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What the recent GI tag means for the future of makhana

This superfood, mostly grown in Bihar’s Mithila region, appears to have a lot of potential in the health segment 

Makhana comes from the bright purple flowers of the prickly water lily
Makhana comes from the bright purple flowers of the prickly water lily (Chinmayanand Singh)

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Pug pug pokra, maach, makhan,” Prof. Vidyanath Jha recites the lines from a famous Maithili folk song. Ponds, fish and makhana (fox nuts), the three things mentioned, have always been an intrinsic part of the culture, history and traditions of Bihar’s Mithila region, adds Jha, who retired as professor of botany from L N Mithila University, Darbhanga. Makhana was granted geographical indication (GI) recognition as recently as December.

Just about everyone agrees that makhana has a bright future in a health-conscious world that is looking for vegan, plant-based, gluten-free, non-GMO nutrition. Throw in the fact that the seeds are nutritional powerhouses—100g contains around 9.7g of protein, 14.5g of fibre as well as trace minerals like calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium—with negligible amounts of fat, and you have a winner. Moreover, the snack, flavourless on its own, lends itself to seasoning. Already, vacuumed-packed makhana packets in flavours such as sour cream and onions, peppy tomato, tikka masala, piri-piri, even chocolate, are available in supermarkets.

Also read: The sweet treats of chef Anahita Dhondy’s childhood

There’s a long way to go, though. And the tag approved by the Geographical Indications Registry under the Union commerce ministry should help propel change for this labour-intensive crop.

Makhana, which comes from the bright purple flowers of the prickly water lily, Euryale ferox, is grown largely in 8-10 districts of northern Bihar in India and parts of Asia, including China, where the raw seed is powdered and used in indigenous medicines and baby food. A report from the Union ministry of food processing industries estimates that over 80% of the makhana in India comes from Bihar, yielding, on average, 40,000-50,000 metric tonnes of pops. “The estimated value of production at the farmers’ end is 250 crore and it generates revenue of 550 crore at the trader’s level,” it notes.

In December, Union agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar announced that the Indian Council of Agricultural Research had developed technology to enhance makhana production. He estimated that the demand for value-added makhana products was likely to rise 25-40% over the next three years.

Makhana has made it this far despite some tussle on the name for GI recognition. In 2020, Bihar Agricultural University (BAU) filed an application on behalf of the Purnia-based fox-nut growers’ association—Mithilanchal Makhana Utpadak Sangh—asking for GI tagging in the name of Bihar makhana, notes a December 2021 report in Hindustan Times. This triggered protests in Mithila, a region that covers 20 districts in the state, with growers claiming the fox nut was integral to their cultural identity. In September 2020, BAU requested a name change to Mithila makhana.

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First things first, say those involved in makhana’s cultivation, processing or trade: “Whatever you do, please don’t refer to makhana as lotus seed.” It is not. According to Prof. Jha, fossil records imply that it may be European in origin; currently, it is found only in Asia. “It is found in natural wild forms in various parts of north-west India and scattered pockets of central and northern India,” he wrote in a 1991 paper in the journal Aquatic Botany. “However, Mithila is the principal area of its present existence.” Today it is grown in districts such as Madhubani, Darbhanga, Saharsa, Supaul, Madhepura, Purnia, Katihar and Araria. 

Makhana has been part of the region’s food culture for centuries. It is, for instance, an essential part of the Kojagara festival, celebrated around the time of Ashwin Purnima (October), says Prof. Jha. It’s a part of wedding rituals, an offering during last rites, a ceremonial offering to the family deity, and is even used to toughen the sacred thread.

Growing and harvesting makhana is a highly labour-intensive process, all mostly done by hand
Growing and harvesting makhana is a highly labour-intensive process, all mostly done by hand (Chinmayanand Singh)

It is also part of everyday cuisine in this region. It’s dry-roasted and had with evening tea, recalls Mumbai-based home chef Alpana Varma, co-founder of Flavours of Bihar. “When you put it in gravy, it soaks it up and becomes so juicy, absorbing whatever flavour you put it in,” she says. It makes for great kheer—the thick, luscious kheer served on festive occasions. “It is also great fasting food since it is high on energy,” she adds.

Traditionally grown in ponds along with fish, it’s now beginning to replace crops like paddy that are being hit by weather uncertainty and floods, noted a March 2021 report in the news and features service Mongabay-India. A plot where paddy is usually grown provides ideal conditions for makhana, says Chinmayanand Singh, a farmer from Purnia.

Also read: How a South Indian restaurant in New York honours its roots

Growing and harvesting it, though, is “a highly labour-intensive process, all mostly done by hand”, adds Singh, noting that getting skilled labour for the popping process can be especially challenging; wastage can be as high as two-thirds. Attempts to mechanise at least part of the process haven’t succeeded so far. For makhana saw virtually no scientific intervention till 2010 or so, points out Singh, a former journalist, who returned home to cultivate his ancestral lands in 2016.

What makhana has going for it, however, is its potential in the health food sector—and the returns it offers. Satyajit Kumar Singh, managing director of Patna-based Shakti Sudha Agro Ventures, which has been processing and exporting makhana since 2003, says the difference between production and selling costs is almost 60%. “The output is very good compared to other crops,” he says. “If someone invests 40,000, they will make over 1 lakh,” says Satyajit Kumar Singh, who works with around 12,000 makhana farmers in Bihar.

Makhana-based ready-made snacks are already garnering attention abroad, notes Manish Anand, CEO and co-founder of Mithila Naturals, which sources and sells makhana-based products, such as flavoured pops, makhana powder and ready-made kheer, in addition to regular makhana. “In an international market, if they see that this product is a GI-tagged product made in north Bihar, they give weightage to the origin.” Satyajit Kumar Singh, who has developed a range of healthy ready-made snacks with makhana, agrees. “This has the potential to be a billion-dollar industry someday,” he says.

Makhana has been part of the region’s food culture for centuries
Makhana has been part of the region’s food culture for centuries (iStockphoto)

Recipe for Makhana Kheer

Courtesy Manish Anand

1. Heat 2 to 3 teaspoons ghee in a pan. Add 1 cup phool makhana

2. Cook the makhana on low to medium-low heat in ghee till the makhana become crunchy. Mix frequently while simmering them. Then, at that point, remove them on a plate and keep them to the side

3. Heat 2 cups milk (500 ml) in a pan or a thick saucepan. Keep the heat to medium-low to medium. Stir at intervals so that the milk does not scorch from the bottom. Allow the milk to reach boiling point

4. While the milk is getting warmed up, keep aside ⅓ cup makhana and add the leftover simmered makhana to a blender. Grind or blend to a fine powder

5. Add cardamom seeds from 4 green cardamom cases alongside a touch of saffron strands. Rather than cardamom cases, you can also add about ½ teaspoon of cardamom powder to the kheer whenever it is cooked

6. Once the milk reaches boiling point,  add 3.5 to 4 tablespoons of sugar or add according to taste

7. Add the ground makhana. Then, at that point, add the ⅓ cup makhana. Mix and blend well overall

8. Simmer for 9 to 10 minutes on low to medium heat till the makhana softens and the milk thickens a bit. Do mix at intervals. Scrape the dissipated milk solids from the sides and add them to the kheer. Remember that the kheer will thicken more on cooling. So adjust the consistency accordingly

9. Lastly, add the cashews and raisins. In the event that utilizing whitened and cut almonds, you can add at this point

10. Stir and simmer makhana kheer for a minute

11. Serve makhane ki kheer hot or warm or chilled

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