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If you thought the battle that broke out recently between Bengal and Odisha over the origins of rossogullas was bad, wait till you see what might happen if Bengal tries to lay claim to the fermented rice dish called panta-bhat there, and pakhal or paukhalo in Odisha. When Kishwar Chowdhury, a contestant on Masterchef Australia, drew on her Bangladeshi origins to present an elaborate version of panta bhat which she called Smoked Rice Water, many Bengalis were surprised to see such a simple dish in such a place and form. But many Odias must have been angrily anticipating yet another Bengali appropriation.
March 20th is celebrated as Pakhala Dibas in Odisha, and in 2019, the Times of India reported that the event was growing bigger every year. Search for #pakhala or #PakhalaDibas on social media and you are flooded by images of elaborate meals where the basic simplicity of the fermented rice is circled by innumerable side dishes. By contrast, social media images for #PantaBhat tend to show just the rice and a few accompaniments, like crisp raw onions, mashed potatoes, chutney and fried fish.
While Odisha seems to value the dish most, variations are found in nearly every part of India where rice eating dominates. From Assam’s poita bhat, to Tamil Nadu’s pazhaya soru to Kerala’s pazhan kanji, the same principle operates of thriftily taking leftover cooked rice and leaving it to soak in water in a loosely covered earthen pot till it ferments overnight, or even in a few hours on a hot summer day. It is eaten seasoned with just salt, or with chutneys, pickles, pungent mustard oil, mashed dal, boiled vegetables, fried fish, or anything else at hand.
Some versions focus more on the tangy liquid. In his essay ‘In Those Days There Was No Coffee’, the scholar A R Venkatachalapathy notes that neeragaram, as it is called in Tamil Nadu, was the standard morning drink until the advent of coffee, and quotes a tract from 1914 that accuses the brewed interloper of displacing the traditional drink. The liquid can be boiled to make a sour kanji cooked with many vegetables as described by Sujata and Ratna Patnaik in their Classic Cooking of Orissa. They particularly recommend “fresh drumstick leaves Kanji” for being rich in iron.
A kind of double fermentation can be made by mixing the rice with yoghurt for what is known as chaddanam, fermented curd rice in Andhra Pradesh, while another variation uses buttermilk. Renuka Devi Choudhurani, whose two Bengali cookbooks have been collated and translated as Pumpkin Flower Fritters and Other Classic Recipes from a Bengali Kitchen, has an elegant version mixed with yoghurt, green mango paste and ginger, which is kept in the fridge and hardly seems fermented at all. And in some places the rice is dropped altogether and a similar dish is made with cooked millets.
It is at heart a frugal dish, yet uniquely satisfying as Chitrita Banerji learned while travelling in Bangladesh. In Life and Food in Bengal she writes that she never used to care for the sour taste. But once in a parched village near Munshiganj she was very hungry, yet there were no tea stalls and she could not bring herself to ask the desperately poor villagers for food. Yet one old man saw her plight and insisted she come to his hut where they “ate pantabhat with some very hot vegetable dish into which a few shrimps had been added.” At that place and with such sincere hospitality, she says it tasted better than “any wedding feast of biryani.”
On Masterchef, Chowdhury said that this was not the sort of food you were likely to see in a restaurant, but this has started to change in India. A growing interest in traditional dishes, and awareness of the health benefits of fermented foods has led to several restaurants, particularly in South India, putting it on their menus in summer. But it’s a tricky item to serve since fermentation needs to be started in advance, and after a point it becomes too sour. Restaurants have to be sure about being able to get sufficient consumers within the window period.
Chef Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar of Edible Archives in Goa, a restaurant that specialises in traditional foods and heirloom varieties of rice, says she cooks it as an occasional special, or to order, or as a staff meal. “You need to use fat varieties of rice that will break down and release starch,” she says, noting that on Masterchef a long Basmati type rice seems to have been used. She suggests using Khejurchori or Gheus from Bengal, Ratnachuri or Chikle from Karnataka or Tavala Kannan from Kerala.
Restaurants in Bengal now make it for Poila Baisakh, Bengali New Year, when the practice is to eat it with fried hilsa. In Bangladesh this is so imperative that in 2014 students at the Pabna University of Science and Technology, gheraoed officials in protest at not being served panta bhat and fried hilsa for breakfast on that day. This essentially simple dish of fermented rice and water seems to have the power to stir real passions, so one can only hope that it never becomes an issue between Bengal and Odisha.