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In Odisha, ‘podo pitha’ is a sentiment

  • The ‘burnt cake’ made in Odisha with rice flour, jaggery and spices is integral to the forthcoming Rath Yatra

Podo pitha gets its name from the technique of dry-roasting a paste or batter of rice flour wrapped in leaves in an open fire
Podo pitha gets its name from the technique of dry-roasting a paste or batter of rice flour wrapped in leaves in an open fire (Sweta Biswal)

Aalo boula aa, poda pitha khai, sajabaja hou doli re jhulibaa aa. 
(Come girls come, let’s eat podo pitha, Dressed in our best, come let’s play on the swings) urges a song sung during Odisha’s ancient harvest and fertility festival, Raja Parba (14-16 June this year), when the earth is worshipped as a menstruating mother goddess, in celebration of her fecundity and creative force. In essence, this is a time when the earth is allowed to rest and recuperate before the next tilling period.  

By extension, the community’s women are also barred from performing their daily chores, especially in the kitchen, so they too can rest and rejuvenate. Young women and girls are encouraged to dress in their festive best and feast on podo pitha, traditional rice cakes with a distinctive toffee-hued crust.

At its simplest, podo pitha, or poda pitha, is a paste or batter of rice flour, wrapped in leaves and shoved into the dying embers of a wood-fire oven so heat is applied from both above and below. It gets its name, which literally translates to “burnt cake”, from this technique of dry-roasting in an open fire and the blistered, burnt-caramel crust it acquires in the process. The podo pitha has evolved over time—picking up flavours, ingredients, new techniques and seasonal and regional accents along the way.

“In coastal Odisha, podo pitha is typically made by cooking arua chaula chuna, or raw rice flour in bubbling jaggery syrup, to a choux-like dough,” says Ahmedabad-based writer Sujata Dehury, an evangelist for her native Odiya cuisine. Bits of coconut and aromatic spices like cardamom and bay leaves, ginger, a hint of nutmeg and a dash of black pepper are also folded into the dough. It is wrapped in banana leaf or tipped into a leaf-lined vessel and baked slowly on mellow heat so the crust caramelises to a burnished brown. Toasty slivers of coconut, golden raisins and cashew nuts are often used to garnish its crust.

Also read: A unique recipe for a breakfast ‘pitha’ from Odisha

“In western Odisha, dominated by the forested, tribal areas, podo pitha is made with a lightly seasoned batter of rice and biri or urad dal (black gram), which is poured into parcels of sal leaves stitched together and baked,” says food researcher Sweta Biswal. These pithas are typically paired with potato curries, spiced ghoogni (curried white peas). “In the olden days, the most popular way of consuming the dry, salty podo pitha was to dunk it in milk or liquid molasses,” says Biswal. “Since women are barred from cooking during Raja, food consumed during this time would typically be prepared in advance. It was important these food items had a long shelf-life to last them the three days of Raja,” says Dehury. Podo pitha fits the bill.

In parts of western Odisha, podo pitha is also made around Pusha Puni (full moon in the lunar month of Pusha—December-January),” says Biswal. During Gumpha Yatra, celebrated on Magha Ekadasi (January-February), people flock to Jajpur district’s Olasuni hills to worship Goddess Olasuni Devi and pay homage to the 18th century saint Arakhita Das (who attained siddha in a cave there), offering podo pitha, sukhua and toddy to him.

Most importantly, though, podo pitha is considered Lord Jagannath’s favourite. The pre-Hindu Sabara people are said to have worshipped Jagannath as Shabari Narayan, with an offering of meat and rice paste cakes. The Lakshmi Purana, composed in the 15th century by Balaram Das, also mentions podo pitha
In one episode, Jagannath and Balaram, reduced to acute poverty after banishing Lakshmi (Jagannath’s consort) from their home for visiting the house of an untouchable woman, Sriya Chandaluni, reminisce about how Lakshmi would serve them podo pitha at the end of their meals. Here Jagannath’s favourite podo pitha seems like a metaphor for happy domesticity. 

Such is Jagannath’s love for podo pitha that during Bahuda Yatra, or the return journey of the divine trifecta to Sri Mandir, on the eighth day of the Rath Yatra festival (on 20 June this year), Jagannath halts at the tiny temple of his Mausi Maa—Goddess Ardhashini. Jagannath is offered a bhoga of podo pitha, specially prepared by the temple’s chief servitor.

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A bunch of legends are used to explain this tradition. According to one, it is a gesture of gratitude towards Ardhashini, who once saved Jagannath’s abode during a terrible flood by drinking up the waters. A playful bhajan proclaims, Mausira poda pitha parunu bhuli, chapana bhogaku chad aasuchu chali (Such is your love for your aunt’s podo pitha, you have left chhappan bhog behind).”

“However, the podo pitha made at the Mausi Maa temple is neither burnt or baked in fire, nor is it made of rice flour,” says Dehury. Instead, it is made of wheat, fortified with freshly made chhena, warmed by cardamom and nutmeg and livened up by the sweet and spicy whiff of camphor. The dough is steamed for 10-12 hours before being cut up in rectangles that are deep-fried in cow ghee. 

There are several variations of the podo pitha. Dehury shares that her mother would grate bottle gourd into her coconut-studded podo pitha batter. Others might add sweet red pumpkin or ash gourd pulp. When jackfruit ripens, its pulp is added to the pitha batter, while, at the peak of the monsoon, the juice of taal, or Palmyra palm, is added. Some allow the rice-and-lentil batter to ferment so the podo pitha gets a distinct tartness. In the book, Classic Cooking Of Odisha, Ranjita and Sujata Patnaik share a recipe for a savoury podo pitha flavoured with asafoetida, mango-ginger and curry leaves.

Through it all, podo pitha remains a sentiment, a token of familial love at the heart of many a nostalgia-laced reminiscence. In a song by Odia bhajan singer Narendra Kumar, a man compares the podo pitha made by his late bou, or mother, with divine nectar and wishes she would return to life. “To hatara podo pitha amruta bhoga, aau thhare aa bou aalo pheri,” he sings.

Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a food and culture writer who divides her time between Kolkata and Mumbai.

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