As the mercury rises beyond levels of tolerance and the water-levels of our bodies dip under the levels accepted, we need to devise ways to fight the heat. For Odias who believe that both the world wars could have been avoided with good food, this problem of summer is no big deal. We have the exact dish that can help you rejuvenate after the energy is sucked out of you by the scorching sun.
We call it Pakhala bhata or the fermented rice. It’s hard to imagine a household in Odisha where you won’t see a ‘kansa’ (large bowl) with pakhala in it during the summers. Talking of its history, it’s not global warming which made us invent this dish. In fact Odias have this dish in their cuisine since time immemorial. Its rich history dates back to many centuries ago, when Lord Jagannath was first offered the Chappan Bhog or the 56 delicacies. In his menu, this dish of ours stands tall till date.
The poor man’s dish, Pakhala or Basi(stale) Pakhala to be precise, is made out of very basic ingredients and can be accompanied with the simplest of side-dishes. Fresh rice is usually fermented in water for eight to twelve hours. The water is known as ‘torani’ and is extremely sour. A dash of lemon or curd, chopped green chilies, a hint of ginger, roasted cumin-seed-powder and a pinch of salt weave the magic and create that intoxicating sour extravaganza in the bowl, the smell of which is impossible to resist.
Recently, there have been a few variants which try to retain the sour taste without the fermentation process. Fresh pakhala or saja pakhala as we like to call it, is a comparatively new phenomenon where lemons do their bit to make it sour or curd is poured generously to convert it into the very popular Dahi-pakhala.
The saja pakhala has a thumbs-up from the urbane crowd and it gets served in restaurants in and around Odisha. But the basi pakhala, and the essence of it is still very high. In our homes, with the strained minds and sun-burnt faces, when we seek rejuvenation, a bowl of the traditional pakhala can take us on a ride of the different planets. No kidding! It’s that good.
It goes best with another typical Odia dish called ‘badi chura’. Rice and urad dal are mixed and made into a paste which is later solidified to make badi. Badi chura is the powdered badi with a tinge of lemon and diced onions in it. It tastes amazing even otherwise but with Pakhala bhata, it’s ‘the dish’ to be savored.
With Pakhala bhata and badi chura in front of the eyes, one does not actually need much to get started. But we have always believed in variety. Hence, we offer the roasted potatoes and brinjals, usually semi-burnt , and a dish of spinach (saga bhaja) for the vegetarians. For the non-vegetarian lot, fried fish does the magic.
The dish has retained its majesty even in the times of Zinger burgers and the cheese-burst pizzas. And such is the spell cast by this dish that never will a true Odia trade his bowl of pakhala for a pizza. Never will a ‘khanti-odia’ dude barter away his badi-chura for a sachet of oregano, ever.
So, in this sweltering heat, when you return home after a day’s hard-work, you know the ingredients of the magic-potion exactly. Go, ahead. Get your hands wet and we guarantee that when you take a handful of the rice into your mouth, followed by the crispy badi-chura and the crunchy onions you’ll undoubtedly end up saying the three words before you let out a proud and content burp-“ Aah! Ki shanti!”
PS: It induces sleep. Please avoid it if you have plans to meet with your girlfriend/boyfriend/clints/boss in sometime.