In April, I was in the Capital for a shoot. We were walking around Khari Baoli, Asia’s largest wholesale grocery and spice market, located in old Delhi. Walking in the lanes, where the air was infused with the heady mix of spice aromas, was a one-of-a-kind experience. The vibrant colours of varieties of lentils, beans, grains, whole and powdered spices were a visual delight.
Among the open-air shops selling lentils and spices was a shop with sacks filled with makhana, known as fox nuts or gorgon nuts. Given that I had just bought half a kilogram of makhana back home in Bengaluru, I was curious about the price of makhana in a wholesale market. I stopped by the shop and had a chat with the shopkeeper. He was thrilled that I knew most of the makhana grown in India was from north Bihar, especially Darbhanga, his home-town. The price was around ₹250 per half-kilogram in the wholesale shop for the same brand packet I paid ₹400 for in Bengaluru. We started talking and he told me he had worked in Bengaluru for two years before deciding to set up the spice shop in old Delhi, specialising in makhana from his village in Bihar. He was happy makhana cultivation had become profitable for people in his home-town due to its rising popularity over the last four-five years as a superfood and healthy snack.
Makhana, much loved, even revered, in Bihar’s Mithila region, has gained India-wide recognition. The term nut is a misnomer, for it is the seed of the prickly water lily plant. Even today, the cultivation and processing of makhana involves intensive manual labour, which is what makes it as expensive as almonds—and rightfully so.
Snack aisles in supermarkets are full of roasted makhana snacks in a variety of savoury (and even sweet) flavours. For makhana, a bland ingredient, is a sponge for flavours, happy to take on the flavour of any spice mix you toss it in. It is also a healthier substitute to popcorn or puffed rice, given its higher protein, fibre and mineral content.
The most important tip regarding cooking with makhana is to take your time to roast it patiently over a low flame until it turns crisp. Not roasting it well enough will leave it uncomfortably chewy, sticking to the teeth and threatening to pull out any expensive dental crowns you may have.
Once roasted, it can be used to prepare makhana kheer, halwa or laddoos. If you don’t have a sweet tooth, use it in chivdas similar to the ones made with puffed rice. Roasted makhana can also be used to make a delicious savoury granola with the addition of nuts, seeds and dried fruit. Makhana feels perfectly at home in a gravy with peas, its spongy nature absorbing all the flavours of the spices and aromatics in the gravy.
Smoky Makhana Chivda
1 tbsp ghee
2 cups makhana (35g)
3 tbsp groundnuts
Half tsp roasted cumin powder
Half tsp smoked paprika
Half tsp red chilli powder
1 tsp rock salt
Heat the ghee in a heavy-bottomed pan. Fry the groundnuts on a medium flame for four-five minutes, until golden brown and crisp. Remove the fried peanuts with a slotted spoon and keep aside.
Add the makhana to the ghee remaining in the pan and roast on a medium flame for seven-eight minutes until it turns crisp. Lower the flame and add the cumin powder, smoked paprika and chilli powder. Season with salt. Return the fried peanuts to the pan. Combine all the ingredients on a low flame for one-two minutes until the spices coat the makhana, taking care not to burn the spices.
Remove to a bowl and let it cool completely so it crisps up further. Serve immediately or pack in an airtight jar. Best consumed within three-four days.
Makhana and green peas curry
25g makhana (one-and-a-half cups)
2 tsp ghee
1 cup frozen peas
1 tbsp ghee
1 bay leaf
1 piece cinnamon stick
2 green cardamoms
1 large onion, roughly chopped
2-3 tomatoes, roughly chopped
6-7 cloves garlic
Half-inch piece of ginger, sliced
1 tsp salt
8-10 cashew nuts
Half cup milk
2 tsp red chilli powder
Half tsp turmeric powder
Half tsp garam masala powder
2 tsp kasoori methi
In a heavy-bottomed pan, heat 2 tsp ghee. Roast the makhana for seven-eight minutes over a low flame until it turns crisp. Keep aside. Cook the frozen peas in a pan or in a bowl in the microwave for three-four minutes until soft. Drain and keep aside.
In a pressure cooker or pressure pan, heat 1 tbsp ghee. Fry the whole spices (bay leaf, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom) over a high flame for a few seconds. Add the chopped onions and tomatoes, garlic and ginger. Sauté for two-three minutes over a medium flame. Lastly, add the cashew nuts and milk to the pressure cooker. Season with salt and close the lid of the pressure cooker. Pressure- cook for five-seven minutes (keep on sim for five-seven minutes after one whistle). Open the cooker and let its contents cool. Remove the bay leaf, cloves and cinnamon stick and discard. Blend the remaining cooked ingredients to a fine purée using up to one cup of water.
Transfer this purée to a pan. Mix the cooked peas and roasted makhana into the gravy. Add red chilli powder, turmeric powder and garam masala and bring it to a simmer on a low flame. Cover and cook for five-seven minutes until the makhana has softened. Finish with crushed kasoori methi. Serve hot with parathas or rotis.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer is the author of the newly released book This Handmade Life—7 Skills To Enhance And Transform Your Everyday Life. @saffrontrail on Twitter and Instagram.
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