Jharkhand In A Sip

Among its many treasures, the region's traditional sherbets stand out as a refreshing testament to its culinary diversity
Sherbets of Jharkhand
Small-town India is a great place to discover nutritious and cooling 'desi' drinksPhoto: Shutterstock

In vast urban sprawls where life pulsates frenetically, we often surrender to the convenience of pre-packaged sustenance. Bottled and boxed consumables populate endless supermarket aisles, a stark contrast to the cherished rituals of small-town existence where every sip and morsel is steeped in local tradition.

On my recent trip to Ranchi, I embraced Jharkhand's undulating landscapes and culinary riches. Under the scorching sun of a fierce Indian summer with dry leaves dancing in a hot breeze, the city offered a refreshingly unique tableau of indigenous beverages. Exploring the city's heart, just across Church Complex—a popular local haunt—I stumbled upon a cart bursting with the vibrant green of raw mangoes. The vendor was selling Aam Jhora, a tangy and sweet mango sherbet made with mangoes charred on an open flame or baked in a traditional clay oven. A hint of smokiness was balanced with spices like roasted cumin, chilli, and black salt. This beloved drink quenched my thirst and served as a local remedy for heat stroke. It embodied the essence of Jharkhand's culinary ethos: irresistible simplicity.

A few steps further I encountered a wooden cart painted in shades of the earth and blaring a Nagpuri song. Adorned with yellow packets of sattu the board read in Hindi: "Dinesh Sattu Sharbat." Here, sattu—roasted Bengal gram flour revered as the "poor man's protein"—transformed into a cooling tonic.

A tribal woman pours Handia for a customer
A tribal woman pours Handia for a customerPhoto: Shutterstock

Historical accounts suggest that sattu has been a staple in Bihar for over five centuries. In "Indian Food Tradition: A Historical Companion," author K T Achaya cites a 16th-century document that details sattu's role in the diet of the Indo-Gangetic plains. You can use this versatile ingredient to make a refreshing cold drink. While it can be sweetened with sugar and blended with cold milk and chopped dry fruits, the savoury version is a local favourite. This variant is enhanced with roasted cumin powder, salt, chopped onions, green chillies, coriander leaves, and other spices.

Through each sip and stir, Ranchi revealed its stories. More than mere thirst quenchers, these beverages are narrators of history, culture, and community—each glass is a montage of local life and well-shared human experience. "Sherbet," however, is a Persian word and in India, during the era of Emperor Babur, it became widely popular. Made from various fruits, flowers, and herbs, these drinks can be sweet, salty, tangy, or spicy, inspired by the diversity of regional ingredients. Thus, it is imperative to explore not just urban delicacies but also tribal drinks to understand the culinary language of Jharkhand.

Known to me through the tree that stood outside my Ranchi home, the flavours of mahua were familiar

I found myself in Open Field, Khunti, a sanctuary maintained by power couple Dr Manisha Oraon and Kumar Abhishek, who preserve and celebrate local and tribal traditions. Here, I made my next discovery—Handia, a sacred tribal brew. More than just a drink, Handia is evidence of the rich history of the Santhals and other tribal communities. Making Handia involves ancient fermentation techniques documented over 3,000 years ago in sacred texts like the "Rigveda." Tribals believe the supreme deity Marangburu introduced the foundational recipe to their ancestors, making it a holy offering in their spiritual practices. This revered drink uses ranu tablets—a mixture of herbs and medicinal roots that facilitate fermentation.

Mixed with boiled rice and left to ferment in clay pots, Handia typically matures in about a week, offering a gentle, aromatic alcohol content that is best enjoyed chilled.

Mahua flowers collected in a pot at Kaptipada, Odisha
Mahua flowers collected in a pot at Kaptipada, OdishaPhoto: Shutterstock

The evening air was crisper now, filled with the rare chirping of birds that had once filled my childhood mornings. I was introduced to Mahua, the spirituous essence of the forest. Known intimately to me through the tree that stood sentinel outside my Ranchi home, the flavours of mahua were as familiar as they were sacred. The Gonds revere this tree as a divine cornucopia, much like the celestial kalpavriksha, celebrating its bloom during the Chaitrai Mahaparv. During Chaitra, the opening month of the Indian lunar year, Gonds celebrate Chaitrai Mahaparv, welcoming the new year and commencing the consumption of seasonal staples like mango and mahua flowers.

The blossoms can only be distilled into alcohol after the Mahua Tyohar, celebrated just before the monsoon season. At social and religious gatherings, the clear, sweet-smelling mahua is a staple known for its fresh, fruity, and potent flavour.

After sampling a wide variety of drinks, I experienced the soul of Jharkhand not just as a traveller but as a son who has returned home. Each saporous glass was a bridge between Jharkhand's many flavours, which can only be experienced when travelling near and far.

Sadaf Hussain is a food columnist, cookbook author, and chef who has been a MasterChef India finalist

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