In Maithili society, there is a saying, “माछ, पान आ मखान स्वर्गमे सेहो नही भेटैत छै,” which translates to “Fish, betel leaves, and makhana (fox nuts) are not found even in heaven.” This saying implies that these items are so highly regarded in Maithili culture that they are considered even more precious than heavenly delights.
In the 11th century, the Maithili book titled “वर्णरत्नाकर र प्राकृति पिंगल” (Varṇaratnākara and Prākṛti Piṅgala) discusses Maithili cuisine and mentions the importance of yogurt (dahi), fish (māchha), and other elements. This historical reference suggests that Maithili cuisine has remained relatively unchanged for over a thousand years.
Maithili cuisine isn’t just about tradition; it also follows Ayurvedic principles and adapts to seasonal food cycles. Special dishes are prepared during Maithili festivals like Juddhashtami (second day of Vaishakh), Dashahara, Tila Sankranti, and the Chhath Puja. These festivals have their own unique foods associated with them.
Every year, on the first day of Vaishakh, which marks the celebration of the Maithili New Year, there is a tradition of eating Kacho Aam (green mango) and Satu. Satu is a traditional food made from roasted gram flour, and it’s offered to the family deity along with green mangoes.
During Chhath Puja, a special offering is made to the Chhathi Mata, which includes the water collected from the sacred river along with special fruits, such as Sakhhar (sugar), and Aam (mango). This is believed to keep the family healthy throughout the year.
The Maithili culture places a significant emphasis on adapting their food habits according to the seasons. This culinary culture reflects the rich heritage of the Maithili civilization and its connection to nature and tradition.
Similarly, in Maithili culture, there is a tradition of consuming Amla (Indian gooseberry, Phyllanthus emblica) on the auspicious occasion of Akshaya Navami (the ninth day of the bright fortnight of Kartik). Amla is eaten with various preparations like pickles, preserves, and Chutneys. Consuming Amla in various forms during this period is believed to provide health benefits and strengthen the immune system, especially as the weather begins to change.
In Maithili culture, fish is typically not brought in from outside; it is sourced from local ponds and lakes. Even vegetables and ingredients for making pickles and papads (amoṭaka) are usually grown in the region itself, often in home gardens. The emphasis on using locally sourced ingredients adds to the uniqueness of Maithili cuisine.
One interesting aspect of Maithili cuisine is the variety of dishes that can be prepared using the same basic food items. This diversity is a hallmark of the Maithili culinary tradition. Vijay Junjhunwala, the President of the Hotel Business Association of Madhes Pradesh, emphasizes the richness of Maithili food and its potential to be promoted further. He suggests that a “Maithila Thali” (a traditional Maithili platter) could be included on restaurant menus to showcase the delicious and healthy aspects of Maithili cuisine.
Maithili cuisine also includes dishes made from cow dung such as Goraha, Guitha, or Gorahanni (गोरहा, गुइँठा वा गोरहन्नी). However, there are concerns about the availability of cow dung due to changing cultural practices and a move towards alternative fuels. Junjhunwala expresses concern about this aspect of the tradition and hopes that the practice of collecting and using cow dung will continue, as it is an integral part of the culinary culture.
The Maithila Thali is a popular way of serving and enjoying food in Maithili culture, and it was reportedly one of the favorite dishes of King Janak, a prominent figure in Maithili mythology.
A typical Maithila Thali consists of various dishes and components that are thoughtfully chosen to create a balanced and satisfying meal. Here’s a breakdown of what you might find in a Maithila Thali:
- Ghee (Clarified Butter): The meal often starts with a small serving of ghee, which is considered auspicious and adds flavor to the food.
- Rice: Rice is a staple in Maithili cuisine and forms the base of the meal.
- Puri: Puri, a deep-fried bread, is commonly included as a side dish.
- Rahar Dal: Rahar dal (split pigeon peas) is a popular lentil preparation in Maithili cuisine and is served as a source of protein.
- Kadi Badi (Kari Bara): Kadi Badi is a type of lentil dumpling curry that is flavorful and adds texture to the meal.
- Dahibara: Dahibara is made from yogurt (dahi) and vesan (fried gram flour dumplings) and is a tangy and refreshing dish.
- Potato and Cauliflower Curry: Aloo Gobhi (potato and cauliflower curry) is a common vegetable dish included in the Thali.
- Adauri Lauka Sabji: Adauri lauka sabji is a dish made from bottle gourd and is a simple yet nutritious addition to the Thali.
- Tilko Chutney: Tilko chutney is made from sesame seeds and is a source of calcium, adding a nutty and flavorful element to the meal.
- Adak Chutney: Adak chutney is another type of chutney, and it complements the flavors of the Thali.
- Tarua: Tarua is a medley of various vegetables such as potatoes, parwal (pointed gourd), eggplant, bananas, and yam.
- Bhujal Mirchai: Bhujal mirchai is a spicy chili preparation that adds heat and flavor to the meal.
- Tilouri: Tilouri is a type of crispy snack, somewhat similar to papads, and is a common accompaniment to the Thali.
- Makhana Kheer: Makhana kheer is a dessert made from fox nuts and is often served at the end of the meal. It provides a sweet and comforting finish to the Thali.
One of the distinctive features of Maithili cuisine is the avoidance of garlic and onions in their food. While some new generations may not strictly adhere to this tradition, many traditional Maithili dishes are prepared without garlic and onions.
Macha, or fish, is highly regarded in Maithila culture. It is so central to the culture that it is often referenced in poetry and songs. For example, the poet Somdev beautifully describes the significance of fish, stating, “पगपग पोखर माछ मखान, सरस मधुर मुक्सी मुख पान,” which translates to “Where every pond has fish, where there is makhana (fox nut), and where Saraswati (the goddess of knowledge) sweetens the mouth, that place is Mithila.”
In Maithila culture, it is believed that consuming fish is auspicious, especially before embarking on a long journey. Fish is a common and revered element in Maithili cuisine, and it is enjoyed by people of all communities and backgrounds in the region.
Due to its vast popularity, various types of fish, both small and large, are served in local hotels and eateries in Maithila. Hotels like Navrang Hotel and Saroj Macha Station in Janakpur serve fish dishes that are renowned across the region. Saroj Macha Station, in particular, is famous for its fish dishes, and it witnesses a significant rush of customers in the late afternoon and evenings. It is a common sight to see long queues of people waiting to dine at this iconic restaurant.
In addition to the locals, visitors from Kathmandu, Biratnagar, and other places often make special trips to Janakpur to savor the delicious Maithili fish preparations. The price of fish at such establishments can vary from NPR 600 to NPR 700 per kilogram, with each kilogram typically yielding 10 to 12 pieces of fish. Many customers prefer to buy fish by the piece, especially those who want a smaller portion.
In Maithila culture, daal (lentils) holds immense significance and is prepared uniquely compared to other regions. The preparation of daal in Maithila is distinct, involving a roasting process. Commonly used lentils in Maithila cuisine include arhar (pigeon pea), masoor (red lentil), and chana (chickpea).
Sweets and Desserts
The people of Maithila are known for their sweet tooth, and they are fondly referred to as “mithai lovers,” meaning lovers of sweets. They do not need a special occasion to indulge in sweets; any time is a good time for them to enjoy a sweet treat. When they first meet someone or when guests arrive, it’s customary to serve sweets.
Maithila is famous for its delicious sweets and desserts, with malpua being one of the most well-known. Various other sweet delicacies, such as different types of guliyas (sweet fried dumplings), are made on a daily basis.
A remarkable record in Janakpur is the sale of more than NPR 2 crores (20 million rupees) worth of sweets on the day of Mahashtami during the Dashain festival. Approximately 35,000 kilograms of sweets, especially laddus, are sold in a single day in Janakpur during this festival. The Janakpur Industry and Commerce Association reported this record-breaking sale. Janakpur Airport also caters to the convenience of travelers by having sweet and snack shops.
Due to a lack of market monitoring, some unscrupulous vendors may use adulterated ingredients in making sweets, which can pose health risks to consumers. Despite this concern, the tradition of enjoying sweets remains strong in Maithila culture, and it is an integral part of their daily life and festivities.
Khajuri is a traditional dish made from rice flour, cashews, raisins, milk, and ghee. It is particularly popular among the Maithili community in the Terai region and is prepared during special occasions such as Tihar and Chhath festivals. It can be stored for an extended period and is commonly enjoyed in the Terai region.
Other Traditional Maithili Foods
Maithili cuisine boasts a variety of traditional dishes, such as:
- Machha ko Chokha: A dish made from fish, often enjoyed in Maithila households. Fish is a significant part of the local diet.
- Aloo Chokha: A dish made from mashed potatoes, usually spiced and seasoned with various ingredients.
- Litti Chokha: Litti is a popular traditional dish consisting of roasted wheat flour balls stuffed with roasted gram flour and spices. It is often served with chokha, a side dish made from mashed vegetables.
- Daal Pitthi: Daal Pitthi is a traditional Maithili dish made from lentils and rice flour. It is typically prepared during festivals and special occasions.
- Bagiya: Bagiya is a Maithili dish made from gram flour and spices, which is deep-fried to make crispy snacks.
- Tilauri: Tilauri is a crunchy snack made from sesame seeds, sugar, and jaggery.
- Tisyauri: Tisyauri is another Maithili snack made from a mixture of roasted gram flour, sugar, and ghee.
Branding and Maithili Cuisine
While Nepali cuisine has gained recognition and branding through the promotion of Newari and Thakali cuisines, Maithili cuisine still lacks such widespread recognition. Branding plays a significant role in modern business, aiming to satisfy customers based on the uniqueness of their products and services. Creating a distinct identity based on the quality and appeal of Maithili cuisine could potentially enhance its visibility and popularity
(Banner Photo: Kathmandu Post)