The Unsung Magadh food festival, held at SAGA, Gurugram, the restaurant helmed by Michelin-starred chef Atul Kochhar, put the spotlight on the nuanced flavours of Bihari food. Once neglected by fine-dining establishments, Bihari food is finally getting its due.
When you think of the most complex, interesting and evolved cuisines of India, Bihari food doesn’t usually come to the top of your mind. SAGA, Gurugram, which is always pushing the envelope when it comes to discovering and reimagining regional dishes from across India, has just done its bit to put Bihari food on the culinary map with The Unsung Magadh food festival. This was Chapter 2 of The Great Indian Platter, a series of food festivals SAGA is holding to showcase India’s varied regional cuisines. The special festival menu was curated by Head Chef Kush Koli, under the guidance of Michelin-starred Chef Atul Kochhar & Founder of SAGA, Vishal Anand, who both have deep roots in Bihar as their common birthplace. Apart from food, there were also handicraft displays and cultural performances. The 15-day festival ran from February 18th to March 5th 2023.
I sampled some of the key dishes that were on offer during the course of the festival. The first starter I tried turned out to be excellent and set the tone for the rest of the meal. This was the Chidiya Samosa Chaat, shaped like a bird, and delicious. Think of it as a gujiya but with a savoury filling. SAGA as a restaurant is all about flair and celebration, so this dish fits right in. You cannot be eating Bihari food and not tuck into some Litti Chokha, and a competent (and thankfully authentic) version followed next. For the non-vegetarians, there was a Litti Mutton version. The Ghugni Choora was unapologetically rustic. A snack made with fresh hara chana (although dried green peas are generally used in ghugni), it was garnished with beaten rice (choora/poha). The Bihari Boti was a succulent and filling hunk of meat. The Steamed Posto Machli, a fish fillet covered in a poppy-seed paste and steamed in banana leaves reflected the Bengali influence on the region’s cuisine, which is not surprising given the proximity. It was served with a spicy makhana side which almost outshone the fish.
The main course too began with a Besan Ki Sabzi which was uncannily like the Bengali Dhokar Dalna, a labour of love where the dal is first cooked, then dried and shaped into squares or diamonds, before being fried and added to a gravy redolent with spices. That’s a lot of steps but it’s totally worth it. The vegetarians on my table were overjoyed by the dish.
The ubiquitous Paneer Ki Sabzi was enlivened by the addition of makhana (foxnut) which grows plentifully in Bihar and has taken over the world of healthy eating by storm. The Dehati Murgh too, true to name, carried bold and rustic flavours. The Ahuna Mutton, which also goes by the name of Champaran mutton, is cooked in an earthen pot. It is quite popular and easily available in metros across India these days. It’s a simple dish, made in mustard oil with just a few key spices for flavour. SAGA did a lovely version but it needs a little tweaking for the robust, smoky flavour of the dish to shine.
What really shone through the meal were the staple accompaniments which displayed how the food of Bihar cleverly incorporates nutritious proteins into its carbs. The Ranchi Ka Pulao was divine and a great vehicle for the gravy dishes. The Daal Ki Poori, of course, is a Bihari classic as is the Moong Dal Paratha.
I would have expected more from the desserts though. The Raspua (identical to the malpua of Bengal) and Makhana Ki Kheer were beautifully presented but a tad low on the sugar quotient. I know it’s all about healthy eating these days but I do expect my desserts to be reasonably sweet!
The drinks—I stuck to the mocktails—were certainly interesting and a refreshing option as the days get warmer. I preferred the Sabja Lemonade although the Sweet Sattu was nice too. Some found the Chatpata Aam (like an aam panna but with generous lashings of red chilli powder) a bit too hot for their palate. From the reactions of my fellow diners, I can tell that the cocktails were quite a hit, especially the Spicy Sattu which, I think, had tequila as its base alcohol.
Chef Kochhar had flown down from London, especially for the festival and was at hand to explain the concept behind the food festival menu as well as regaling us with tales of growing up in Jamshedpur. Bihari food is close to Chef Kochhar’s heart and he understands its nuances and complexities well. All in all, The Unsung Magadh is an interesting culinary experiment. I hope they incorporate some of the dishes into the regular menu going forward. And, of course, I can’t wait for the next edition of The Great Indian Platter.