Long before ‘Masterchef’, the humble fermented rice dish was cool in its own right
When I called up a distant aunt the other day and mentioned how a version of the panta bhat, or poita bhat, as we call it in Assam, has made it to the grand finale of an internationally acclaimed food show, her immediate reaction was surprise. “Really?” she exclaimed, “Ordinary poita bhat?”
The Melbourne-born chef of Bangladeshi origin, Kishwar Chowdhury, may not have won the recently concluded MasterChef Australia contest, but by wowing the judges with her panta bhat, she has brought into the limelight a humble dish that’s consumed in several parts of India and is called by as many names. For Bengalis, it’s panta bhat, for Odiyas, pakhala bhat, for Malayalis, vella choru or pazham kanji, for Tamils, pazhaya soru. Chowdhury gave her own twist to this dish, presenting it as Smoked Rice Water.
But in each of its versions, the essence of the dish remains the same: leftover rice, fermented overnight in water. Its versatility lies in the way it can take on a range of accompaniments or stand on its own.
Ideal for summer
My first introduction to this dish was at the age of 10 or 11 on a hot and humid summer day. As I waited for my parents to pick me up from school, my best friend invited me for a quick snack at her home, a stone’s throw away. “No harm,” I thought and followed her. We took off our shoes at the door and as she ran in to call her mom, I noticed her grandmother slurping what looked like watery gruel from a bowl. There it was, poita bhat.
Curious, I asked my friend if we could have some of that. And I can never forget that taste. With a dash of mustard oil and lime juice, it was one of the best summer meals I have ever had. We gorged on the accompaniments too — aloo pitika (mashed potato) and bengena bhoja (eggplant fritters), which are popular side dishes served with poita bhat in Assam — and slurped our way to the end.
The next time I relished it as much was years later, when I was on an assignment in Odisha. A field worker invited me to an impromptu lunch and as we sat down to feast on an array of dishes, he pulled out a bowl of what looked like poita bhat. “Pakhala bhat,” he said, “In the hot summer months, this is my staple meal.” Needless to say, he had to forego much of his pakhala bhat as I slurped it up with green chillies, onion and lime.
Light on the stomach, cooling and nutritious, poita bhat’s origins are as simple as the dish. In most States where rice is a staple, soaking the leftover portion in water overnight and consuming it the next morning made sense at a time when refrigerators were not common. This ensured there was no wastage. Left to ferment overnight, the gruelly rice has a high starch content, which sustained farmers and manual labourers for a long period of time after they ate it for breakfast. As we know today, its high Vitamin B12 and probiotic content makes it good for health. Poita bhat was also easy to prepare, standing ready even before the kitchen fire was started for the day’s meals.
“Vella choru was my usual breakfast during schooldays,” says Nandini, my friend from Kerala, in our Whatsapp group. “I didn’t like eating dosa, idli or upma, but vella choru with curd I loved.” Sangya, my Odia friend, who now lives in Delhi, says she still eats pakhala bhat every once in a while. She shared a picture of her Amsterdam-based friend’s lunch the other day. On the table was a plate of colourful veggies and fritters, nestling close to a bowl of pakhala bhat.
1 cup of cooked rice soaked in
2 cups of water overnight
½ cup buttermilk or ¼ cup curd
2 tbsp onion, chopped
2 green chillies, chopped
Salt to taste
Let the cooked rice ferment in water overnight.
Next morning, pour the rice gruel in a bowl and add the buttermilk or curd. Mix well.
Add the chopped onion, chopped chillies and salt.
A dash of mustard oil and a wedge of lemon, and your poita bhat is ready to be served.
The writer is a Jodhpur-based freelance journalist.