Indian Classic: Meethe chawal

While meethe chawal or sweet rice is a popular dish for springtime festivals, especially Baisakhi, it has many lesser-known benefits.

There is something curiously engaging about meethe chawal, says Chef Balpreet Singh Chadha, Executive Chef, The Park Kolkata, as he sifts through a selection of basmati rice that has just arrived from his hometown. Think about it, he says, “we take rice and more than that quantity of sugar and then slow cook it till all the sugar miraculously disappears leaving behind a dish that has this amazing balminess and sublime sweetness about it.”

Every region in india has its own version of meethe chawal.
Every region in India has its own version of meethe chawal. Image: Shuttestock.

And yet, through much of its existence, meethe chawal, known by different names across the country — Mittha in Himachal Pradesh; Kesariya Meethe Chawal in Rajasthan; Biranj in Gujarat; Mishti Bhaat in West Bengal; and Kanika in Odisha — has remained a lesser-known classic, mostly had during certain rituals or as part of a grand formal feast where it is paired with a contrastingly spicy dish. In the case of Punjab, that tradition is Baisakhi (and Holi), where freshly harvested paddy kernels are used to make a dish that in ancestry, says Punjabi culinary custodian Pratima Seth, “is said to be as old as kheer and malpua or apupa, and is part of Samhita’s foods that heal selections. It has been valued for its curative properties, especially its ability to instantly calm the mind and create this zen-like feeling.”

Which makes one wonder, why is it that little is known about the dish that is in wellness on par with kheer, halwa and the like? And, given its healing nature, why is it made so rarely that it doesn’t really feature in our comfort food or loved food barometer?

According to punjabi culinary custodian pratima seth, meethe chawal has curative properties.
According to Punjabi culinary custodian Pratima Seth, meethe chawal has curative properties.

A sweet history

Fascinatingly, continues Pratima, “unlike many of our delicacies that were designed by the vaids and then were elevated to royal tables and temples, meethe chawal’s origin, as per food lore and the Vedas, was as yagya prasadam, and finds mention in the Atharva Veda and later the Rig Veda as one of the seven rice preparations that are offered to the gods, albeit with one small difference: unlike others, meethe chawal that fell under the Odana (grains/rice cooked with milk or ghee) was prepared on the holy fire amidst the chanting of mantras in a pot, and followed the holy diktat of using no more than seven ingredients, all seasonal and locally grown.”

This, says Chef Chadha, “not only explains why the basic recipe of meethe chawal or charu as it was called back in the day is similar across India, including those regions that were once part of our country, as the ingredients used were readily available. India by that time was producing over 100 different kinds of rice with a major chunk of them fragrant; but its yagna connect ensured that every region had its own sweet rice, albeit with the difference of the type of rice, ghee and sugar used. While North India used the svadhu (the jaggery powder from processing sugarcane), East and South India preferred the one made from palm sap. For rice preference was given to fragrant, high-quality rice, which was the paddy variety ready for harvest around the time.”

Chef balpreet singh chadha finds meethe chawal to have a sublime sweetness to it.
Chef Balpreet Singh Chadha finds meethe chawal to have a sublime sweetness to it.

In North India, says Chef Sahil Arora, Executive Chef, Hyatt Regency Dehradun, “the rice varietal is basmati, close to 27 different varieties as of today; and the occasion was Baisakhi. A time when the region from Kashmir to the erstwhile kingdom of Punjab produced the finest quality of long grain, fragrant rice.”

What, continues the Dehradun-bred chef, “is even more magical about Baisakhi and meethe chawal, a dish that I confess to not liking as a child but being enamoured by as a chef, is how acutely nature prepares all the ingredients for the dish. While the new rice used to make the sweet rice is tender enough to cook fast and digest with ease, the sugarcane around this time has a contrasting balance of sweetness with a hint of saltiness that makes it apt for making khand that is traditionally used in making meethe chawal. Then, of course, there is kesar or saffron that arrives from Kashmir in the market and the different dry fruits that have had the time to age well, especially raisins that give the dish that necessary flavour foreplay of sweet tartness. Even the dry fruits used in making the dish, which seem to be a later addition is an indication not only of the popular trading route this region was, but also to our understanding of how to use fat naturally to create a dish that is delicious, soothing and at the same time a befitting example of Theobroma or food of the gods.”

Meethe chawal aids in the transition from winter to summer foods.
Meethe chawal aids in the transition from winter to summer foods.

The harvest connection

This, says Chef Chadha, “could explain why the meethe chawal or peele meethe chawal as it’s called in Punjab is only made during the harvest season like Baisakhi, which incidentally also witnesses a change in the weather — days start getting warmer and longer — and a change in the food habits from the winter specials to something that is lighter on the palate like Punjabi kadi, chhole and such. In fact, even the saag that we make during the time is more subtle in its flavouring than the Sarson Ka Saag that can take on a lot more fat.”

And it is with Baisakhi that such diet changes are brought to effect, and one dish, says Pratima, “that helps us make the transition from fat-laden food to subtler tasting dishes is meethe chawal, a dish that reworks our Vatta (digestive system) to adapt to much lighter foods.”

But that is one part of why meethe chawal, that incidentally tastes the best during Baisakhi — a day that in history has been part of some of the most auspicious events like the crowning of legendary Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the establishment of Khalsa — is made. The other reason is also its effect on the circadian rhythm of our body, which goes astray every time the season changes, leaving the body susceptible to weather change maladies. In fact, it is one of the reasons that we experience a dip in our energy levels during the time as nature shifts from extreme winters towards summer, especially after the first harvest.

It is here that one finds the brilliance of meethe chawal, says Chef Arora, which was curated to not just realign the digestive system but in doing so give our sluggish mental health that much required boost. A traditional recipe of meethe chawal calls for two parts of ghee, one part of rice and one part of shakara with cardamom and clove as the only fragrant. Each of the ingredients was assembled for the kind of result it could give — while the ghee is both a tastemaker, a digester as well as nourishment for the brain that works mostly on fat, the use of sugar is for instant energy and rice, which is gluten-free and a rich source of vitamin B, helps uplift the mood.”

Evolving cooking techniques

But simply putting them together doesn’t work, and hence a cooking technique was devised that could help build the health matrix of the dish. In the case of meethe chawal, it was, say the chefs, “through a process of layering that began with cooking the pre-soaked rice, which hastens the cooking of the kernels, in ghee that has been infused with the goodness of cardamom, a known relaxer, and clove, which aids in digestion and also improves the respiratory channel. This is the most crucial process as it helps recompose the nutrients of the rice, the spices, and the fat. Once the nutty aroma of cooked rice begins wafting through, sweet liquid is added, and often finished with dry fruits. The resultant dish is so rich in taste, nutrients and calories that portioning was needed.”

Meethe chawal, given its richness, became prasadam on the feast table.
Meethe chawal, given its richness, became prasadam on the feast table. Image: Shutterstock.

Hence, the dish was turned into a prasadam instead of one of the dishes for the feast table. Much like ladoo, says wellness expert Ram Chatterjee, “the goodness of meethey chawal is also in its restrained indulgence, as a little of it goes a long way in giving that wellness boost.”

But like much of our traditional dishes, meethe chawal, which often loses its charm to roh ki kheer (made with fresh sugarcane juice) and kheer, too underwent a transformation, both in the addition of new ingredients as well as in its style of cooking keeping with the changing palate habits.

For example, instead of short-grain rice, long grain was preferred due to the influence of the Persian Zarda and Gujarati Biranj. Another change, says Chef Arora, “was the addition of colour to bring that characteristic yellow hue; and the third was the use of dry fruits. Today meethe chawal has the addition of almonds, cashew nuts, raisins and more that makes the dish richer. And last but not the least was the shift from gur khand to cheeni khand, and in some cases even fresh sugar cane juice, and the reduced use of ghee with the changing lifestyle.”

While the changes have given meethe chawal its timeless appeal when it comes to prasad as it has ensured its continuity and that of its benefits as well, it has turned what was once a prasadam into a gourmet treat that can be paired with dishes to make a indulging meal. And in doing so, says Chef Chadha, “it has somehow brought out this lesser spoken about dish to the forefront of an experience.”

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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