The growing global fascination with foraging has inspired Indian chefs to search for wild foods from the forested corners of the country and add them to their sophisticated menus. A diversity of treasures has found renewed attention because of these explorations, not least among them the flower of mahua (Madhuca longifolia) or Indian Butter Tree, which is best known as the prime ingredient in the eponymous liquor made by Adivasis.

Prateek Sadhu, one of India’s hottest young chefs, discovered mahua flowers a few years ago. “With its prominent caramel notes, the dried mahua reminded me of dates – perfect for desserts,” said Sadhu. Experimenting with mahua, he created an opulent dessert of mahua-infused ice cream paired with decadent Pondicherry chocolate, garnished with whisky-soaked mahua flowers. He also served up succulent pork laced with a sweet and spicy glaze made with mahua flowers and sweet wine. “Currently, I am working on making vinegar with mahua,” he said.

While mahua’s new-found role in culinary alchemy is fascinating, its legacy as an edible goes beyond the elemental nuances of flavour, texture and fragrance, or its nutritional value (it is rich in fibre, natural sugars and trace minerals). For many indigenous and rural populations of India, the mahua tree has been a cultural touchstone for ages – a rich source of food and medicine that is prayed to, sung about and ritually conserved.

Mahua’s antiquity is confirmed in Hindu scriptures and mythology. As Nanditha Krishna writes in her 2014 book, The Sacred Plants of India, the Atharva Veda likens mahua, called madhuka in Sanskrit, to a love spell and records its use in making intoxicating drinks. Classical works of Ayurveda, including the Charaka Samhita, extol the curative virtues of the mahua flower. Mughal emperor Babur too mentions the mahua tree in his 16th century memoirs. However, it was in colonial times that mahua’s centrality to Adivasi life was documented in truly descriptive detail.

Prateek Sadhu, one of India’s hottest young chefs, created an opulent dessert – Chocolate Fondant with Mahua Ice Cream – for his restaurant, Masque, in Mumbai. Courtesy: Masque.

In The Story of the Santals (1922), author James Merry MacPhail calls mahua the Santhals’ “manna in the wilderness, that fell like bread from heavens,” alluding to the pale green carpet formed on the forest floor by fallen mahua flowers. In a chapter titled The Cycle of the Seasons, he describes the beginning of the mahua season when merrymaking was suspended and the entire population devoted itself to the serious business of gathering the precious flowers: “Eat a little mahua, they said, and you will not feel hungry for a long time.”

Colonial literature offers insights into the methods of preparing mahua for consumption. For instance, sun-dried mahua flowers, meticulously washed in water and strained out, were roasted on a flame. The water would then be boiled down to a thick syrup, and the roasted flowers added back to it. Sometimes a little rice was tossed into the mix.

Mahua was typically combined with foraged greens, tubers, tamarind seeds and, most popularly, with sal seeds that were first stripped of their characteristic astringency. The process to treat sal seeds was cumbersome. They would be sun-dried, then burnt to separate the ‘feathers’ and ‘tails’, split and boiled in lye, a strained solution of water and wood ashes. Alternatively, sun-dried mahua flowers were boiled for long hours until softened and then eaten with sal or tamarind seeds. Sometimes, thoroughly dried flowers would be pounded into a powder and mixed with other foods or even baked into cakes.

Periods of scarcity

In an essay titled Famine in Bengal: A Comparison of the 1770 Famine in Bengal and the 1897 Famine in Chotanagpur, historian Vinita Damodaran says about mahua: “Not only were the fruits made use of as articles of food, but the fleshy corolla constituted a staple article of diet for the poor for several months of the year.” It was mahua that saved thousands from starvation during droughts, famines and epidemics that roiled the land under colonial rule. Scottish botanist Sir Charles Watt, in A Dictionary of the Economic Products of India, quotes a former magistrate and collector of Monghyr (now Munger) to say, “During a period of scarcity which prevailed art Bihar in the year 1873-74, the Mahwa crop, which was usually abundant, kept thousands of poor people from starving; and all famine officers will recall its peculiar odour as they passed through the villages where it had been collected.”

An old folk song from Chhattisgarh, documented by British-born Indian anthropologist and tribal activist Verrier Elwin in 1946, goes:

Hai there is nothing one can say
The Dhobi left his work of washing clothes
The Rawat forgot his Doha songs
The boys threw stones at every house
We cooked gruel of sawa, even the kutki was finished
I fall at thy feet, O Mahua, it was you who saved our lives…

By the end of the 19th century, the foods that forest communities depended on depleted considerably. The mahua tree, once protected by indigenous communities that considered themselves its custodian, was scourged by colonial capitalism. “Once, they could have lived comfortably on a diet of mahua flowers and roasted sal seeds supplemented with small fish and water chestnuts,” writes Damodaran. “Many of the mahua trees were now in the private hands of the landlord or reserved forests. The central and eastern plateau, where once the best sal forests had been found, were denuded and only small scrub jungle remained.”

The problem was compounded when the colonists classified mahua as a dangerous intoxicant and criminalised its collection or possession by indigenous communities through prohibitive laws like the Mhowra Act of 1892. Watt writes, “With a view to regulating the trade in mahua spirit the Bombay Government have passed certain legislative measure which have had the effect of having a State monopoly of the purchase of the flowers.” The driving agenda of the colonialists was to curb the local liquor industry and secure the Indian market for imported liquor. But a downstream effect of their laws was a rise in diseases, especially cholera, among rural and forest populations.

Around the same time that indigenous communities were being denied their rights, efforts were on to establish a European trade in mahua – both for distilling spirit and as animal feed. The Calcutta Review reported in 1917 that tonnes of mahua that were shipped to England from Calcutta remained in good condition even after two years. The report also claimed that “‘mahua pork’ was produced by feeding pigs on these flowers became famous in the district into which they were imported.”

Traditional delicacies

A few years ago, Aparna Pallavi, an environmental journalist-turned-forest food researcher, following the heady scent of mahua on a journey across India to explore the culture and knowledge systems that have evolved around the flower. In her peregrinations, Pallavi found 30-35 recipes with mahua, although she says it wasn’t easy – many of the recipes survived only in the fast-fading memories of community elders. The younger generations, wooed by modern food, have written off mahua from their daily diet. If it survives, it is mostly for use in celebratory food.

“The dishes [I discovered] ranged from simple mixes of mahua and yoghurt to more intricate ones like mahua stuffed deep-fried puris called Kuldum...and puran poli...sweetened with mahua,” said Pallavi.

For many communities, mahua, be it as a liquor or food, has been at the heart of festivities and celebrations, as much as a symbol of abundance as resilience. There is a proverb in Tamil, ‘Alaai illaatha ooril iluppai poo sarkarai’, which translates to ‘In the place where there is no sugar factory, Iluppai (mahua flowers in Tamil) is the sugar’. The sugar-laden mahua lent itself naturally to the preparation of sweets and festive treats by imaginative cooks. “Give my husband a leaf-cup of mahua spirit, But for my lover make the mahua into little sweets,” goes a folksong from the forests of central India.

A member of the Muria Gond tribe breaks the shells of mahua seeds, used to prepare homebrewed liquor. Credit: Noah Seelam/AFP

Food historian KT Achaya writes about latta, a festive treat made by pounding mahua with molasses and parched grains, and another dish called mahaur, which has mahua flower mixed with wheat flour, besan or linseed. A simpler variant of latta is made by pounding steamed, sun-dried mahua flowers into a gritty pulp. In The Indian Cuisine, Krishna Gopal Dubey writes about two Adivasi specialties from the Chhotanagpur region: asur khichdi, a rice dish spiked with flour made from dried mahua flowers, and asur pitha.

In the forests of Western Odisha, mahua, locally called mahul, is used to make several traditional delicacies, including different kinds of pitha. Culinary writer and home cook Sujata Dehury, who grew up in the state, tells me about a dish called mahul suanli pitha: “Rice and sun-dried mahul are soaked together and ground into a paste to make a batter, which is first gently cooked into a soft dough, rolled into discs and then deep fried.” There’s also the crepe-like chakuli, which is made with fresh or fermented batter of rice and mahua flowers, and mahua podo pitha, in which a similar batter is spread between sal leaves and roasted in a woodfire.

Another recipe requires sun-dried mahul flowers to be roasted and ground up with sesame seeds and then made into laddoos. A trickle of liquid jaggery is added to the mix as a binding agent. Another traditional snack in the region is mahul kutka, a coarse, hand-pounded mixture of roasted, sun-dried mahua flowers, black horsegram, sesame seeds, peanuts, popped millets and other seeds and legumes.

Several YouTube channels centred on rural cooking feature mahua-based recipes that are a far cry from the functional preparations of an earlier era. There’s everything from deep-fried puris made with wheat dough sweetened with pureed mahua and stuffed with cooked chana dal; mahua flour cooked down in milk or with lentils on a gentle flame; spongy gulgule or fritters made with a batter of fresh mahua juice and wheat flour; or flatbreads made with a paste of soaked, sun-dried mahua and millet or wheat flour, sometimes fried on a griddle in mustard oil.

The fruits of the mahua ripens several weeks after the flowers fall, around June. The rind and flesh of the fruit are coveted seasonal ingredients to cook with in rural kitchens. In Odisha, where it is called tol, the fleshy fruit is thoroughly cleaned, deseeded, cut in slices and parboiled before being stir fried with mustard, garlic, chillies and cumin, ground up into a paste. Alternatively, the fruit is smashed lightly, dredged in rice flour spiked with cumin seeds and chillies, and shallow fried on a griddle to make pithau bhaja, Dehury tells me. The tol is also cooked into piquant curries or tossed into a chaat with black gram and a few spices.

Such is the irresistibility of mahua that it made its way into royal kitchens. Rajeshwari Deo, a member of the erstwhile royal family of Kanker in present-day Chhattisgarh, tells me about her late husband’s prized recipes: rice cooked in mahua liquor, and chicken cooked on a leisurely flame with fresh mahua flowers and finished with a drizzle of mahua liquor. The second recipe originally used game meat, perhaps in the mahua-strewn forests of the region.

In recent years, government and private agencies have reimagined and packaged mahua in the form of candies, energy bars and supplements, jams, jellies, chutneys and squashes, to introduce it to the urban consumer. For instance, at Bastar Foods, social entrepreneur and food technologist Razia Shaikh has developed a range of mahua-based food products manufactured by Adivasi women. “The idea was to create employment opportunities around mahua, which is an important minor forest produce,” said Shaikh.

Not far away, in the Bijapur District of Chhattisgarh, Adivasi children are taught from a young age about the importance of mahua. A song sung by Adivasi girls in village Farsegarh goes:

Oh mahua tree,
Oh mahua tree
How beautiful you are,
Oh! mahua tree
The mahua flowers are falling
Red, red flowers
Like a red shower of rain
Oh mahua tree,
Oh mahua tree
How beautiful you are,
Oh! mahua tree.

— People’s Archive of Rural India

Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a food and culture writer, based in Kolkata. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Food Writings for 2022.