Can a festival based on the taboo topic of menstruation become the prism to understand and adopt ancient wellness practices of food? Turns out there is much more to Odisha’s Raja Parba than its famous period tag.
For someone witnessing the modern-day celebration of Raja Parba – Odisha’s mid-harvest festival – it appears to be curiously akin to that of Onam. The traditions are almost similar – the swings, the row of flowers decking the house, the jhoti chita (floor art) at the entrance, new clothes and of course the feast rife with forgotten classics.
That is, of course, until one is made aware of a few things about Raja Parba.
Raja is perhaps the oldest fertility festival that dates back to a time when tribes and not kingdoms ruled the roost. During the three-day celebration, any activity that may affect Mother Earth is prohibited. It is believed that during this time, Mother Earth is in Rajaswala (menstruation) and needs enough rest and care to recover and rejuvenate.
While felling, tilling, hunting, and foraging is banned around the time, even food is cooked a day or two prior to the three-day ritual and stowed in sequence of what to be had first, the next day, and the day after.
The Virtuous Pithas
The culinary ingenuity showcased during Raja Parba is what lends it present-day relevance. The festival spread consists of classic dishes and pairings that were designed specifically for the occasion.
It usually includes a variety of pithas – sweet (buda chakuli, muan pitha) and savoury (saru chakuli, biri manda pitha). These are stuffed, baked, steamed and fried or both – along with santulas, dalma, and even duck curries in a few places. As the tribal festival transformed into a state celebration, the menu evolved parallely to combine functionality, taste and wellness.
The saru chakuli or sija monda, for instance, is a steamed pitha with a filling of sweetened coconut or lentil mix. It’s easy to digest, and works towards calming the distressed stomach and mind.
To ensure that the calming process is boosted on the first day, saru chakuli is served with a bowl of milk, and mashed banana, which often works as a sweetener too. In Assam though, says culinary researcher Geeta Dutta, “while the whole pitha basket is made, the first day is often with fruits and rice ladoos or lighter, warm pithas like the ltia pitha or pani pitha because of its lightness.”
Later, she continues, “richer versions are introduced like the sunga pitha or khiror pitha, whose role is to elevate the mood while going easy on the digestive system.”
There’s also the Budha Chakuli, which gets its name from the lore that Gautam Buddha loved it. Made pancake style, this variety of chakuli has sweet notes from the jaggery, pepper and ginger. Delicious on its own, it also goes beautifully with a variety of curries and side dishes, both subtle and spicy in nature. But its main objective is to help the taste buds revive while aiding the recovery process.
Traditionally in Odisha, while the chakuli is a popular breakfast staple today, its role in the fertility festival comes on the third day when the hormones are settled.
The Science Of Food Redesigning
This redesigning of the food, according to Chef Sharad Dewan of Gourmet Design Company, “was not just around local produce but also on ingredient pairings that gave the most effective results. One such example is the fruit that in ancient Rome was believed to have both cleansing and curative properties. Or a blend of fruit, nuts and salad that were made of seasonal ingredients and easy to digest.”
In India, especially Odisha, Assam and some regions of Eastern India, he continues, “that importance was given to pitha because of its all-encompassing nature. Thanks to the lightness and balmy, familiar taste, they could be paired with other curative foods like milk, stews, curd, or be filled with an energy giving lentil mix to effect a desired result – be it calming the hormones, de-stressing the mind or pain relief.”
That need to serve both the stomach and mind is one of the reasons why most pithas are filled with a combination of jaggery, coconut, or some form of pre-soaked lentil. Heavier meat fillings like those in West Bengal are kept for later days, when the body has recovered from the shock.
An excellent example of this is the Chakuli Pitha and Khira (milk) that is served with banana and coconut or chenna (fresh cheese) on the very first day. The combination, says nutritional therapist Shaveta Bhassin, “not only helps calm the hormonal commotion that the body is experiencing but also pares down the pain while improving the gut health that would help one digest with ease without causing the delicate stomach any trauma.”
The reason for this isn’t just the all-nourishing rice-lentil pairing, she adds, “[it’s also the] process of making which elevates other nutrients while bringing down the harmful amino acids.”
The Brilliance Of Functional Food
Palate wise, says Chef Vikas Seth of Zest, “fermented foods are lighter not just on the stomach but also on the taste buds. [This] makes them an excellent [contender] to pair with a variety of dishes and ingredients that could be tweaked as per the requirement. In fact, if you look at the classics like curd rice and pickle, dosa and sambar, or the pitha and santula, which is Odia style ratatouille, most are designed on the three principles: easy on the palate and digestion, nutritionally dense, and thanks to umami delicious too.”
Culinary archivist Chef Sabyasachi Gorai concurs, who chanced upon the fertile food leger while researching for Mangalorean food a few years ago. He came across the practice of using foxtail millets, finger millets, and sorghum in food prepared for women on their period. “Aside from being nutritional rich”, adds Chef Gorai, “millets could be a great source of energy and when paired rightly could even calm the frayed nerves. And by pairing one doesn’t mean the side dish only but the way the food is created too.”
A good example of this is how a feast is laid during Raja festival. Culinary researcher Alka Jena says, “while the first day is for steamed pithas and dalma, milk or santula; the sweeter versions like the panas pitha (made with jackfruit) and monda pitha, which has a filling of jaggery, coconut and sometimes even white sesame seeds or pumpkin seeds, are kept for the second; and the last day is for gourmet pithas like biri poda pitha (which uses urad dal), lau pitha, Biri gajja and even Khakra pitha, which is a crisp, fried version and extremely addictive.”
The Menu Build-Up
The concept of keeping the lightest, sweetest food first and the rich, heavier later, says Bhassin, “is to allow the body minimal effort to digest given that the body is geared in tolerating the muscle contraction on the first day along with a regular supply of energy that comes from fruits and jaggery. So those dishes that are easy to digest and can calm the mind are preferred. This is the reason that ingredients like rice, fruits, milk and calming spices like ginger, white pepper and cardamom are chosen. They not only add to the taste but also work to calm the mind which is overworking because of the stress caused through hormonal imbalance and constant muscle contraction.”
With the physical pain subsided and mind calmer than before, food that can build the gut is preferred for the second and third day. This means that pithas will have both fillings and pre-and probiotic side dishes, even having dishes that were spicy, sweet or both.
That tweaking, concludes Chef Gorai, “along with the versatility of pithas that like dim sums are easy to pair with new ingredients without compromising on its healthfulness is what makes Pithas such a fascinating creation, and Raja one of the important festivals especially today.”
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.