Pakhala Bhaat 1 Scaled

Pakhala .. Rice and other lessons in Humility

In this age of fancy foods and complicated plating, nothing can come close to comfort food. It’s what we grow up eating, it’s what becomes a part of our culinary DNA.

Rice invariably is a common factor across all our Indian cuisines. For many of us, the quintessential Dal/ Rajma-chawal, Sambaar/Rasam-Rice, Khichdi or Curd Rice continues to be irreplaceable. And not just Rice in its fresh cooked form, but leftover rice too.

In many cultures, leftover rice is dried as Vadi and used in curries later; in some they are mixed with lentils and vegetables to make simple Chillas or pancakes. In yet other cuisines, soaked leftover rice makes for a highly nutritious gruel, popularly known as Kanji or Congee.

The concept of Congee finds its place in history as far back as 1000 BC, attributed to the Zhou dynasty. But interestingly, Congee derives from the Tamil word ‘Kanji’ and its sibling etymologies, ‘Ganji’ in Telugu & Kannada, ‘Kanni’ in Malayalam and ‘Ganji’ in Urdu, which basically refers to the water in which rice has been cooked.

Avoiding food wastage is inherent in our cuisine. The concept essentially is not just rooted in food preservation and sustainability at every level but also an understanding of the science behind every ingredient and cooking process.

Let’s talk about the upscaling process of leftover rice across our country.

For example, in South India, leftover rice would be topped off with some water and left overnight. Mixed with buttermilk and served with basic ingredients like onions, curry leaves and green chilies, it made for a super nutritious farmer’s breakfast.

Additionally, it helped cool down the system for the long, hot day ahead.

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A similar dish exists in East Indian cuisine called the Panta bhat, Poita bhat or Pakhala. The dish is popularly served during Pohela Boishakh too.

The much celebrated Pakhala Divas or Pakhala Day is a humble ode to this simple, yet potent dish that’s actually an elixir for the scorching summer heat.

There’s science involved here too. The rice soaked overnight is loaded with more micronutrients than its fresh counterpart. Also, the resistant starch in rice feeds the good bacteria that are healthy for the gut.

Also goes to show that we understood fermentation long ago and how controlled fermentation of rice improves its nutrition profile. This technique was and is being used across India in different forms unique to each cuisine.

I once tasted an East Indian Kanji curry, flavoured with coconut, coriander paste & leftover seafood; resplendent with umami, nutty & astringent flavours, it is one of the best Kanji dishes I have had.

Across the western coast, Pez is a popular kanji in the Konkan cuisine that is typically served during common ailments, as it is light on the stomach.

Kerala cuisine has 2 interesting variants, the Karkidaka Kanji, a medicinal gruel prepared during the monsoons. Another is the Nombu kanji, that’s popular among the Mappilah or Moplah Muslims as also the Tamil muslims and Beary muslims and consumed during Ramadan. It’s excellently soul warming & nutritious after the day long fasting.

Fermented variants exist too. For instance Kaanji in Odisha is a wholesome dish wherein the rice starch is fermented for a few days and served with dal and vegetables of the season.

Amidst the rediscovered rage for probiotics, it’s great to see us making a transition back to our classics like the Kanji.

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