As fox nuts get packaged into trendier and more accessible avatars as panjiri, kheer, shakes and soup, a look at the complex cultivation of the superfood
Pug pug pokra, maach, makhan / Saras bol, muski, mukh paan / E theek Mithila ke pahchan.
(A pond at every step; fish and lotus seed / Sweet speech, a winning smile and betel leaves / This is the identity of Mithila).
Social scientist Nirala Bidesia quotes this Maithili folk song to underscore the deep connect between makhana or fox nuts and the cultural identity of North Bihar. This month, this superfood is getting a face lift with the introduction of makhana shake, breakfast and panjiri in the market.
The Delhi-based Bidesia points out that, despite being celebrated in verse, the fox nut has not got its due. Also called lotus seeds and gorgon nuts, makhana has been part of fasting menus, resurrected every time the need for a curated platter of fasting foods arose.
Chocolate coated fox nuts
Now Madhubani-based Manish Anand, a farmer, researcher and manufacturer, is getting ready to launch makhana in different avatars. “Makhana was so far identified only as a food eaten during fasts or vrat. That is because 100 grams is sufficient to keep hunger at bay for an entire day, and it is low on calories,” says Manish who has given the tagline ‘God’s Own Food’ to his brand of value-added fox nuts.
Makhana panjiri is being introduced for the festive season and Gautam Agicha, CEO of AAA Gourmet Foods, a Mumbai-based company which is into food innovation, says it was prepared, tried, tested and tasted, by his mother and mother-in-law in his home kitchen. “They substituted wheat flour with finely powdered fox nuts, braised it with ghee and added sugar and dry fruits to make a healthy and gluten free mix. It is doing well,” says Agicha, who has also introduced caramelised and dark chocolate versions. He had earlier launched popped makhanas in different flavours including cheese, jalapeno, tomato and mint.
Food beyond fasting
Anand describes the change in attitudes towards makhana as a food beyond fasting menus as “a sign of the times”. “It arose from the need to have a healthy substitute for junk foods.” He started Mithila Naturals in 2015 to focus on research-based production and development of special foods. Salted and roasted makhanas were launched as a snack at an exhibition held by the Ministry of Women & Child Development at Dilli Haat. “It was well received as a substitute for chips that children were consuming,” recalls Anand.
The launch was followed by a rush of investment in this segment by many big players. “The makhana market is unique, niche and new, so only a few have survived,” states Anand.
- Traditionally grown only in Madhubani and Darbhanga, West of the river Kosi, regions of North Bihar, they are now cultivated in other districts of Suapul, Araria, Kathihar, Purnia and Saharsa. A single harvest crop, fox nuts are harvested from July to September.
According to him, one way to popularise makhana is in powder form. “It cannot be made into flour, as it is gluten free but the possibilities are endless. It depends on the chef. It can be used to make kheer, cupcakes, raitas or added to vegetables.” Anand launched instant makhana kheer in four flavours recently. Other products such as makhana meal, a travel pack and trials on makhana soup and pasta are on at his factory at Jarail village in Madhubani where he grows makhana in 100 acres.
Nutritionist Kamna Bhandari explains, “One 35 grams serving, about a cup full, will provide just about 100 kcals and four grams of protein. A good source of fibre, rich in micro nutrients and antioxidants, with low GI, and anti-ageing properties, they are good for heart and bone health and reduce inflammation. It is good for people with diabetes. Makhana is trending as the go-to snack for health enthusiasts.”
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Though Jain travellers carried makhana to different parts of the world, this superfood has remained in the background. Bidesia points a finger at successive governments for their lack of initiative in promoting this iconic food of Bihar, which accounts for 90% of the world’s production of makhana, though it is also grown in South Korea and Japan. “There is no policy regarding fox nuts. They can be a product of pride for the State. Makhana can be showcased as food of the Gods for its mythological associations and gifted as souvenirs to visitors. People outside Bihar did not even know of it.”
Farm to retail
Chinmaya N Singh, who relocated from New Delhi to Purnia in North-east Bihar and took to growing makhana, explains the process of cultivation. “Makhana fields are wet lands with almost one to two feet water. The seeds are left behind from the previous harvest and germinate in November. It takes two months for the plants to rise above the water. By January the crop is visible and the farmer has a tentative idea of the income he can generate. In March the fields are puddled ensuring a foot of water in the plot. The plants are transplanted keeping a metre distance between them as their leaves are as big as elephant ears.
Fox nuts are now part of trail mix, along with seeds and nuts
Harvesting is laborious as the plants’ spiky thorns bruise the workers. Harvesting begins when the flower blooms and the seeds fall to the ground. Workers plod in the slush carrying a bamboo apparatus, which drains the slush out. The biggest problem in cultivation is aquatic weed management. It has to be done manually
Equal amounts of dark brown fox nuts and snails are left behind and collected in a pot. The roasting and popping of lotus seeds is a skill which is still in the hands of a few families of the mallah (fishermen) community from Mithila and Darbhanga.”
The popping of seeds now depends on a dying breed of skilled workers, he comments. “The process is an art and is beautifully depicted at the Bhopal Museum.”
A kilogram of fox nut costs anywhere between ₹500 and ₹1500. Bidesia agrees that it is expensive but asks, “Are not pearls harvested from the sea or diamonds extracted from coal costly?”
Meanwhile Bhandari says though the simplest way to have fox nuts is as a roasted and salted snack, one could be more adventurous and have it as “chaat, make roasted chivda, or kheer.”