Panta Bhat, Bengli style fermented rice

4:46 AM

In the 80’s when we were growing up summer vacation was a long affair, at least in the university town of Santiniketan that I call home. Those days in that land of red laterite soil, with no ac and frequent power cuts summer, was dry and dreaded. The only respites we had were the drenched khaskhas curtains and big bowlfuls of Panta bhat.
Panta bhat or slightly fermented overnight soaked rice has been a way of life in Rural Bengal. I believe the association goes back to the time when we discovered this grain and started consuming it. As fermentation expert Sandor Ellix Katz puts it, “Fermented foods were not exactly human inventions; they are natural phenomena that people observed and then learned how to cultivate." Following that preparing, Panta bhat was a mere way of saving the leftover rice for another meal.
Which turned out to have amazing properties of cooling down the body in Summer and keeping one hydrated and nourished for long. Something that our forefathers understood long ago and consuming panta bhat was made a part of life through many folktales and customs.
For instance, Arandhan or Rannapuja (cooking festival) which is observed right after the monsoon months (Bengali month Bhadra) come to an end and Shitol shoshti which is celebrated at the onset of spring- run on the same principle. Food is cooked, seasonal veggies and lentils are boiled and cooked rice is soaked all night for a meal the next day. Apart from having other religious reasons one important reason is to fortify and strengthen the body with all the micronutrients found in fermented food during these times of seasonal transitions.
Similarly, On the last day of Durga Puja, The Goddess is sent off to her home with a meal of Panta bhat and in our neighboring state of Orissa, Pakhala bhat is offered to Lord Jagannath as part of bhog. It has always been a part of our culture and ancient wisdom, but sadly for the urban people, the tradition never picked up and got confined to that one day only.
So Glad that, Food researchers like Madhumita Barooah found out that, "About 100 gm of cooked rice has only 3.4 mg of iron, while for the same quantity of rice fermented for 12 hours, the iron content went up to 73.91 mg. Likewise, sodium, which was 475 mg came down to 303 mg, potassium went up to 839 mg and calcium went up from 21 mg per 100 gm of cooked rice to 850 mg,." Or in simpler terms, fermentation helps in denaturing the phytic acid and improves the bioavailability of minerals and increases the content of riboflavin (very important for overall good health) and vitamin B. Which is amazing information to get someone started on this frugal meal.
With our roots and most relatives still living in the rural Midnapore and 24 parganas, panta bhat is a staple for us but I can still remember as kids we could not flaunt a meal of Panta bhat like the way I could today. It was considered as peasant food and lowly, that only poor people consumed. No matter how much I tried to convince them I was often taunted for my love of this humble cooling porridge were subjected to many jokes but somehow that could never deter us from having it. Come summer and couple of times every week maa would set leftover cooked rice to soak overnight for a lightly fermented meal. She would prepare a few simple side dishes for this meal along with young coconut strips and onion. And at mealtime for a change, we would have our meal in utter silence and head straight for a siesta afterward.
With so much interest and knowledge sharing about food, the situation has definitely changed nowadays. One can see there is some interest around panta bhat as well. I often see posts on an elaborate panta bhat spread or write-ups by fellow foodies spreading the awareness and making it popular. What makes me more happy that popular food joints are trying to make interesting versions of it for the urbane foodies.
I was taken aback when I found that Pakhala bhat is served in most Odia upmarket restaurants in Bangalore. It was another revelation when fellow blogger buddies shared their own fermented rice stories from a different culture. Like Sathis who is from Sri Lanka and writes a blog called Taste Pot, told me about Palaya Soru, where Palaya means old and soru is rice. This day old soaked rice is mixed with curd, curry leaves, green chilies, asafetida, etc and served with numerous sides like pickles, curd chilies, fish fry, etc.
Oriya Tonka Torani by Priyanka
For Priyanka of Treasure of food Who chronicles about Oriya food on Instagram, Pakhala bhat nudges a lot of memories of her childhood days spent with her grandparents on the banks of river Mahanadi. In those hot humid days, her grandma who is an avid cook would serve them Pakhal bhat with tiger prawns curry from the river. She still considers that one of the best meals of her life.
Preeti of My UK Kitchen, shared another similar fermented dish called ambil where jowar is mixed with yogurt and fermented overnight. Later this is tempered with ginger and green chilies and mixed with more buttermilk to serve as cooling nourishing summer drink.
Delving deep into it have revealed that some form of it is found in all the rice eating states and even other countries. In Assam Poita bhat is as popular as Pazhankanji or saddannam in down South.
Just across the river in Bangladesh, apart from being a staple for the farmers, this is hugely popular during the month of Boisakh and their Poila Boisakh (Bengali new year) ceremony is never complete without a bowl of Panta, myriad bhortas (mashed veggies and proteins) and fried Hilsa fish.
Khao Chae, Thailandtatler.com
A distant counterpart is even found in Thailand where rice is soaked in scented water and served with many accompaniments (khao chae). In China fermented sweet rice or Jiu Niang is eaten as a sweetened breakfast porridge and is even used for preserving seasonal produce.
But that one common thread, that runs through these cultures are the accompaniments. Panta bhat or in whatever name you call it, does not taste good unless the accompaniments are right. Here I see many a people raising their brows. Thinking to themselves how peasants survived an entire day only with onion and chilies and here I am trying to glorify the panta with many accompaniments.
 Right you are. They often ate it with a piece of raw onion and some mustard oil. But that crunch of the onion sure provided some textural interest to the mushy rice and the zing of the mustard oil complemented the slightly sour and salty taste of the meal. Even a meager meal like this unknowingly had taken into account the texture and flavours that complement each other.
Though the most famous pairing comes as panta and alu makha/ mawla, but depending on regions and homes a number of other elements are served along with it. For eg. In our home following our Midnapore roots, Bori chura (crispy fried sundried lentil pellets mashed with onion and chilies), crunchy fried tiny shrimps, which are available in plenty in the waterlogged farmland during rice cultivation or simply some mashed finely chopped onions with fire roasted red chilies are a must have. Another popular combination in Midnapore is sprinkling some Muri over the mashed rice. It provides some textural variation and imparts a nice soothing aroma to the rice. One combination that I personally do not care much is the famous one from the movie Namkeen, “ Panta Bhate Tatka begun pora) -Panta bhat with Begun pora or fire roasted brinjal with onion and chilies. The options are endless depending on the resources you have. But no matter how you pair it the end results are always delicious.
And when I say the end taste I refer to the remaining rice water that is left in the bowl, after you finish eating the rice. The water picks up each and every flavour that you pair your panta with. The tang from the Gandhoraj lemon, The spiciness of the chilies, the zingy flavour of the raw mustard oil, salt and that very earthy aroma of muri. Slurping that deliciousness at the end is ambrosial. Something that we kids fought for from Maa’s bowl because for us she mashed and mixed the panta the best.
Not only that, this rice water or Amani is a base for a soothing cooling drink in Bengal and Orissa too. In Bengal this slightly fermented water is mixed with phyan or cooked rice water and left to ferment in an earthen pot. And is served with a squeeze of lime and salt.
In Orissa the Amani is mixed with yogurt or buttermilk and flavoured with ginger and lemon leaves. These were part of our ancient drinks and kept us cool during the absence of refrigeration. We in the urban jungle might have lost touch but Luckily for us in a world far removed from this urban lifestyle with packaged drinks and superfoods, some people still follow this ancient knowledge and keep the tradition alive.
So what's your excuse of not having this fermented rice this summer? I might not help with any other dilemma but if you want some recipes I for sure can chip in.
Do check the recipes in my next post.

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