kheer at the end to make sense. The bhakhar is nevertheless drier than rice or wheat flour chapattis and it would be difficult to gulp it down without the strongly flavored liquid accompaniments. It is best eaten when crumbled and made into a mush with dhal or curry.


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