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Mahua-Part IV: The Culinary Wonder

Although primarily thought of as an ingredient in homegrown liquor, mahua has long been used in recipes both simple and complex. The culinary legacy of this fragrant flower is both fascinating and fantastic.  That it has served the tribal communities in endless ways and has been a source of nutrition and energy, health, and joy, is at best a very illiberal appreciation of its contribution to their lives. The fact remains that every part of this tree has been serving them in one way or the other. The flowers, the fruits, the seeds, the bark, the leaves, the roots, they have used them since eternity.

Mahua in Indian Cuisine 

This small, round, and fleshy fruit with a sweet taste, is consumed both raw and cooked. The fruit pulp is extracted and used in the preparation of jams, jellies, and preserves. It is also added to desserts and sweets for its natural sweetness.An  integral part of traditional culinary practices for centuries,  this highly aromatic and sweet, flowery and  fragrant Mahua flower  is widely used in preparing a unique alcoholic beverage, variously know as ‘Mahia Madira’ or simply ‘Mahua.’.  However, it is only a very restricted appreciation of the potential of this wonder flower and fruit. What is of interest is its increasing use  for more nuanced and sophisticated gastronomic innovations.

Mahua’s antiquity is confirmed in Hindu scriptures and mythology. ‘The Sacred Plants of India (2014)’, a book written by Nanditha Krishna, discusses this antiquity.  Atharva Veda likens mahua, called madhuka in Sanskrit, to a love spell and records its use in making intoxicating drinks. Classical works of Ayurveda, including the Charaka Samhita, extol the curative virtues of the mahua flower. Mughal emperor Babur too mentions the mahua tree in his 16th century memoirs. It was, however, in colonial times that mahua’s centrality to Adivasi life got documented in truly descriptive detail.And yet, the colonial literature largely spoke of the role of Mahua in staving off famine and starvation. In a 1922 book, ‘The Story of the Santals’, author James Merry MacPhail calls mahua their “manna in the wilderness, that fell like bread from heavens,” alluding to the pale green carpet formed on the forest floor by fallen mahua flowers. Among its properties, he enumerated its capacity to kill hunger. “Eat a little mahua, they said, and you will not feel hungry for a long time.”

Traditional Dishes

But there was and is a lot more to Mahua than merely being a saviour in hard times. Tribal cuisine is replete with diverse dishes made from Mahua. ‘Latta’, a festive treat made by pounding mahua with molasses and parched grains, and ‘Mahaur’, which has mahua flower mixed with wheat flour, besan or linseed are two most popular traditional dishes.In his book, ‘The Indian Cuisine’, Krishna Gopal Dubey writes about two Adivasi specialties from the Chhotanagpur, now Jharkhand : asur khichdi, a rice dish spiked with flour made from dried mahua flowers, and asur pitha.

In the forests of Western Odisha, mahua, locally called mahul, is used to make several traditional delicacies, including different kinds of pitha.  Sujata Dehury, a known culinary writer of Orissa speaks of a dish called mahul suanli pitha: “Rice and sun-dried mahul are soaked together and ground into a paste to make a batter, which is first gently cooked into a soft dough, rolled into discs and then deep fried.” Some other dishes include the crepe-like chakuli, which is made with fresh or fermented batter of rice and mahua flowers, and mahua podo pitha, in which a similar batter is spread between sal leaves and roasted in a woodfire. A popular traditional snack in the region is mahul kutka, a coarse, hand-pounded mixture of roasted, sun-dried mahua flowers, black horsegram, sesame seeds, peanuts, popped millets and other seeds and legumes.

And the tribals also used Mahua to prepare variety of desserts. Sun-dried mahul flowers is roasted and ground up with sesame seeds and then made into laddoos. A trickle of liquid jaggery is added to the mix as a binding agent.

Several local innovations mark Mahua’s culinary potential. They range from deep-fried puris made with wheat dough sweetened with pureed mahua and stuffed with cooked chana dal; mahua flour cooked down in milk or with lentils on a gentle flame; spongy gulgule or fritters made with a batter of fresh mahua juice and wheat flour; to flatbreads made with a paste of soaked, sun-dried mahua and millet or wheat flour, sometimes fried on a griddle in mustard oil.

Mahua is also known to have made its way into royal kitchens. The prized recipes of the erstwhile royal family of Kanker, are rice cooked in mahua liquor; and chicken cooked on a leisurely flame with fresh mahua flowers and finished with a drizzle of mahua liquor. The second recipe originally used game meat, perhaps in the mahua-strewn forests of the region.Of late, Entrepreneurs and government, both have reimagined and packaged mahua in the form of candies, energy bars and supplements, jams, jellies, chutneys and squashes, to introduce it to the urban consumer.

A Fascinating New Ingredient

The growing global fascination with foraging has inspired Indian chefs to search for wild foods from the forested corners of the country and add them to their sophisticated menus. In recent years, there have been experiments to incorporate Mahua fruit into various culinary creations. Chefs and food enthusiasts have been exploring its potential in ice creams, sorbets, smoothies, and even savoury dishes like chutneys and sauces. 

Experiments and Innovations

Prateek Sadhu, one of India’s hottest young chefs, created an opulent dessert – Chocolate Fondant with Mahua Ice Cream – for his restaurant, Masque, in Mumbai.He discovered mahua flowers a few years ago. “With its prominent caramel notes, the dried mahua reminded me of dates – perfect for desserts,” says Sadhu. Experimenting with mahua, he paired mahua-infused ice cream with decadent Pondicherry chocolate, garnished with whisky-soaked mahua flowers. The resultant dessert was approvingly fancied by discerning palates.  He also served up succulent pork laced with a sweet and spicy glaze made with mahua flowers and sweet wine. “Currently, I am working on making vinegar with mahua,” he said.

The resurgence of interest in integrating  mahua into gourmet cuisine, both in India and elsewhere, is a cause for celebration. Mahua flowers and its derived products, such as mahua oil and mahua honey, are find new uses in making desserts and baked goods. The floral notes of mahua enhance the flavour of cakes, cookies, ice creams, and other confectionery items.Mahua sherbet or Mahua punch have been introduced in cocktail circuits. They are bringing in new and refreshing novelty and freshness spicing up the festive occasions.Mahua has also found its way into fusion cuisine, where traditional Indian dishes are given a contemporary twist. Chefs experiment with incorporating mahua in sauces, dressings, and glazes to add a unique flavour profile to fusion dishes.

A Promising Future

Mahua’s new-found role in culinary alchemy is fascinating, its legacy as an edible goes beyond the elemental nuances of flavour, texture and fragrance, or its nutritional value (it is rich in fibre, natural sugars, and trace minerals).While Mahua has gained some recognition in gourmet cuisine, its use is still relatively niche and primarily limited to specific regions in India and a few select restaurants outside the country. However, as the exploration of indigenous ingredients and flavours continues to grow,  mahua is sure to find wider acceptance in gourmet culinary circles in the future.

For many indigenous and rural populations of India, the mahua tree has been a cultural touchstone for ages – a rich source of food and medicine that is prayed to, sung about and ritually conserved. While Mahua flower and fruit have a long history of traditional usage, the recent culinary experiments and innovations are still relatively new. These experiments showcase the versatility and potential of Mahua in contemporary culinary creations, allowing for the exploration of new flavours and combinations while preserving the cultural significance of this indigenous ingredient.Mahua is today sought far beyond the restricted world of Santhals, Baigas and Gonds. The culinary future of Mahua products is likely to be one of the more exciting and promising frontiers of gastronomical universe.

Mahua is increasingly becoming a favourite for culinary experiments and innovations. Some chefs and culinary experts have experimented with using Mahua flowers and fruits in fusion desserts, combining them with Western pastry techniques to create unique pastries, cakes, and tarts. Mahua-infused syrups and extracts have been used in cocktails and mocktails, adding a distinctive floral note to the beverages. In the realm of contemporary Indian cuisine, chefs have been incorporating Mahua flowers and fruits into dishes like curries, stews, and marinades to explore their savoury potential. Additionally, there have been efforts to incorporate Mahua flower and fruit extracts into artisanal chocolates, truffles, and confectionery, resulting in an intriguing blend of flavours.

(Writer is an IAS officer. Retired as Secretary, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting)

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