January in rural Bengal is the time of new beginnings. As the mellow winter sun embraces the countryside, the landscape transitions to a lush canvas, with sheaves of golden paddy strewn as far as the horizon. It’s an occasion to celebrate—Poush Parbon or Makar Sankranti is observed to welcome the bounty of ‘new rice’, or nobanno—with an assortment of pithe or pitha prepared with the season’s fresh harvest.
Pithe is woven into the socio-cultural fabric of the region, and has existed since antiquity. It finds a mention in the Mangalkavyas, a compilation of religious texts that narrate the life and times of medieval Bengal. Recipes often vary from one family to another, however rice flour, coconut, sugar or jaggery remain common. The originality of pithe lies in the intuitiveness of the cook, who plays with its shape and form, almost like an artist. Take for instance, the rare nokshi pithe, a class apart from most forms of pithe, glorified for its intricate designs.
Nokshi pithe is said to have originated in East Bengal, or modern day Bangladesh. It is prepared with freshly-pounded rice flour, which is kneaded into a pristine soft dough, then rolled into discs, and given freehand designs. These are typically deep fried, and soaked in a spiced sugar syrup, or one made with the winter favourite khejur gur or date palm jaggery. Womenfolk in the villages carve the pithes with the thorns from the same date palm trees, usually inspired by nature—flowers, leaves, fish, sun, and suchlike.
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Sayantani Mahapatra, an artist and food blogger based out of Kolkata, has been fascinated by the art of pithe-making since childhood. She draws parallels between nokshi pithe, and the beautiful nokshi kantha, a tapestry quilt characterised by detailed needlework native to Bangladesh. Pieced together with old saris and dhotis, these are usually centred around the embroiderer’s life, as a means of self expression. The themes are similar: lotus, tree of life, animals, fish, paisley, ornaments to name a few. Mahapatra is also an exponent of noksha bori, commonly known as goyna bori, an indigenous variety of artistic sun-dried lentil crisps from Midnapore.
“I learnt to make nokshi pithe from Maa, who picked up the recipe and technique from one of her Bangladeshi friends in Shantiniketan,” she says. As an alumnus of the prestigious Kala Bhavan, the fine arts faculty of Vishwa Bharati University, Mahapatra’s mother was acquainted with students from across the world. “Having grown up with the art of kantha embroidery, and an equal passion for cooking, it was only wise to pursue this unique culinary art form.”
But, the recipe that is more popular at Mahapatra’s home uses a combination of rice flour and moong dal, and called moog pakon pithe. The patterns are instinctively ornate, and the pithes stand out for their sweet, textural bite. In Bangladesh, fried pithes such as these are prepared in bulk, not only during the harvest season, but also on Eid and weddings, “as they make for beautiful gifts,” she adds. Since these demand serious labour and skill, the task is assigned to someone who has an eye for detail, usually the matriarch of the village.
Like most borrowed food traditions, nokshi pithe connects people across a disputed geographical border. Its artistry is prized by Bengalis across the region, by those who migrated from East Bengal, and continued to practise the dainty food art. Sukanya Ghosh, a food blogger and popup chef from Bengaluru, talks about her parents, who left their homes in Dhaka, and moved to India in the 1940s. Ghosh grew up watching her mother, who carried with her a repertoire of unique pithes, and nokshi pithe is one of them. “I have seen women in my family painstakingly create the most complex designs with the date palm thorn. Today, a toothpick does the job,” she says.
Pithe-making is an annual winter ritual in most traditional households, but busy lifestyles leave the urban woman with little scope to experiment. Entrepreneurs Mamata Goswami and Papri Rana are trying to fill this gap with their venture Pithe Ghor in Kolkata. “Women hardly have the time to cook, let alone make pithes at home,” says Goswami, who offers a selection of pithes including nokshi pithe during Poush Sankranti. Priced approximately at ₹50 per piece, most prefer it for the beautiful designs, carved by Rana using the sharp thorns. “It’s the only way we can revive this precious edible art,” she says.
Moog Pakon Pithe or Nokshi Pithe
Recipe by Sayantani Mahapatra
6 tbsp yellow lentil, moong daal
12 tbsp water
12 tbsp rice flour
1 green cardamom
1 tsp ghee
A pinch of salt
Oil for deep frying
For the sugar syrup
1 cup sugar
Three-fourth cup water
Toothpick and cookie cutters to design
Dry roast the lentil until aromatic, approx 8-10 mins. Wash and pressure cook with water, ghee and cardamom. Whisk it to make a smooth paste.
While the lentil paste is warm, add the rice flour and salt. Now start mixing it until you see no loose flour. Cover and let it cool.
Knead to make a soft dough. Add a bit of flour if it’s sticky.
Now divide the dough into five portions roughly. Roll out the balls on a greased surface to half inch thickness. Smear some oil or ghee.
Using a toothpick or cookie cutters draw designs of your choice. (Look up Fouzia Yasmin on YouTube for ideas.)
Once done, place these on a butter paper, and cover.
Heat oil in a heavy bottomed kadhai, and start frying the pithes on low flame. It takes approximately 15 mins to fry a batch.
In the meantime, make the sugar syrup by boiling the sugar and water into a thick consistency.
Once the pithes are fried, dip them in the syrup, and cool.
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.
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