So we left as the silhouettes turned to shapes in the blossom of a Varanasi dawn. A holi man at the helm,Sunil, a policeman and a couple of others. A sadu hopped on board just before we left as did a stray dog and off we rowed onto the sacred waters of the Ganges to make litti.
Litti is strong food- sadu food, holi food. When you eat they say, you eat the earth, the air and the in between and joined you become again with all that is.
From Bihar it comes, the wild untamed State next to Bengal that makes its own rules. Also the birth place of Buddha and of many who have to work the land hard to survive for Bihar does not share the lush bounty of its neighbour.
The black gram, a chickpea relation, is the staple that keeps the engines of Bihar running and the flour from the roasted black gram, the sattoo is the foundation of the litre. On the packs of the sattoo you will see strong men with strong arms, for the sattoo is power food that see you longtime. Food that make your mind to work. A full protein thats easy to absorb into the system and to keep the muscles lifting and lugging, pushing and pulling.
Litti are shapes of dough made from the attar- the whole wheat flour used for chapati and filled with seasoned sattoo.
Traditionally, roasted on the embers of a fire made from the dried cow or buffalow dung and eaten with smashed potato, tomato and aubergine also cooked in the embers, along with chutni or a pickle. A simple trinity.
The sadu got down shortly after he had blessed the boat and the dog jumped ship and swam ashore after he ate the chutni. After the shouting and cursing had stopped and calm regained biscuits of cow dung were broken in half and lit and a blue smoke curled out of the metal bowl in the middle of the boat as the washing begun. Potato, tomato, aubergines with hands and river water bringing back to life the foods.
Once the smoke from the biscuits had been replaced by heat the vegetables are juggled around the hot spots to steam inside the vacuum of their blackening skins.
Meantime, with the sounds of devotion calling across the river form the the ghats the littes are prepared and the gentle kneading of water and flour is rocking the boat into a trance. A primal thing the pummeling of the dough – just water and flour and hands with intentions and the turning of the sticky mass into a smooth elastic cushion.
Basically its a chapati dough used for the casing- the crust. Sometimes sour yoghurt will be used in place of the water giving a crisper skin but here a cup was just dipped over board and the holi water used.
While the dough rested and settled the sattoo was mixed with chopped chilli, ginger, salt and a masala mix the policeman would not disclose.
To assemble the litte’s chunks of dough were pulled off, rolled in the palm and shaped into balls the size of a monkeys fists, then flattened and filled with the seasoned sattoo and reshaped into a ball again and placed around the hot embers and roasting vegetables. And now its just a turning and waiting game as the round parcels slowly turn color as they are turned themselves.
Vegetables that are cooked then smashed are called bahti, coming from the word for rice- bhat as often vegetables to be smashed are cooked in the same pot as the rice.
In the fire though its the tomato that cook first then the aubergine then the potato and in turn their charred skins are removed and then mashed altogether with mustard oil and roughly chopped onion, green chilli, ginger, salt and coriander leaf. Its like mashed potato that went to art school and opens ones eyes to the enormous potential of were the smashed spud can go and with the vegetables still warm their pores are open and available to absorb the oils and the aromatics and the flavours all bleed into each other.
The lost chutni had been made the night before. A version of the classic hari chutni -hari /green- you find all over India- The simple and perfect combination of coriander leaf, green chilli, lime, garlic and a little salt pounded together with the smallest of water. It brings freshness and high hats and cuts into the carbohydrates and pulls them altogether.Lime or mango pickle similar effect with a different bite.
As the sun got higher so did the boat.
The operation is a process and in the process there is space and by the time the process had drawn to a close and the litti’s skin were speckled brown and roasted lying on a tray and looking up at you the hair on your head is starting to roast to and your vision has been tilted after the holi man had brought out a bottle of local liquor and the police man had started packing chilums.
Local liquor is clear in color and clear in direction. I was reluctant but at least it came in a bottle. I been in some situations were it comes in plastic bags like the goldfish you won at the fair ground for doing things with ping pong balls. Thats filthy dangerous stuff that takes you to a toy town were the toys kick back and you are the one left broken and discarded in a dark corner.
But in the heat of the river the holi man seemed sure and it came in bottles after all so, i conceded but concerned for my tummy I asked for mine watered down thinking that of course he had a bottle of clean water at hand, of course while on a boat floating on the sacred water of the ganges. But in the heat of the river the holi man seemed sure and it came in bottles after all so, i conceded but concerned for my tummy I asked for mine watered down thinking that of course he had a bottle of clean water at hand, of course while on a boat floating on the sacred water of the ganges.
So by the time littes were shared the appetite had been had been flipped up and slapped down and part of me was thinking of following the dogs lead and diving into the cool water and heading to shore to curl up in a shady corner to sleep of the excitement but i stayed and we ate and all agreed you need the chutni or the pickle. Its holi food and often holi things come in threes and the mind is not the same without the body and soul. The combination of the three though is simple and perfect and without glamorous high end ingredients it works and nourishes on a deep and fundamental level.
When you cook on the cow dung it gives an effect that to some would seem so far from how it should be done in the same way the I view a microwave as cooking medium- I guess at the end of the day it depends how many heads you like your children to have.