India’s healthy alternative to flour

a table topped with plates of food

© Provided by The Independent

Before his retirement, my father was a steel-plant worker: one of many workers from all over India who lived with their families in a vibrant community in Newtown, Burnpur. With this migration came the sharing of various religious beliefs, cultural ceremonies, languages and food cultures, meaning that my childhood involved a greater understanding of regional food and food rituals than most.

I’m proud to be Indian – and proud of the region I come from. I can’t thank my parents enough for giving us a wonderful start in this small town that, by its very nature, gave its children a great depth of understanding and respect of other people.

Newtown was home to many workers from the Bihar region of India, where sattu is a very important ingredient. Essentially, it is a high-protein flour, made by roasting and then grinding Bengali gram dal (also known as black chickpeas, or kala chana). Gluten-free by nature, packed with nutrients and extremely healthy, Bihari sattu has been hailed in recent years as a new superfood, and can be eaten in either its raw or cooked form – and here in the UK, we now even have home-grown chickpeas, grown in Norfolk and sold by Hodmedod’s.

Whether you buy it, make it from scratch using raw chickpeas or make a quicker version with the roasted, unsalted chickpea snacks that you’ll find in Indian food shops (Fudco make my favourites), sattu is a delicious ingredient that can be used in so many dishes.

It’s also something that I associate heavily with certain times in my childhood. One such occasion was 31 October 1984: the day when the Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated. The news came to us during the school day, and I remember everyone staring at me accusingly, saying that the Sikhs had killed the prime minister.

My mum was relieved to see us when we arrived home – as she had heard stories of the violence that some Sikhs in India had already endured and, of course, we didn’t have mobiles to check in. When my dad returned from work that evening, he saw his friends who sat on the veranda until the early hours of the morning to keep our family from harm. They did that for the next few weeks. My mum kept them well fed. I remember her making piles upon piles of sattu paratha (a type of flatbread), served with raita, achar (pickles) and hot chai, and taking them out to the men on the veranda. The whole situation has stayed in my mind as an example of how steel-plant workers truly did care for and value other people.

A happier (and cheekier!) memory involves Mrs Baagchi’s geography class at school, where I sat at the back of the room with my friends Reshmi, Radha and Sovenjit. She was such a wonderful and caring teacher, but her teaching style was a little dull… so we were willing to take the bold risk of sharing my sattu parathas during the lesson – I still don’t know how she never knew what we did?

However, sattu isn’t to everyone’s taste. Shreya Goswami – a Bengali Delhi-based writer who is married to a Bihari – isn’t a fan. “I dislike it because of its texture and taste,” she says. “I know it’s nutritious and full of plant proteins as well as dietary fibre, so I end up eating it whenever it’s cooked at home. But I refrain from cooking it myself. I usually cook with ingredients I love, so end up avoiding cooking with ones that I don’t.

“Sattu in east India is less dry – it soaks up less water. The ones that are available in Delhi are quite dry, so we usually end up getting it from Bengal or Bihar instead of buying the local versions.”

My in-laws, on the other hand, love it: they love the taste of chickpeas and sattu alike. I’ve never seen them enjoying it plain, though – they always combine it with other ingredients that bring out the flavours: ingredients such as onions, green chillies, garlic, ginger, mustard oil, or sometimes even achaar ka tel (a mango pickle).

I’ve spoken already of sattu paratha, but there are many other ways to use sattu for both food and drink. In Bihar and other regions, sattu is used to make the stuffed dough balls called litti, while it can also be used for upma (a type of porridge), puri (deep-fried bread-like snacks), and even the popular sweets known as laddoo, which are served at almost every special occasion.

If you want to make your own sattu, the easy option is to take a bag of roasted and unsalted chickpeas (which you’ll find in Indian shops, and sometimes in the world food aisle in larger supermarkets), and simply blend them in a blender or grinder until they reach a flour-like consistency.

To make sattu from scratch, take 250g Bengal gram – washed, rinsed and drained. Put it into a deep pan filled with boiling water and half-cook: it’ll take 6-7 minutes. Check it regularly, though, as you don’t want it to overcook and become dal.

Drain the cooking water immediately through a muslin cloth, then rinse the Bengal gram with cold water and drain well again. Spread out on a tray to dry in the sun, and, once it is dry and there is no moisture remaining, dry toast it on a low heat. Once toasted, leave to cool, and grind or blend to a fine flour. The sattu is best stored in an airtight container, and it will keep for a long time!

Besides paratha, one of my favourite sattu recipes – and one that you’ll find sold by street-food vendors across Bihar – is sattu sharbat: a healthy and refreshing drink that is incredibly cooling in warmer weather.

To make it, you’ll need:

150g sattu

35g red onion, chopped finely

1 small green chilli with seeds, chopped (I prefer bird’s eye chillies)

A handful of fresh coriander, finely chopped

1 tsp black salt (look in health food shops and Indian shops)

1 tsp roasted cumin powder

The juice of one small lemon

2 tsp of mango achar masala (again, found in Indian shops)

500ml water

Sieve the sattu into a bowl, and add all of the ingredients apart from the water.

Mix well with your hands, then slowly start to add water to mix it all together, ensuring that there are no lumps.

Once you reach a paste-like consistency, add the rest of the water and whisk well to combine. When the sharbat is well mixed, pour into glasses and serve, with or without ice cubes.

I wanted to write this article because of Tarunima Sinha who messaged me on Instagram after reading my feature on Bihari food to make sure I explained sattu properly.

Romy Gill is a chef and food writer. Her debut book ‘Zaika’ is available to buy now. Follow her on Twitter @Romygill

Gallery: Tasty tips for perfect chicken at home (Lovefood)

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