Know why this variant of Odisha’s oldest sweetmeat warrants a stopover for the Holy Trinity during the famous Rath Yatra.
As culinary icon Jiggs Kalra once defined it for the global audience, podo pitha is essentially ‘a sweet rice cake’.
When it comes to sweets, few hold the place of pride like podo pitha. It’s usually made with rice powder or rice batter, jaggery and black cardamom or bay leaf with an occasional addition of freshly grated coconut or fermented lentil. Loosely translated as burnt pancake or cake, podo pitha is to the Odia culinary ledger what puttu is to Kerala. Literally every household/region in Odisha has their own recipe for this staple.
A fine ancestry
The basic recipe calls for mixing all the ingredients and placing it in a leaf-lined vessel. Alternatively, you could use a cloth tied over a wide mouthed vessel filled with boiling water. Thereafter, the pitha is slow-cooked through the night, or till it attains a more solid structure that can be sliced through.
From here on though, much of the podo pitha’s journey ahead depends on the creative discretion of the cook or the maker. Which in the past few decades has seen several iterations, including the introduction of several vegetables into the basic mix to create an amazing array of savoury podo pithas. Additionally, there’s also been some tinkering around with the original sweet pitha.
The proof of this unprecedented experimental success is the mind-blowing variant of the sweet with ancestry as old as the Assamese Tekeli Pitha.
If old texts like the Addaradhane of Sivakotiacharya (920 AD) and Soopa Shastra of Mangarasa (1508 AD) are anything to go by, then podo pitha is as old as puttu itself. Both products of steam cooking, the latter easily dates back to the early AD. This is in large part due to the availability of rice and rice-based products not just in the mainland but on trade routes as well, especially India, China and South-East Asia.
Another factor contributing to the theory is that Odisha was a significant part of the trade route, and considered a major rice cultivating region in the past. Given that food habits back then were determined by local produce, chances are that the podo pitha too had existed in its earlier iteration.
The rise of podo pitha
As a dish that had both taste and shelf life, podo pithas’ relevance and rise in popularity began with its association with Raja. Given that cooking was barred during the festival, having differently flavoured podo pithas at hand ensured delicious, satiating food was around.
It was also super functional to whip up the podo pitha, adding to its popularity points. “Aside from the Biri podo pitha, none of the variants need any kind of prepping. They could be mixed in the morning and set to slow cook for a few hours without much supervision needed. And the bonus, it could take produce from every season and taste just as good with newer addition in terms of spicing and sweet in later years. One such addition was the use of green cardamom and the nuts,” says researcher Alka Jena.
According to her, podo pitha is apt for the monsoons, owing to it being both palate pleasing and combating monsoon blues. So it’s unsurprising that monsoon in Odisha is often called the podo pitha month. It begins with Raja, and continues through the period of Rath Yatra with a special stopover during the Bahuda Yatra. As part of the tradition, they stop at the Ardhashosini temple to meet their aunt for a bite of her special Podo Pitha, incidentally Lord Jagannath’s favourite too.
The Rath Yatra connect
Why is this stoppage made? While there are many legends to the story including the all-popular one from Ramayana where Lord Ram promises Kaikey, their aunt, to visit her once a year as a show that he held no ill-feeling against her. And since Lord Jagannath is an avatar of Vishnu, of which Lord Ram was another avatar too, he continues to keep the promise even today.
However, according to the servitor at the Ardhashosini Mandir also called Mausi Maa (Aunt’s) Mandir, the story is more about gratitude and love. According to them, in earlier times, there were two rivers – Malini and Hathi Gadhua – that were neck-by-neck to the Bada Danda, the place from where the chariots begin their journey. To reach Gundicha temple, the chariots, had to pass both the rivers, which was a painstaking job and needed six chariots to do so smoothly.
Since the Rath Yatra took place in the monsoon, the return journey was even more arduous as the rivers would overflow and become choppy. Legend has it that during the pralaya period, Mausi Maa temple soaked up much of the rivers creating a less perilous return route. Since that day, Lord Jagannath and Mausi Maa share a special bond, and thus the mandatory stopover. In return, the aunt welcomes her nephew with a hearty meal and a special treat of podo pitha that is served to not just the gods but the chariot pullers as well.
It is believed that the reason Lord Jagannath also makes this stopover is his love for podo pitha that is served to him at his abode every day, but during the nine-day yatra, there is none of it since his wife Goddess Laxmi doesn’t accompany him on this trip. So Mausi Maa mandir stop becomes a ruse of him having his fill.
A special podo pitha, indeed
The legend however, is just part of what makes the Rath Yatra podo pitha special, the other being the preparation. Unlike the popular version of podo pitha, Mausi Maa temple’s signature sweet is made with whole wheat, chenna, sugar, ghee and a myriad of spices. The process begins well in advance since each ingredient is prepared in the kitchen. Once ready, an auspicious day is chosen for the mixing. From there they move to the first phase of cooking, where the mixture is placed on a muslin cloth and steamed on low flame overnight.
This slow process allows the flavours to evolve as all the ingredients combine to create the perfect balance. The spices are added both for the sake of taste and wellness, specifically the latter since it revives tired chariot pullers.
Once the podo pitha is cooked and rested, the second process begins. Basically, it’s cut into equal rectangular wedges and fried in Gua Ghia. It goes a long way in lending aroma, taste, and longevity. This is what’s served to deities and their sevaks post a hearty meal. It also serves as a reminder to Lord Jagannath about his home and of Goddess Laxmi.
Beyond the taste
According to nutritional therapist Shaveta Bhassin, “The way the pitha is prepared makes it an apt antidote [against the vagaries of a rainy season. The warmth of the spices keeps your system in shape, but the sheer amount of good fat that is incorporated into the dish because of the frying takes care of the low mood resulting from low sun exposure.] The dual-use of ghee along with rice also ensures that the mind is calm; creating the feeling of happiness, which the festivity further enhances.”
Which means in summation, not only is the humble podo pitha arguably the most familiar and popular sweet in Odisha, it’s also a hugely experimented with sweetmeat since time immemorial.
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.