The side heroes of panta bhaat
'Bhaaja', 'saaga' and 'makha' are the spectacular accompaniments of a fermented rice gruel from eastern India
It is rice that sleeps. And wakes up with a flavour that often takes one home
Call it by any name—panta bhaat, poita bhaat or pakhala bhaat—the soul of this fermented rice gruel from eastern India is the same. Leftover rice that is soaked overnight in plain water, and consumed the next day, usually as breakfast. A congee-like dish, it has close cousins across the country as well as in South-East Asia, typically in agricultural societies where rice is the primary food crop.
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It is said when cooked rice is left to ferment over a prolonged period, it invites useful bacteria. The probiotic nature of such foods tends to be good for the gut in hot climes. Often termed as "poor man’s food", the highlight of panta bhaat lies in the accompaniments. During peak summer, when vegetation is scarce and the body demands easy-to-digest foods, many communities in the region turn to this frugal meal with a side of raw onions, fresh green chillies and a drizzle of mustard oil. The crunch from the onions, heat from the chillies and pungency of the oil form a harmony on the palate.
Balance is key
A pakhala meal in Odisha is a perfect union of taste and mouthfeel. “The flavour and texture of the side dishes are very important. Considering the rice is mildly sour and soupy, the accompanying flavours need to be balanced,” says Bhubaneswar-based food blogger Alka Jena, adding it is never eaten with runny items like daal.
The main components are usually a mix of saaga, or leafy greens, prepared in a basic tempering. There’s bhaaja, or fried seasonal vegetables, cooked with a paste of mustard and green chillies, and pora, where vegetables are roasted over an open flame. Jena suggests the choice of leaves differs according to the season as well as region. For instance, kosala, khada and leutia saaga (from the Amaranth family) are popular in the coastal areas, and jhudanga patra saaga, or cow pea greens, and baunsa saaga, or baby bamboo leaves, in western Odisha. To give texture, there is badi chura, or sun-dried lentil dumplings crushed along with raw mustard oil, garlic and green chillies. The flavours are further enhanced by adding souring agents called pagaw. These include ambula, or sun-dried baby raw mangoes, ambada, or hog plums, and oou, or elephant apple.
Next door in Bengal, it is common to mix dal with the fermented rice. When Deepshikha Chakraborty moved to Kolkata for work, she realised the panta bhaat was different from what she was used to eating as a child in Silchar in Assam. The Bengaluru-based food blogger with roots in undivided Bengal grew up on a panta breakfast along with alu makha, or mashed potatoes, and maamlette, a Bengali-style omelette that is left open and not folded. In Kolkata, she got used to eating it with leftover tok dal prepared with raw mangoes. A few other favourites of the community include aloo posto or potatoes cooked in poppy seed paste, shukhno dal, or dry cooked lentils, and chaatu makha, or roasted gram flour.
In Assam, poita bhaat is ingrained in the social fabric, and finds mention in catchy limericks and songs. Being peasant food, it is enjoyed with rustic items such as mashed jackfruit seeds, dali bota or chutney made by coarsely grinding red lentils, greens like dhekia bhaji or fried fiddlehead ferns and cherry tomatoes. “For the farmer who works in the fields, it is a meal that keeps him energised all day. He does not have time to cook elaborate meals, so typically he’d throw in some potatoes in the embers of his stove along with some fish that he may have caught from the pond next to his house,” says Geeta Dutta, a food researcher from Guwahati.
The presence of water bodies and vast expanses of marshy lands mean surplus of fish. When rain clouds gather over Bengal, the community relishes ilish or hilsa along with their panta. “My mother also adds a bit of the oil that is used to fry the fish hot off the wok to my rice,” says Chakraborty. During the monsoon, when fresh fish is scarce, sukhua, or dry fish, makes an appearance in Odisha. Jena also talks about the indigenous communities living in the districts of Mayurbhanj and Kandhamal, who stuff shrimp in pumpkin leaves and fry them using a rice flour batter.
Freshwater fish such as kawai, or climbing perch, and goroi, or spotted snakehead, are typical accompaniments to eat with poita bhaat. Dutta adds the fish is often smoked, and then mashed with mustard oil and a local variety of chilli called dhan jolokia. Among the native tribes in Upper Assam, it is hukoti, or fermented fish, that is most preferred.
For many, pakhala bhaat is the perfect antidote to homesickness. Jyotishree Mohanty, who is settled in Copenhagen, makes it for her family every summer. "It gets unusually hot considering houses here can’t handle the heat and neither come with ceiling fans," says my friend. Beckoned by her Odia roots, the social media consultant stocks up on badi and frozen rohu from Bangladeshi stores to go with her pakhala meal. Memories tempered with flavours of home can often take away the summer heat.
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.