Recently on the grand finale of Masterchef Australia 13, Bangladeshi-origin contestant Kishwar Chowdhury whipped up ‘Smoked Rice Water’ for the judges. Viewers from the subcontinent watched agog, as they recognised the dish as a version of the panta bhat, or cooked rice soaked overnight in water, which then ferments and is eaten with a dash of mustard oil, green chillies, onions and a variety of condiments such as pickles or dried fish. This rustic dish in India is known by several names: the pakhala in Odisha, poita bhat in Assam, pazham kanji in Kerala, and the panta bhat in West Bengal, pazhaya saadham in Tamil Nadu, among others.
As Chowdhury served ‘Smoked Rice Water’ with alu bhorta and fried sardines marinated in white soy, social media exploded with reactions. While some were aghast that a dish this simplistic—a rice gruel, often tagged as ‘peasant food’— was chosen as a finale dish, there were others who felt a surge of pride that Chowdhury had chosen to represent traditional flavours from back home on the show. The latter was evident on her Instagram page, when viewers from Bangladesh, thanked her for putting their food on the world map.
“Kishwar’s dish presented at the finale is one that makes a strong case for showcasing food traditions that may be everyday, humble and ubiquitous in one part of the world, but no less important as a record of history and the culinary traditions of a people,” writes Diya Kohli in Conde Nast Traveller about this episode. While panta bhat might suddenly be having a moment under the spotlight, the dish has a complex and interesting history that belies its simple nature.
According to food historian Pritha Sen, the panta bhat has been a common phenomenon across eastern and southern India for ages now. “You move from the simple food of the soil to food that spells affluence,” she explains as a possible reason for the derision behind the dish being served on Masterchef Australia. According to her, while it must have existed earlier as a summer cooling food for farmers, the panta bhat became an integral part when the economy of Bengal began to be broken.
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In Bangladesh, where Chowdhury hails from, the popularity of the dish is associated with a political and cultural awakening, so much so that the bhorta and panta bhat are now an integral part of the Pohela Boishakh celebrations. “In 1947, East Bengal separated from India and became East Pakistan, bound by a common religion. In 1971, it broke away from West Pakistan on the grounds of conflicting culture and language. People there began to ask, am I a Bengali first, or a Muslim first? It created a conundrum,” says Sen.
So, they started delving into their indigenous cultural roots to create an identity that was different from both Pakistan and West Bengal. Today some of these East Bengal traditions have seeped into Kolkata's cultural fabric as well. In some families, the bhog on the day of Dashami includes panta bhat, koi and hilsa fry and kochur saag (colocasia stems). A lot of people also eat it for an early lunch with fried fish.
According to Tanushree Bhowmik, there are strong archaeological and textual evidences to support the evolution of panta bhat. She quotes anthropologist Tapan Sanyal's paper, 'And keeping the flame alive: a study on food habits and dietaries with nutritional efficiency of West Bengal tribes', published in 1979, which argues that the proto-Australoid people in South Asia consumed panta bhat, as they cooked rice only once a day in the evening. "Portuguese Augustinian missionary and traveller, Fray Sebastien Manrique, in his accounts of Bengal in the 17th century notes that people of all communities ate panta bhat, and how this was consumed with leafy greens, and salt in Chittagong," says Bhowmik, who has nearly 20 years of experience as a development professional, wears the hat of a food historian and runs ForkTales.
In Odisha, however, people have had a far more consistent relationship with the panta bhat, or pakhala as they call it. The popular restaurant, Dalma, in Bhubaneswar has had it on the menu for years now. According to Alka Jena, a Bhubaneswar-based blogger and photographer, the word pakhala is derived from the Pali word, pakhaliba, and the Sanskrit word, prakshalana, which means ‘washed/to wash. “The Odia poems of Kavi Arjuna Das have mentions of consumption of pakhala in his work, Kalpalata (1520-1530 AD). It is not known when the dish was first included in the diet of eastern India, but it might have found a place in the menu of Jagannath Puri temple around the 11th century AD,” she adds.
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Across the state, the pakhala is now part of folklore, poetry and songs. Jena recounts a song, Asa Jibana Dhana Mora Pakhala Kansa, sung by Pandit Balakrushna Dash, written by Kavichandra Kalicharan Pattnaik, which mentions this dish. “Over the years, different varieties of the pakhala have come about— dahi pakhala, chunka pakhala tempered with curry leaves, green chillies, ginger and cumin seeds. Basi, or stale, however, is the most preferred variant,” she explains. There is also the saja pakhala, in which water is added to cooked rice and eaten fresh, and the mitha pakhala prepared with sugar, sliced oranges, curd, grated ginger and roasted cumin.
Bhowmik elaborates on yet another unique variant, the subhas pakhala served as a bhog in the temple of Jagannath Puri, which is perfumed with flowers like jasmine, mogra, frangipani, and with ginger.
For many, the panta bhat or pakhala evokes some vivid childhood memories as well. For instance, Jena remembers eating pakhala—typically a summer dish— in the winter months as well. Her neighbour, who was from Ganjam district, used to make the pakhala with fresh rice, whole baby radish and leaves of kagiji lembu for a beautiful fragrant and sour taste. Jena now makes the pakhala at home.
For Guwahati-based chef, Kashmiri Barkakati Nath, the association with the gruel, or poita bhat as it is known in Assam, goes back to her childhood, when she would visit her paternal grandparents in Naogaon district. “It was a common practice to eat this during summer. Aaita Maa (granny) would put leftover rice in an earthen pot and cover it with a bamboo sieve to allow it to breathe,” she reminisces. The ash in the earthen chulha would be warm even after the fire was put out for the night, and her Aaita would put in potatoes and onions there. By the morning they would be cooked through. “The onions would be so sweet. These were served with the poita bhat and dried fish. The rice would be wonderfully tangy but not in an overpowering way. It would be creamy by the morning. That, coupled with a drop of sharp mustard oil, would be enough,” says Nath. “It was a big household, with people going to the farm. The poita bhat with fried fish would keep everyone fed before getting to the day’s chores.”
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Even after her grandparents passed away, Nath’s father continued to seek out poita bhat wherever he could. “My mother, who was brought up in the city, couldn’t understand this fascination,” she adds. Perhaps, for her father, the poita bhat was a way to stay connected with his roots.
Not only did the rice gruel offer sustenance for a long day in the fields, it was packed with immense health benefits too. According to Chef Regi Mathew, co-owner and culinary director, Kappa Chakka Kandhari, a Kerala speciality restaurant in Chennai and Bengaluru, the dish comes packed with antioxidants and minerals. “It has a cooling effect, possibly hydrating those working on the farm,” he says. While growing up on a plantation in Kerala, he would often sneak away to savour the pazham kanji, as rice gruel is known there, with the workers. It is a taste that has remained with him over time. “Earlier people believed in zero wastage, and this is a prime example of it. Over time, people started adding the previous day’s fish curry and pickle to the kanji as well,” he adds.
It would be a mistake to assume that this fermented rice dish had its first tryst with fine dining only during this season of Masterchef Australia. In India, restaurants—albeit a handful—have put up versions in the past couple of years. In 2018, Chef Thomas Zacharias put up the pumpkin flower pakhala bhat on the special menu at The Bombay Canteen. Mathew too introduced the Pazham kanji and Payaru Kanji, a rice porridge with green gram, on the Kappa Chakka Kandhari menu in 2018. “When I started the restaurant, I simply had to put it on the menu. When you are sure of what you like, you feel confident about serving it to others as well,” he says. The Pazham Kanji is part of the lunch menu and is served with pickle and chutney. It has become hugely popular over time.
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Perhaps, this popularity has a lot to do with the rise of the locavore movement in recent years, which is all about feeling a sense of pride and ownership in local flavours and produce. Nath recalls how in urban Assam, just like in Bengal, at one point, 20 to 30 years ago, people would look down upon the poita bhat. “People wanted to be associated with something more urban. While they enjoyed dishes like poita bhat, it took courage for them to admit that they liked it. It is only now, with the resurgence of regional cuisines,” she says. “While earlier, we were made to feel ashamed about our indigenous dishes, now that insecurity is going away. We are coming into who we are, with a sense of pride in our local food.”
Sen too feels that It is only now, after two generations, post-independence, that the youth is taking pride in going back to the food of their forefathers. “When I heard about Kishwar, I kept thinking why didn’t I ever think of it. She displayed a lot of courage to go ahead with this choice, and we must applaud that,” she adds.