Eating til pitha is a delicious adventure. One bite, and the delicate powdery-white rice-flour roll falls apart, unloading bits of jaggery and sesame.
Til pitha is among the many varieties of pithas or sweet pancakes that form the basis of an Assamese Bihu jolpaan platter. In the cuisine of the region, jolpaan refers to breakfast or light snacks eaten between two main meals. It comprises items that do not require elaborate cooking, or can be cooked ahead of time. Its sociocultural significance is inevitable considering it is integral to festivals, weddings, and even funerals.
Everyday components of a jolpaan can be seera (flattened rice), hurum and akhoi (types of puffed rice); rice products that are processed using traditional techniques to give them characteristic shape and texture. In many homes, these are commonly eaten along with cream or curd and jaggery. These may be accompanied by savoury items like luci or puris made of refined flour, and potato curry. There’s also laal sa, or tea without milk. In traditional homes, jolpaan ends with tamul-paan or betel leaf with areca nut, smeared with suun, or white lime paste.
The absence of any written record makes it difficult to trace the origin of jolpaan. According to Guwahati-based chef and culinary researcher Kashmiri Barkakati Nath, “The prevalence of consuming mini meals must have been popular from the time of the Ahom dynasty, a medieval kingdom that settled in and around the Brahmaputra valley around the 13th century.” She notes the earliest mention of doi or curd, seera and pithas can be found in Burhi Aai'r Xadhu, written by Assamese litterateur Lakshminath Bezbarua in 1911. The book is a compilation of short stories and folklore that capture the life and times of the local communities.
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Rice for breakfast
Saul or rice plays the lead role in jolpaan, and an indigenous glutinous variety called bora saul is the most preferred. This sticky rice can be boiled and eaten with curd and jaggery. It can also be soaked and ground to make rice cakes, and a variety of pithas.
Gitika Saikia, a curator of North-East Indian food, who has been popularising the foods of Assam through her pop-ups in Mumbai, remembers eating a carb-rich jolpaan before heading to school in Dibrugarh. “My favourite was bora saul with a side of mashed potatoes or scrambled eggs tossed with local cherry tomatoes. There was sticky rice with milk and sugar too,” she says, emphasising the fact that rice is wholesome, and keeps one full longer. A very unique variety is komol saul, which does not require any cooking, and is eaten after soaking it in water for a few minutes. Then there is xandoh guri, where the rice grains are lightly roasted, powdered and eaten with milk and sugar.
Barkakati Nath speculates that the practice of eating sticky rice and rice cakes, and ingredients like sesame seeds and coconut, may be associated with the cuisines of South-East Asia. “Assam was ruled by Ahom rulers for 500 years, who are believed to have migrated from China. So, it is likely that these cooking techniques and recipes travelled to Assam and other parts of North-East with them,” she points out.
Pitha is a household sweet prepared across eastern India, primarily in the states of Bihar, Assam, Odisha and West Bengal. It can be steamed, pan-roasted or fried; this defines its form and texture—pancakes, dumplings or fritters. Rice flour forms the base of most recipes. What makes pithas stand out is the stuffing, and in Assam, it’s usually simple ingredients such as coconut or roasted sesame seeds and jaggery.
Everyday jolpaan pithas are a no-fuss affair, and are usually steamed, but may be elaborate during celebrations. Paani pitha is quick, and is prepared by making a batter of rice flour, water and salt. It is then poured on a hot pan, and cooked until the edges turn crisp. It is usually eaten with sugar or jaggery on top. Ghila pitha is a fried doughy pancake made with sticky rice and jaggery. On Magh and Bohag Bihus, the harvest festivals of the Assamese community, til pitha is a household favourite. It is prepared by spreading dry rice flour on a hot pan, and filling it with black sesame seeds and jaggery. Once cooked, it is rolled with extreme care.
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It is fascinating that jolpaan cuts across religious demographics in Assam. Here, Barkakati Nath mentions the net-like jali pitha or jeng pitha of the Muslim community of Upper Assam. The Bodo community prides itself on making thingkhil (also known as thekeli) pitha, an idli-like rice cake that involves skill and technique. Food stylist and blogger Irin Kashyap, who belongs to the community, explains the process that starts with the overnight soaking of joha saul, an aromatic variety of short-grained rice endemic to the region. The following day, it is hand-pounded in a traditional wooden dheki and sprinkled with water and salt. Meanwhile, a big tea kettle (or earthen pot) with water is left to boil. The pounded rice flour is then patted into the lid of the kettle, with sesame seeds and jaggery at its centre. The lid is then wrapped with a clean muslin cloth and left to steam by placing it on the boiling kettle.
Kashyap also mentions a similar rice cake called dangua pitha, flat in shape. “This kind of pitha is made only when there is a death in the family during Bwisagu, which is Bihu in the Bodo language,” she notes.
As for the indigenous Mising community, poita bhaat is the most preferred jolpaan. A fermented soupy rice gruel prepared with rice left over from the previous night, it’s eaten with mashed potatoes, sometimes lai xaak or boiled mustard greens, raw onions, garlic and green chillies. Nibedita Pegu, who runs the Mising Kitchen in Guwahati, says it is the most effortless mid-morning meal for people living in the hinterland as they have to work long hours in the fields.
To recreate a traditional Assamese jolpaan at home, take a brass or copper bowl, place some flattened rice, top off with fresh curd and sprinkle jaggery powder. Serve and say—Bihu-r xubessa thakil, or best wishes for Bihu.
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Feast from the East is a series that celebrates the culinary heritage of eastern and north-eastern India. Rituparna Roy is a Mumbai-based writer.