Bengali

Kholajali Pitha

10:31 PM

Eggs and fish in your pitha? As she asked the question, I could see her nose twitching in disdain. But the 10 years old me by then was seasoned enough to deal with such questions and hardly cared enough of what others thought of my food. So sharp went my answer  ‘ yes, fish and egg and they are quite delicious too. If you want to try here it is.” My open tiffin box with sobji and macher puli (fish stuffed rice cake) went as an offering.

What happened after that is not the subject of this post. Rather when I look back to this I see a perfect case study for what Edmund Leach explained as, ‘cooking is thus universally a means by which nature is transformed into culture and categories of cooking are always peculiarly appropriate for us as symbols of social differentiation.” As a self proclaimed student of food studies this often brings me to the question whether in a country characterised by the caste system we are defined by what we choose to eat and vice-versa.

Food has a thousand connotations, you could look into it with a rose-tinted glass of nostalgia, can play with it to create a sensory experiences, or can use it as a divisive weapon.  The choice is yours to make. But with the rising intolerance in society, it is becoming more obvious how we have a preconceived notion of what is food and what is not. This is not a new phenomenon. Wading through the pages of history and anthropology will reaffirm that food preference and culinary intolerances are as old as humans coming together to form and live in society. As Claude Levi-Strauss said, “food emotions are just a learned aspect of cultural conduct and member shipping which however contribute powerfully to the creation and maintenance of social boundaries, kinship system, and power hierarchies”.

Truly, As dictated by society, this culinary casteism not only decides what is food and what is not but what kind of food should be eaten on what occasion.

The incident that I narrated, in the beginning, is an example of that. Poush sankranti in West Bengal, for the Hindu Bengalis is as much a cultural festival as it is religious. While celebrating the new harvest we offer puja to the giver of food, Goddess Lakshmi or Dhanyalakshmi. As a custom, we abstain from anything non-vegetarian during this time. But in Bangladesh for the Bengali Muslims it’s the joy of the new harvest that they celebrate with good food both veg and nonveg. The food here is an important marker to identify who we are as a group. It is on us whether we use it as a marker to differentiate and shame or embrace the diversity.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a household where food was food, It never mattered from which community the food practice or recipes ever came from. The only marker my parents allowed in their kitchen is 'it had to be tasty and nutritious'.  We loved our Dhuki pitha with khasir mangsho (goat meat) that Rowshenara masi will cook for us in winter or would never twitch an eye to pair our soru chakuli pitha with duck meat or duck egg curry or making Macher or shutki macher pithe (dry fish stuffed pithe). 

But that was at home. In the outside world our choices were often questioned. along with our native food from Midnapore which many people thought were the food of the poor and ridiculed us for eating those. It hurt me badly as a kid but with time I learned to deal with it. 

Another aspect of food that intrigues me is how food travels from one place to another and we can draw parellels between food from different geographical locations. When I look at this kholajali pithe with the numerous tiny holes on the surface, it instantly reminds me of Kerala's Appam, Moroccan Baghrir or Malaysian Apam Balik. Probably another fascinating and unknown journey of food from one place tracing which we can learn a lot about the journey of our ancestors. Thier journey for survival, the cultural amalgamations and people embracing food, making it thier own and adapting it using local ingredients and techniques.

Though same in texture, kholajali for me is more complex in technique - as it does not use any leavening agent like the other two. It uses a simple fact that when liquid batter touches the very hot surface of an Earthen pan it creates vapour, while trying to escape the vapour in turn creates hundreds of tiny holes giving it a net like appearnce. It’s the sheer ingenuity of our ancestors who played with a handful of items and applied various techniques to come out with so many different types of pithes with different textures, shapes, and tastes.

As a food enthusiast it’s an honour for me to learn and document those for the future generation.

The name kholajali refers to the words 'khola' or Earthen pan and 'jali' or net. While the first refers to the Earthen cooking pan/tawa the later, to the unique net-like texture. I believe this pitha originated in the Eastern parts of Bengal and is very famous in the Noakhali district of Bangladesh.

One can pair it with either sweet or savoury sides. In our home, it’s a winter ritual to have it with a spicy duck meat curry called Haser mangsher kalia.

This recipe calls for only three ingredients which I am talking about in the following section.

Rice flour: If you are planning to make it I would urge you to make your own rice flour which with the help of a mixer grinder is not a very difficult job. I in my next post will try to write in detail how to make your own rice flour.

Alternatively, you can soak atop or sundried rice overnight and can make a smooth paste out of it to make this pithe.

Egg: if possible use duck egg or country chicken egg as they are bigger. If you are using poultry eggs please substitute each duck egg with 1.5 of those.

Water: we need to use both warm water and room temperature water. Please read the recipe to know which one to use at what stage.

Earthen tawa: That gives the best result and we need to heat the Earthen pot on medium heat (gas burner) at least for 10 minutes before starting the process.

In case you do not have an earthen tawa use non-stick or seasoned cast iron one.

 Kholajali Pitha

(Makes 7-8)



Ingredients:

Rice flour: 1 cup (atop or raw rice)

Duck egg: 1 OR poultry egg one and half

Pinch of salt

To season the earthen pot 1 tablespoon of mustard oil mixed with 1 tbsp of water

Method:

Preparing the batter

Sieve the flour and place it in a big bowl. Add a pinch of salt.

Heat 1 cup of water till the water starts to simmer. Take off and mix with the flour. Depending on the quality of the flour the quantity will vary. Start with less water and gradually add more to get the right consistency.

Mix to get a lump-free batter and keep it pourable yet thick like a slightly thinner pancake batter.  Keep it aside for 5-7 minutes till it cools down a bit then add the egg and mix.

Now adjust the consistency with room temperature water. The thickness should be enough to pour and spread easily by swirling the pan. Please check the associated video.

Cooking the pitha.


Check this video to understand the consistency of the batter and the cooking technique

Heat the pan to very hot then keep the heat to medium. Take the oil and water mixture in a small piece of cloth and wipe the surface of the pan. Pour a ladleful and carefully by holding the two sides of the pan swirl it to cover the surface. Cover the pan with a lid and cook on medium-high for 30 seconds or till the top changes colour and is cooked. Using a khunti or a spatula take it out.

Serve hot with any side of your choice. 

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