My Beloved Pakhala
If you ever go through the history or food culture of any community of South East Asian countries, rice has always been ranked as the favorite diet. In Odisha, rice is synonymous with food. Agriculture in Odisha to a considerable extent means growing rice. Age-old social customs and festivals in Odisha have strong relevance to different phases of rice cultivation: Akhyatrutiya in May-June marks the seeding of rice, Raja sankranti in mid-June marks the completion of sowing, Garbhana sankranti in October symbolizes the reproductive phase of rice, while Nuakhai and Laxmipuja coincide with the harvesting of upland and low land rice, respectively. Makara sankranti in mid-January is celebrated as Chaita Parab by the tribal people as by this time rice is threshed and brought to the granary.¹
This doesn't end here. Our association with rice is way beyond that. The most important food described in ancient scriptures is Shakanna or Shaka (greens) + Anna (rice). Like, every other South East Asian community, we Odias love our rice bowl and has many ways to eat this simple rice.One of the most popular way is in the form of Pakhala. Pakhala, as suggested by some linguistic scholars, has been derived from Sanskrit word ‘prakhyalana’ which means to wash with water. In traditional Odia kitchens, the leftover rice was kept in a earthen pot and some water and small amount of curd/ lime juice was added to lengthen the shelf life of cooked rice, so that it can be preserved for a longer time. After 7–8 hours the rice starts to get fermented. This fermented, cooked rice is known as pakhala.
Globally, in every food culture, fermented food has an important role, be it Puto in Philippines, Kimchi in Korea or Brem Bali in Thailand. In fact, Kimchi is a very highly sought after food by the Buddhist monks in Korea. Basically fermentation of rice or vegetables is a century old practice, which involves slow development of these undercurrents of flavor.The alchemy of fermenting rice, deals a lot with time and ingredients available around.The transformation of rice through fermentation leads to creation of a completely new product, i.e. Pakhala. The D-lactic acid produced in the process of fermentation of rice, helps in building beneficial gut bacteria and increasing digestive ability of the body. It reduces blood pressure and regulates body temperature as well. In summer, when the mercury rises, days become sultry and humid, this very humble rice dish gives huge relief to the body.
There are different variants of Pakhala based on preparation time and addition of different spices/ ingredients in to it. Traditionally, pakhala is used from par boiled rice (usuna), while raw rice (arua) is used during festivals and in temples.
- Basi Pakhala : Basi or stale is basically, the most preferred Pakhala variant. This one has high D-lactic acid content in it and due to fermentation, this induces sleep. Rice is mixed with water and some curd is added to it. The container is stored in a cool, shade place to ease the process of fermentation. Once, its ready for consumption,salt is added to it and can be enjoyed with any accompaniment but preferably with machha bhaja (fish fries) and badi chura.
2. Saja Pakhala : Water is added to cooked rice and eaten fresh. Sometimes a dash of lemon is added to it. Saja is the Odia term for fresh. It is the most favored one,as it does not make you sleepy yet helps to beat the sun stroke. . Freshly cooked rice is used to prepare this pakhala. Some also call it chain pakhala. You can also add, the sap from the cut stem of a raw mango which gives an unique flavor to this Pakhala.
3. Sugandhi Pakhala : This is a favorite of Lord Jaganntha. In the cooked rice, grated ginger, roasted cumin seeds and salt are added along with water. You can also add say, some leaves of sweet lime.
4. Dahi Pakhala : Beaten curd is added to cooked rice and topped with roasted cumin and salt.
5. Chupuda Pakhala : ‘Chupuda’ means squeezed. Cooked rice is thoroughly washed in water and rice is squeezed out of water. This rice is then mixed with curd, sliced ginger, roasted cumin powder and salt before eating.
6. Mitha Pakhala : ‘Mitha’ means sweet in Odia. Well, this one is the most unusual variant. Adding sugar, sliced oranges,curd, grated ginger and roasted cumin makes this variety unique. Let me confess, this one is not a very popular variant. In some of the temples of Odisha, you will find this variant of Pakhala offered to the deities during summer.
I’ve listed a few variants of Pakhala and I’m sure there’ll be many based on individual choices and preferences. Along with Pakhala, a number of accompaniments are served. Mostly fish fries, dried fish or sukhua stir-fried in mustard paste (sukhuā rāi), badi churā, sāga(leafy greens) roasted vegetable chutney, alu bhajā (potato fingers, tawa fried), pickles (the combination can go up to n numbers) are popular accompaniments with pakhala.
In Odisha, pakhala is traditionally served in a bell metal bowl, known as a Kansa.
You’ll find many folk tales, songs and popular culture built around this pakhala kansa.
There is a cult song by Kabichandra Kali Charan, which starts with “Asa, jibana dhana mo pakhala kansa” that loosely translates into “Oh my beloved, bowl of pakhala”. The whole song has a description of Pakhala and its accompaniments.
Pakhala has been a savior for people like me who spent a major part of their lives in hostel & trying to adjust with multiple palates. In our early years of struggle in hostels, this humble Pakhala has always helped us to fight with hunger and homesickness, bringing us together over each morsel of rice. We owe our survival to that humble bowl of pakhala.
I am not sure, if a lot has ever happened over a cup of coffee or not, but definitely a lot happens over a bowl of pakhala or as we say, pakhala kansa.
Last, but not the least, I love Odisha & “Pakhala Kansa”.
Wishing everyone, a Happy Pakhala Dibasa.
Love and wishes,
(1): Rice in Odisha : By Dr. S R Das