My mother strongly believes that the best things in life come simple — with a pinch of salt and a drizzle of lemon juice. While the philosophical undertones of this notion only became clear to me as an adult, it is also amazing how it seamlessly translates into the food she cooks — heavily influenced by eastern India’s overlapping culinary textures, it is the epitome of gastronomic complexity packed inside a rather simple platter. One such wonder that she and many mothers of the region lovingly create, is the Bengali panta bhat, a fermented rice dish.
Also known as poita bhat in Assam, geel bhat in Bihar and pakhala in Odisha, this simple yet flavoursome dish is a centuries-old recipe of fermented watery rice, served with a variety of sides like spiced mashed potatoes (aloo sheddo), onion or lentil fritters, smoked eggplant (begun pora), deep-fried fish, curd or just a dollop of kasundi, a paste made using fermented mustard seeds.
In Assam, poita bhat is consumed during the Bohag Bihu festivities in small portions after whisking it with a hand fan, as a symbol of welcoming the summer season. Almost every region in India, including parts of South India where it is popular as pazhaya sadham (also known as pazhaya soru) and chaddannam (Andhra Pradesh and Telangana), seems to have a variation of this dish, which is the ultimate cooling probiotic packed with various micro-nutrients including Vitamin B12.
Whatever the name, the simple combination of leftover rice, water, salt and lemon (preferably gondhoraj lebu) juice is not just breathtaking taste-wise but is also extremely healthy, and a rather useful tool to beat the scorching heat during the summers. Many elders, including my grandmother would often add, that consuming this in the morning would help in weight-control and enhance bone strength.
Leftover Rice on Water, a Medical Miracle?
Traditionally fermented for almost 12 hours overnight, this easy-to-prepare rice concoction continues to be served as a quick morning breakfast in various households, especially the ones run by people whose livelihood depends on physical labour. It not only fills the belly on a budget, but also provides the much-needed nutrition for the strenuous job.
It is for these reasons that panta bhat is considered by many to be a poor man’s breakfast. However, it is entirely possible that they did not know about its proven nutritional benefits.
In an interview with The Telegraph, Madhumita Barooah, an Associate Professor in the Assam Agricultural University, explained the nutritional value of fermented rice over the usual cooked rice.
“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 100gm of cooked rice to 850 mg, after 12 hours of fermentation of the same quantity of rice,” she explained.
Barooah adds that despite rice being an important dietary staple for a majority in the country, it is not a good source of metabolic micro-nutrients, due to the presence of anti-nutritional factors such as phytic acid, which however gets considerably reduced through the process of fermentation.
“Cereal grains such as rice also contain oligosaccharides that are not easily digestible because of absence of an enzyme in the human intestinal mucosa. Fermentation allows for breakdown of this and easy digestion” she adds.
And because of this quality, in several households of India, this rice concoction is also served to the sick especially those suffering from constipation or fever, for speedy recovery. Rich in vitamin B12, Vitamin B and potassium, it is famed to prevent fatigue, cure ulcer and even reduce blood pressure.
Although usually made out of parboiled rice, another report by the Deccan Chronicle adds that if brown rice is fermented and consumed in a similar manner, the increase in magnesium and selenium levels helps strengthen bones and to a certain degree, even prevent the onset of diseases like arthritis and cancer.
From a “Poor-Man’s Breakfast” to a Fine-Dine Experience
Today, food enthusiasts, chefs and nutritionists have not only introduced several ways of making the humble panta bhat, but have also freed it from the shackles of social status.
Served as part of a fine-dine experience in several posh restaurants, food festivals and featured by food bloggers, panta bhat is now a super food, sought out by foodies both in India and abroad.
For instance, in West Bengal, both during the Bengali New Year, or otherwise, several restaurants are serving items like, ‘panta platter’, panta thali’ and ‘panta with fried fish’, at competitive prices owing to its rising popularity.
Even in Kerala, a zero-waste sustainable restaurant, Pappadavada, Kochi is now serving fermented rice known as pazhankanji in Malayalam, as a gourmet dish, with side of tapioca and coconut chutney, small onions, pickle, curd and green chillies. According to restauranteur, Minu Pauline, the sale of pazhankanji is heightened both by its rehydrating and health benefits as well as a nostalgia factor.
But, beyond this razzmatazz and under all the fancy garnishing, to the initiated, panta bhat is and forever will be a humble whiff of nostalgia filled with sweet and tangy memories at every single ‘gorash’ (morsel).
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)