khira Poda Pitha

7:44 PM


 
In a country where birth of a girl child is mourned, it was heart-warming to know of a festival that honours the womanhood. Raja parba or Raja festival is a three-day celebration in Orissa where femininity and fertility of Earth and that of Women are revered.

The word 'Raja', pronounced as Rawjaw is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Rajas’ meaning menstruation and a menstruating woman is called ‘Rajawshwala’. In an agrarian economy like India, Land has always been considered a mother, a mother that creates and sustains life. In Mythology too, it is believed that at the onset of Monsoon, ‘Bhudevi’ (the Mother Earth), the wife of Lord Jagannatha goes through her menstrual cycle and needs to rest. The land thus is not touched or disturbed by carrying on any sort of agricultural work. In agricultural words, the land actually is given a chance to heal from the summer heat in preparation for the upcoming important agricultural cycle that starts with the monsoon.

The day before this three-day celebration period is known as ‘saja baja’ where the entire kitchen and the grinding stone (shil nora/ shil batta) are cleaned. Food is cooked, and spices are ground on this day so that the women can enjoy themselves and take rest from housework during the festivity.  unmarried girls are treated with new clothes, pieces of jewellery and nourishing food by all their relatives and neighbours. flower-adorned rope swings are hung from big trees for them to have a joyous celebration. 

Practically this three-day celebration brings in a much-needed break for everyone. Even the men got some relaxed time before the upcoming agricultural cycle and strenuous work in the field during monsoon. 

Since Earth could not be disturbed, the use of 'chulha' (wood fire oven) and grinding stones are also prohibited. It limits the possibility of cooking. Most households prepped and made various rice cakes or Pitha on the day of Saja baja. One of the most popular pitha for this festive time is poda pitha, a slow-baked concoction of the regular pithe ingredients of rice, sugar, coconut and sometimes milk. This dry sweet stays good the entire duration of the festivities hence is a popular choice.

I probably will never stop wondering how our ancestors took only a few handfuls of ingredients and applied different cooking techniques to come up with so many different varieties of pithe that has different taste, texture and look. This poda pitha is one such genius creation by them. Rice and sometimes biri or urad dal are soaked, ground to a fine paste and mixed with dry fruits, sugar or jaggery and coconut, lined with banana or Shal leaves and left to bake overnight in the dying embers. The resulting cake has a deliciously charred bottom that gives it a unique flavour and its very name- poda pitha or burnt rice cake.

Like most good things in life this cake also comes in many versions. Some bake the raw batter, some ferment it a little to give it a slight tang and some cook the batter on heat to get to a thick and gooey consistency before baking. While the raw batter results in a light and fluffy pitha, the cooked dough gives it a dense and chewy texture.

Growing up in Coastal Midnapore, Poda pitha was part of our dessert repertoire. We made various seasonal versions of it. Wonderfully golden ones in Monsoon with ‘taler mar’, the sweet thick juice from toddy palm or brownish Nolen gur (date palm jaggery) sweetened ones in winter laced with some warming flavour of ginger. But what I did not know about is the pristine white pudding-like ‘khira saku’ or the kheer/ thickened milk poda pitha. Thanks to the blogging fraternity I got to know about it when I posted my poda pitha recipe 3 years back. This uber soft treat, dotted with coconut and nuts and laced with cardamom, is a joy to bite into.

So I made it for this ‘Rajaw’ and while everyone reached for second and third helping, I remembered all the mothers before me, who gave birth, nourished, and sustained life on Earth and asked nothing in return for themselves. Just thinking about such selfless love is a lesson in gratitude. But it probably is time to teach our daughters to stand up for their rights and be respected for who they are as persons rather than only for their femininity or fertility.

Khira Poda Pitha

(Makes a big pitha, sufficient for 8-10 people)

Ingredients:

Raw Rice, I used short grain Kamini rice: 1 cup

Milk: 4 cups

Sugar: ½ cup

Water: 1 cup

Coconut: ½ cup

Cashews: handful

Raisins: handful

Green cardamom-4-5

Ghee: 2 tbsp

Salt: ½ tsp

Banana leaf: 1

Method:

Wash and soak the rice for at least 4 hours.

Grind it to a smooth paste. If you are using the mixer use ½ cup water to grind this. Now add ½ more cup water to this paste and mix.

Scrape or grind the coconut to fine pieces. I sliced a few pieces too for textural difference.

Take a pressure cooker, a non stick fry pan or another heavy bottom pan. I used my iron kadhai for this. Line it with banana or shal leaf. I did not have much shal leaf so layered some Annapurna/payes pata/ pandan leaf which imparted a nice aroma to the pitha. Grease generously with ghee.

Take a heavy bottom pan and heat 1 tbsp ghee. Fry the nuts till golden, saute the raisin for some time and keep aside.

Add the milk to this pan and bring it to a boil. Add the coconut, salt and sugar. Stir till sugar dissolves.

Keep the flame to low and mix the rice paste slurry once again. Add it to the milk while stirring continuously. Add the nuts. The milk will start to thicken. Be alert to stir it or lumps will start to form. Keep cooking for 4-5 minutes or till the whole mixture becomes a soft lump. Switch off.

Pour the mixture in the lined and greased pan and smoothen the top and grease with ghee. Cover with a tight-fitting lid. Cook this on the lowest flame for min 25 minutes or until the sides start to brown. Carefully turn this on a plate and turn it again in the cooking pan to roast the opposite side again. Do cook the other side for 10-15 minutes and then switch off the flame.

After 10 minutes take it out of the pan and peel the leaves only when it is cool to touch.



Cut and serve at room temperature.

Keep this saved in the fridge in an air tight container.

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