The cool quotient of Panta bhat
Long before it became a rage on Masterchef Australia, the simple peasant dish was renowned for its cooling and nutritious properties
Panta bhat, a home-cooked traditional staple from the east, has suddenly become a global culinary sensation. This is because Kishwar Chowdhury, the Melbourne-born chef of Bangladeshi origin, at the recently-concluded MasterChef Australia Season 13 contest, brought it into the limelight. This humble fermented rice dish is touted as a poor man’s daily staple. Panta bhat goes back to traditional food wisdom in which cooked rice is soaked overnight in water. This fermented rice is packed with probiotics (healthy bacteria) and can prevent unregulated immune responses.
And though Kishwar gave her own twist to the dish, ‘Smoked Rice Water’, this rural breakfast dish is consumed in several parts of India and is known by as many names — panta bhat in Bengal, pakhala bhat in Orissa, vella choru or pazhankanji in Kerala, pazhaya soru in Tamil Nadu. In most states where the grain is a staple, soaking leftover rice in water overnight and consuming it the following day made sense at a time when refrigerators were not available.
The quality of the rice matters — panta shouldn’t ideally be made with aromatic rice (such as long-grain Basmati). In villages, the soaked rice is eaten with a little mustard oil, onion slices and green chilli and lemon. Depending on the economic conditions, people eat it with mashed boiled potatoes or with fried fish.
The practice of consuming fermented food has a long history in India. And with the deeper exploration of Indian fermented foods continuing this year, too, as predicted by Godrej Food Trends Report 2021, panta bhat is having its moment under the spotlight.
Here’s a look at the various avatars of this ubiquitous ‘peasant dish.’
Panta bhat, Bengal
In the hot summer months, the fermented rice dish has been a common phenomenon across eastern India. To delve deep into history, the Portuguese Augustinian missionary and traveller, Fray Sebastien Manrique, in his accounts of Bengal in the 17th century, observed that people of all communities ate this cooling dish along with leafy greens and salt in Chittagong, currently in Bangladesh.
In Bengal, during Saraswati puja in February, the tradition of consuming fermented rice still prevails in many households. This is the annual ritual of eating gota sheddho (boiled seasonal vegetables) such as baby and sweet potatoes, broad beans, shojne phool (drumstick flowers), baby eggplants, and green peas. This one-pot dish is cooked overnight, left at room temperature and consumed cold the following day with panta bhat.
Pakhala bhat, Orissa
Good for the digestive system, this fermented dish from Orissa is also served as part of Lord Jagannath’s bhog. This simple rice and curd dish is a staple lunch meal in all Odia households, especially in summer. In fact, Odias worldwide even celebrate Pakhala Dibasa (Universal Pakhala Day) on March 20 each year. Over the years, different varieties of the Pakhala have come into existence — dahi pakhala, chunka pakhala tempered with curry leaves, green chillies, ginger and cumin seeds; basi (stale) pakhala, saja pakhala in which water is added to cooked rice and eaten fresh and the mitha pakhala prepared with fruits and tempered with roasted cumin seeds.
Poita bhat, Assam
This power-packed one-pot fermented rice dish is eaten during the festival of Bihu. It is usually served with aloo pitika (mashed potato) or pura masor pitika (mashed grilled fish).
This rice gruel in Kerala is a staple breakfast dish and is touted as a superfood. Water is added to leftover rice after dinner and left to ferment. The dish is ready to eat in the morning, served with Kanthari chilli, salt and thick curd or mango chutney, fish curry or tapioca.
Pazhaya soru, Tamil Nadu
In Tamil Nadu, this traditional fermented rice dish is a great morning booster served with buttermilk topped with shallots and green chillies. The water from the fermented rice is said to cure stomach ailments, while the starch is good for the hair, skin and pigmentation.
Do you know of any other fermented rice dish? Share in the comment section below.