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India’s next big street food craze?

For years, sattu-mel, the main ingredient in a series of unpretentious street snacks, has remained on the fringes of India’s urban food landscape – but now it’s becoming mainstream.

Kishan Yadav poured sattu powder into a steel pan half filled with water and stirred the contents vigorously with a wooden spoon. He sprinkled the thickening mixture with salt, cumin, black pepper and a splash of lemon juice and whipped the drink to make sure there were no lumps. Then he filled a tumbler with the light yellow shake, garnished it with a couple of onion slices and light green coriander leaves and handed it to me.

“Your sattu sorbet is ready,” he said with a smile.

A group of his regular patrons – hauliers and taxi drivers – waited patiently at his roadside kiosk in Kolkata for their own glasses, at a price of a modest Rs 10 (£ 0.11). The cooling tank is an energy powerhouse for these workers. Many of them have come to this city from the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, which is not only the source of a large migrant working population but also the source of sattu in the first place.

Sattu sorbet has long been a ubiquitous health drink in India, especially popular with the working class in the northern and eastern zones, but it – and its main ingredient of sattu powder, made from Bengali gram (chickpeas or other legumes and legumes) – has remained in the edge of the urban food landscape. But over the last few years, this flour has risen in popularity, branded as an epicurean delicacy with a taste of home in upscale restaurants in Indian metropolises, joining the ranks of vegan, gluten-free, so-called “superfoods” such as moringa and millet.

Yet, foods made from the beloved flour have historically been consumed for their affordable price versus trendiness. Yadav has been selling sorbet at his booth for more than two decades, and while I was sipping my drink, he explained the process of making sattu. Bengal grams are soaked in water, sun-dried and then toasted in a cast iron pot filled with sand. The grams are then ground together with the shell to a fine, yellowish powder. Yadav said that the earthy notes of sattu are formed through this dry roasting method, which must be performed on a wood-fired oven.

Yadav has been selling sorbet at its stand for more than two decades (Credit: Sugato Mukherjee)

According to food historian Colleen Taylor Sen, author of Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, this process goes far back. In her book she tells that in the Vedic period (ca. 1500-500 BC) barley seeds were pulverized into a powder called saktu, the predecessor to sattu – and that in medieval northern India, while meat and dairy products were reserved for the elite, sattu was a solid component for ordinary people.

Workers and farmers would mix it with water, salt and green chilies to get a nutritious and cheap lunch. “Sattu has typically been associated with food from working-class migrants from the eastern Gangetic Valley [the river plains along the lower middle reaches of the Ganga River, which includes the eastern parts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar]. Therefore, it had low prestige and was ranked lower in the urban taste hierarchy. among urban dwellers, from middle-class Bengalis in Kolkata to professionals from Delhi, “said Krishnendu Ray, associate professor of food studies at New York University and author of several books on food culture.

And precisely because of this, sattu has become a political instrument in recent times, used as a symbol of unity within the working class on the eastern Ganget plains, which make up a large part of the electorate. In 2018, Bihari politician Tej Pratap Yadav organized a sattu party in his constituency where he talked to voters and listened to their problems over satu meals. And in February 2020, a picture of Prime Minister Narendra Modi tasting litti chokha (the signature satu-filled dough balls emblematic of Bihari cuisine) sparked a heated political debate. While Modi’s supporters praised his gesture of giving the court its due recognition, his opponents called his actions a cleverly timed political stunt just before the state election in Bihar.

Litti chokha are satu-filled dough balls that are emblematic of Bihari cuisine (Credit: Sugato Mukherjee)

Litti chokha has been my own favorite snack for a long time and I have always found the best versions on Nimtala Ghat Street in northern Kolkata, a chaotic stretch of 1 km near the banks of the river Hooghly. Here, street huts rattle endless tiny cats and turn them on a tawaa (a flat metal cooking pan) over a coal or wood fire. For 40 Rs (£ 0.43), each serving consists of five or six small balls and one side of chokha (roasted vegetables like eggplant, tomatoes and potatoes). A sour chutney of green chilies, tamarind, mint leaves and whipped strips of garlic completes the flavor profile.

“But things have changed a lot over the last few years,” said Pankaj Mishra, co-owner of The Litti King, a small restaurant specializing in Bihari cuisine in an upscale neighborhood in southern Kolkata. “When we opened our joint in 2016, we had not imagined that litti chokha and sattu sorbet would be so popular among the well-to-do.” Both items are now on the menus for upscale weddings and lavish pool parties. “Some of the city’s best industrialists are our regular patrons,” Mishra said.

Food studies professor Ray had an idea of ​​why. “The new health panic among elites – associated with over-consumption of junk food and sedentary lifestyles – has now been exacerbated by Covid and has put them on the hunt for ‘superfoods’,” he said. “This is where sattu has come in with its putative protein and micronutrient content.”

Health-conscious people across Indian cities like Delhi and Bangalore are also discovering the delights of sattu at upscale restaurants, where chefs add modern spins to the rustic recipes by incorporating grated cheese into the dough or giving a pickled twist with pickles. The trend has also been established in gourmet shops, where sattu is offered in fancy packaging from Rs 190 (approx. £ 2) per person. kg, which is about 2.5 times more expensive than the time-tested variants used in the street stalls.

Foods made from the beloved flour have historically been consumed for their affordable prices versus trendiness (Credit: Sugato Mukherjee)

“There has been an unprecedented increase in sales of sattu packages in recent months,” said Sayoni Samanta, a salesman at a store in southern Kolkata of Spencer’s, a pan-Indian retail chain. “I think customers prefer the products that come with organic and gluten-free labels,” she added.

Dr. Tulasi Srinivas, professor of anthropology at Emerson College in Boston, said: “Transforming dishes like sattu is a kind of elite cultural acquisition and gentrification. For the elite, it is a journey of discovery in which they can demonstrate their culinary knowledge of something. Healthy and ‘exotic’ “It also works well for the marketers of these ‘superfoods.’ But what I love is that it’s a healthy local food that is being rediscovered and mainstreamed.”

I saw it for myself at Baati Chokha, an upscale restaurant specializing in Purvanchali (Bihar and Eastern Uttar Pradesh) and the North Indian cuisine, located in Salt Lake, Kolkata’s prominent IT hub. The weekday evening around kl. At 22.00, most of the tables were occupied by young office workers. At a table near me stood Deepika – an employee of an infotainment company in the neighborhood – fiddling with her phone and taking small, occasional portions of litti chokha, artfully prepared in front of her.

“I often come here for a late night snack during my breaks,” she said, pointing to her half-finished plate. “This was not something I grew up with, so a bit of an acquired taste for me. But now I love the earthy taste of these satu-filled slices. Light on the stomach, but filling enough to see me through my night shifts. And most importantly, its low glycemic index means no guilt, as was often the case with the junk bites I used to gossip about, “she added with a smile.

A few days later, I went back to Yadav’s sattu booth to see how it felt with his unpretentious street feel. The swell June afternoon was business as usual for him and he did not seem so interested in sattu’s new trendiness. “As long as I can give my customers their glass of sorbet for Rs. 10 [£ 0.11], I’m happy. I just hope all this rumble doesn’t push prices up,” he said. Lallu, a middle-aged truck driver, stood nearby and listened intently, finishing his drink, mumbling in agreement, and walking back to pull his stuffed cart from the side of the kiosk to the busy streets of Kolkata.

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