Robinhood for the Belly
The sweltering summer heat of Odisha can be so sapping that it makes you feel frail and dehydrated and at times a victim of sun stroke. Understandably, the local food has evolved over the centuries to adapt to this extreme climate. One such Odia dish acts like a boon to combat the blazing afternoon sun.
THE OPENING SCENE
‘Pakhala Bhata’, touches the gastronomic nerve of every Odiya and is a regular dish in the familiy menu, especially d u r i n g summe r s . The popularity of this indigenous dish or concoction has also withstood the advent of all the ‘over the counter’ food options that have mushroomed around the urban belts. Today, ‘Pakhala’ features in the menu of not just popular ‘dhabas’ but also in fine dining restaurants as a niché dish. Its preparation is rather easy using either boiled ‘p ol i s h e d’ or ‘parboiled’ rice. Water is added to it and left overnight in a Dutch pot (preferably an earthen one) even as the method varies from household to household. Some also add a small quantity of the ‘mand’ or the ‘peja’ along with water.
One variant is that of fresh rice where in the water is added with dash of curd, chillies, and ginger: this is termed as ‘saja phakhala’. The second variant: wherein the cumin and mustard seeds are tempered with curry leaves, garlic and green chillies. The third one is the fermented one wherein the rice along with water is consumed, preferably after resting and maturing period of a day and a half.
To enhance the dish it could be garnished with curd, chillies, lime (kafir lime) and some even like to temper it with ‘pancha phutana’. Some like to get creative by adding small slices of raw mango and “amba khasiada” or simply mango ginger. The accompaniment varies in various degrees: pickles, shallots with dash of lime juice & lemon, green chillies, cucumbers, radish. These are some, which are on the hydrating and cooler side. On the hotter side it ranges from fritters, greens, fried fish or shrimps to fish roe. Of the above-mentioned spread, major accompaniments range from leaf wrapped baked or grilled vegetables. These may be done up with mustard paste or simple ginger garlic paste, smeared with oil. Amber-baking it, does give a crunchy taste.
THE WILD COUSIN
My journey to the wilderness of the tribal areas of the state, has exposed me to some of the indigenous dishes of our state and one of them being a close cousin of ‘Pha k ha l a Bhat a’. In the tribal areas the preparation has its own p r o c e s s . The new rice is cooked and a small fish is gutted, tied and steamed in a cloth. After the rice is cooked, the ‘mand’ is separated. To the cooked rice, water is added and left to ferment for a few days and the fish tied to the cloth is separated and dried (this process is totally different to the dried fish which we find in the coastal areas). After the rice gets fermented for a few weeks it is strained out. The water, milky in colour becomes a local brew known as ‘Handia’ and the squeezed rice is made into small rolling balls. These rice balls are eaten with steamed & dried fish and washed down with the ‘Handia’ brew.
THE JAP CONNECTION
Pakhala, somehow has a Japanese connection with their ‘Matured Sushi’ more precisely ‘narezushi’ or matured sushi, the predecessor of what we know as ‘sushi’ today. This primordial form of fermented sushi was made by skinning, gutting and stuffing fish with cooked rice (water included) and salt; then stored in a wooden barrel that was smothered with some more salt weighed down with a tsukemonoishi(‘pickling stone’) and left to dry for six months. At that point, the product would remain edible for six days.
My interaction with my Japanese fraternity has given a lot of insights on the Japanese Matured Sushi and our traditional watered fermented rice ‘Phakhala Bhata’. I find that they both have a lot in common except that they are separated by thousands of miles. Today, the most famous form of ‘nare-zushi’ is ‘funa-zushi’, made from a type of carp (Rohu) found in Lake Biwa, northeast of Japan’s ancient capital of Kyoto. But this variant is somewhat of a rarity today. But one thing is established, that our ‘handia’ is a crude form of the distilled ‘sake’.
THE KNOCK-OUT PUNCH
Well, this calls for a small disclaimer: As much as it is a delicacy, ‘Pakhala’ especially when it is fermented, packs a real punch if not had in moderation. If you choose to try the fermented version on a weekday, it is advisable to avoid long boring meetings at office. The sleep inducing prowess of this version ought to be tried to be believed ! Its a semi-intoxicated feeling which has helped the peasants and the working class to toil hard in the glaring sun. Not only does it keep the digestive juices at bay for longer, it also cools down the body thus shielding it from the heat. It is also a relatively low cost option for the poor and the quality and number of side dishes often indicates the financial condition of the consumer!