Blame it on my Ghoti upbringing. My ancestral home was in Bardhaman, my mother had her roots in Bankura. More than a feeling of apartheid towards the people from Bangladesh (who actually chose to settle in this part of the country), it was a disconnect stereotypes associated with Bangals and other than Kochu and Shutki Machh, it was also Panta Bhat.
I now realise that my parents were wrong, as panta bhat has nothing to specifically do with Bangals but was a very convenient summer cooler feeder for rural Bengal to start off with. There are many things which I haven’t tasted till now and Panta Bhat was one such. A very hassle free dish, this has nutritional quality more than the normal rice and I could only think of a Buddha Bowl which can be compared with this.
The process is simple, you make the rice and keep it overnight to ferment and next day morning have it with the fermented water which is almost like a stock here. Add some salt, mustard oil to taste, squeeze some lemon, have sliced onions and a green chili handy by your plate. We spiked it up with deep fried Hilsa and it was heaven. No guilt, no worry of indigestion, very simple yet few flavours play on your tastebuds. The best part of this was it’s easy to digest and extremely cooling to the body. So urban are we that both of us caught a cold after having panta bhat for two consecutive meals. However, in our defense, it wasn’t really summer then. Concentrate on your bowl and realise that at times minimum luxury gives you maximum pleasure.
I have this memory from Calcuta Book Fair when I was only 8 years old. I went to get an autograph from a very well known poet and for some strange reason, he had predicted that my Father in law would be a Bangal. His prediction came true when I married a Bangal who is more of an Indian citizen than from Kolkata and cannot speak Bangal dailect at all. Incidentally, Madhushree also had Panta Bhat for the first time. Food also clears boundaries and doubts. As it had to happen, the Ghoti perhaps is now more fond of the Panta Bhat than the bangal.
While this post was fermenting, March 20th happened to be Pakhaladibas and an online conversation with food researcher and writer Tanushree, an Oriya and foodblogger Om and a food blogger and also an Oriya Asish Nayak scooped up lots of facts about Pakhala. Just like the Panta, the Pakhala also gets fermented and the fermentation varies across regions and households. Some even ferment it for more than 1 night but most of the times it is perceived as a lower caste event. As I had Ilish Machh Bhaja, Ashish confirmed that a nicely done fried fish in mustard oil and Ashish’s dad would spend an hour flavouring of the Pakhala with finely chopped green chilies, dahi, kagzi lemon, garlic and mango ginger. In case you wanna add more flavours then Badhi chura (crushed badi with coriander, garlic, onions and green chili) is a must. An alu mash. And, a mash of fresh coriander leaf, garlic, chili and water from the pakhala to serve as a dip for cucumber etc.
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