I could not resist this invitation from Priyanka specially since it was Pakhala Pasara the traditional summer meal for people from Orissa centred around Pakhala Bhat. During the hot humid summers in the plains of Orissa the heat is often unbearable and Pakhala Bhat or Water Rice keeps the body cool. In the days of yore when refrigeration was a distant dream; left over rice would be preserved in a clay container with water to be consumed the next day. It is also popular in the neighboring states as Panta (Bengal) and Poita (Assam). Pakhala Bhat is offered to Lord Jagannath in Puri as a part of the “56 Bhog” or Chappan Bhog giving it a divine boost.
Pakhala Bhat and Pakhala Pasara
Pakhala Bhat is traditionally prepared after pouring water into left over rice, allowing it to ferment overnight and tempered with mustard, and green chilly, red chilly, and sometimes spattering of julienned onions the following day. Pakhala Pasara is a feast with wide range of dishes served along with the Pakhala Bhat. At Priyanka’s home it was a royal feast served in traditional banana leaf and clay pots. Let this picture speak a 1000 words before I weave my story.
The dozen and more items kept me busy as I dipped my hand into the clay pot for an helping of Pakhala to be had along side. The Dal Pakudi (chana dal fritters), slices of raw cucumber and bitter gourd fries were all good before I fell hook, line and sinker for the fish egg fries. A favorite since childhood, I would often sneak into the kitchen when no one was looking and slip under the bed with my spoils and a comic to spend some me time away from the prying eyes. These are made from mashed eggs of Rohu Fish mixed with green chillies, onions, salt, nigella or kalonjee dipped in a batter of chick pea flour and then deep fried.
This was followed by Shrimp Fry, Rohu fish curry and a sweet sour preparation with the iodine loaded tiny Morala fish. Morala was steeped in a semi gravy prepared from jaggery, tamarind and pumpkin all with health benefits of their own. The meal was balanced with its share of vegetarian items which had the traditional drumstick (sojno) cooked with posto (poppy seed) and mustard paste, roasted brinjal mixed with raw mustard oil , green saag and sun dried raw mangoes curried with mushroom. I was full to the brim but not for a Monda Pitha.
Mond Pitha is a steamed rice flour dumplings stuffed with a mixture of coconut, jaggery and traces of black pepper. I had Rasabali too; fried chenna pieces flattened and soaked in sweet thickened milk. I must sheepishly admit that I polished off the Rasabali before it occurred that I should take a picture of the same. I burped my way home and the next few hours were spent in blissful sleep in la la land.
Dose of Health in Pakhala Bhat
I grew up with a delicate digestive system which would often give away when I binged on food during the hot summer months in Bengal. My grand mother would serve up a delicious dose of Panta Bhat with a piece of fried fish to lure me into having it. I would recover in a day or two without medicines all set for another binge knowing that Thakuma had a magic wand that would ease my uneasy gut.
Pakhala Bhat is a poor man’s rich food, I mean rich in nutrients. It has been scientifically proven that the slightly fermented water rice contains increased amount of iron, calcium and potassium with fewer calories. It neutralizes the heat trapped in the body and also keeps it hydrated ensuring sound sleep during the summer heat.The water layer above the rice “Torani” is a healing tonic for the gut that soothes the stomach, intestines and cures ulcers. This is a rare example when the fermented scored over its fresh counterpart with promises of health.
Why the Panta Bhat of Bengal fades in comparison to the Pakhala Bhat of Odisha?
Panta Bhat of Bengal remained a poor cousin of Pakhala Bhat because it never received the health and cultural boost. Jagannath Dev is central to every home in Odisha and anything served to him is divine so Pakhala Bhat automatically attained the cult status. It also received the health boost from the government advisories during the hot summer months. Pakhala Bhat has now found its way to some restaurant menus served with some fries on the side to give it a shade of color. 20th March is designated as the Pakhala Dibas or Pakhala Day to celebrate this wonder meal.
In contrast, the Panta Bhat is still pretty much ignored in the urban areas of Bengal within the upwardly class in spite of the fact that it is served as the farewell meal to Devi Durga and her brood on Dashami Day. The tradition is confined to that one day and the rest of the year is spent in pursuit of everything that taxes the gut :). It is sad that we are losing our wisdom of healthy eating blinded by the advent of cuisines and the emergence of a fusion food culture.
If we travel further east; a bowl of Vietnamese Congee finds its pride of place in every restaurant in Vietnam as well as abroad; while Pakhala and its regional cousins very much exist in the home kitchens barring a few odd local restaurants unable to find a place in the menu leave aside internationally.