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The Legacy of Mahua a “Lifesaving” Edible Flower

The legacy of mahua traces back to the several famines in India when food scarcity was high and mahua became a lifesaver for the poor and indigenous people. Continue reading to know more about mahua's glamorous comeback.

Binita Kumari

Mahua or Indian Butter Tree has been hailed as a prime ingredient in liquor made by Indian Adivasis but its history and legacy trace back to the 1770 Bengal famine and beyond. This nutrient-rich wild fruit has saved countless poor people who were struck by the famines in the worst way. 

Thus, named a “lifesaver”, Mahua has been applauded in old folk songs of Chhattisgarh. 

However, mahua is making a comeback and this time it is appreciated by the rich and poor alike. One of India’s upcoming brilliant chefs, Prateek Sadhu, discovered mahua flowers a few years ago. Sadhu said that the prominent caramel notes of the dried mahua remind him of dates which makes it the perfect ingredient for desserts. Sadhu added that he is currently working on making vinegar from mahua. 

This newfound love for mahua goes beyond its flavor, fragrance, and nutritional value. Because for many ages, in rural and indigenous populations of India, the mahua tree has been a sacred cultural touchstone.  A source of nutrient-rich food and medicine, mahua has been praised in songs and even prayed to. During periods of food scarcity in Bihar in the year 1873-74, the mahua crop kept thousands of poor people from starving. It was found in abundance in the state and villages where mahua was harvested held a peculiar odor in the air because of it. However, by the end of the 19th century, the food that several communities relied on started to deplete rapidly.

The tree that was once sacred to and protected by indigenous people was scourged by colonial capitalism. Historian Vinita Damodaran said that once upon a time, people could have lived comfortably on a diet of mahua flowers and roasted sal seeds supplemented with small fish and water chestnuts. Many of the mahua trees were now in the private clutch of the landlords.  

Mahua was classified as a dangerous intoxicant by the colonists and its possession was criminalized through prohibitive laws like the Mhowra Act of 1892. 

Mahua has been the heart of festivals and celebrations across many cultures and is regarded as symbol of resilience.  A festive treat made from mahua, molasses, and parched grains called Latta is a delicacy enjoyed by many cultures in India. Another traditional snack is laddoos made of sun-dried mahua flowers that are grounded with sesame seeds and then shaped into laddoo balls with the help of liquid jaggery as the binding agent. 

In the last few years, government agencies have glamorized mahua in the form of candies, supplements, energy bars, jellies, jams, and chutneys and introduced it to urban consumers. 

At Bastar Foods, Razia Shaikh has created a variety of mahua based food items that are manufactured by Adivasi women. 

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