I have never been a dessert fan while growing up. Pithe and Puli was definitely not something which I would crave for. My neighborhood in Bandel and as well as in Chandannagore, had many families and bangal families (the ones having their roots in erstwhile Bangladesh) in particular, who would make pithe and pulis and send it across to our home. It was the same case when I would visit some friends, whose mothers would not let us leave the house without having Pithe or Puli.
Rarely, I would analyze the taste, shape or texture of these sweets as the childhood hurry and excitement was always focussed on the next game. Pithes and Pulis almost symbolises the festival of Makar Sankranti. Sankranti is a harvest festival celebrated all across India in various names – Lohri in Punjab, Pongal in South India, Magh Bihu in Assam, Uttaranayana in Gujarat and many more. One day, which marks the beginning of the end of winter and start of the longer days and freshly harvested rice for West bengal and other parts. Food forms an important part of the celebration. Carefully handcrafted some of the Pitha or the Pulis would carry so much of stories with them. While the Pulis are elongated rice flour dumplings stuffed with coconut jaggery and can be of various shapes, the pithes are normally flat shaped with a resemblance to crepes or sometimes round dumplings. The fillings or the pur as known in bengali, can differ from one to the other. The ones which are served as a sweet dish will use Sugar syrup, kheer, datepalm jaggery or Nolen gur and other sweet syrups.
It has been couple of years that I have started liking Sarson da saag.I am not a lover of any saag, perhaps thats one of the reason I had never taken a liking towards sarson ka saag in the past and perhaps, I never came across a good sarson ka saag too. If Pithe and Puli are the food mascots of harvest festival or Makar Sankranti in Bengal, then what the Maharaja was to Indian Airlines, Sarson the Saag is to Lohri Festival. It’s exactly 13 years that I experienced my first and only Lohri festival. On an official off site conference, we assembled at Lonavala and the Head of HR – Ms Mandeep Maitra, a Punjabi married to a Bengali gentleman insisted that the entire team celebrates Lohri. In the lawns of her sprawling Bungalow in Lonavala, we participated in the celebrations. How celebrations bring people together from the length and breadth of the country cannot have a better example. A boy from Chandannagore, experienced his first Lohri, a punhabi festival in Lonavala in Maharashtra.
I realise that my food horizon is slowly expanding the boundaries and next on the list for me is to be a part of Pongal celebrations. Sankranti should be remembered as one festival which unites the country on the same day, without any communal link up, without any particular God in forefront but food as the main protagonist. We all know food somehow plays a central role in any festival of Bengalis and also to a large extent for India but how many festivals are only centred around food? Do you think there is any other day in the year when food is the main deity and celebrations happen centered around food?
This claypot oven which has been used for making this Nonta Pithe has been lying idle for a long time and somehow because of circumstances, it has not been used. Finally Madhushree got a reason to start it. It took me to a journey back to the past when food was cooked in clay oven only. Nonta is the common term used in Bengali for Savoury items and we filled the Nonta pithe with winter vegetables of green peas, red carrots and flavoured with coriander leaves. A very simple dish almost similar to an idli expect that this does not require fermentation and can be made instantly. Another notable feature, especially if made in a ‘shora’ (the clay pot similar to an appam patra) and then over a clay oven is the smokiness along with some flavour from the clay pot in the pitha as well as the slight char at the bottom which makes the bottom crispy while the inner part of the pitha soft is interesting. This is a variation from chitoi pitha or shora pitha since the pitha is made in the shora. Chitoi pitha, on the other hand is sweet. While this dish may not be a popular one and definitely not the one making rounds with recipe in social media, it is worth the try and don’t worry if you cannot find a clay over. One can make it over a gas stove too.
I started comparing Pithe and Puli with dessert but can they actually be classified as a dessert? Perhaps no.