Light, easy to digest, versatile and a meal in sync with the climate—a few reasons that make chakuli a staple in eastern India. But wait, there’s more to the rice-based crepe.
“It needs a few more hours,” says culinary custodian Manju Das as she checks on the rice-lentil batter. It is summer, and one of the staples for Das’ family, along with pakhala, a dish of fermented water and rice, is chakuli pitha. Often described as dosa, mistakenly of course, insists Das, who finds it more on the lines of a crepe than the crisped wafer thin southern Indian cuisine, chakuli or chakuli pitha is to Odisha what chapati is to the northern states. “We have it quite often and for all meals,” says the septuagenarian, who uses the batter as it begins its process of homofermentation to make other versions of it such as the popular bhagara (tempered) chakuli pitha, in which the fermented batter is flavoured with a tempering of curry leaves, mustard seeds, and a dash of asafoetida.
The batter’s versatility is something that culinary researcher Alka Jena (founder, CulinaryXpress) finds as one of the “decisive” reasons for chakuli’s popularity and relevance in Odisha despite the laborious process of making one. Devised much on the lines of idli batter, the creation of chakuli batter, says Jena, uses two parts rice—parboiled or otherwise—and one part urad dal and begins with soaking the rice and lentils separately overnight and then grounding them separately before they are added and left for fermentation. It is the latter that is significant to the making of a good chakuli pitha, which culinary experts say has this umami flavour with an underlying sweetness that comes from the rice and the concentration of sugar during the fermentation process.
But to get that right takes a good amount of experience, understanding of the ingredients and patience—of course, summers in Odisha lend the right amount of humidity that hastens the process vis a vis winters, when the batter preparation can take some more time.
A key role during this process, says Das, “is played by salt, which has the potential of slowing the fermentation process once it reaches the stage of homofermentation. Leave it unsalted and the batter can go into a zone that is more acidic to taste with an overpowering sourness that one can identify with the process of palm juice turning into toddy and beyond.” Although she doesn’t believe iodised salt affects fermentation, Das prefers using rock salt or kosher salt purely because of the kind of taste profile it lends to the batter and recommends adding it early morning or once “the batter has taken that happy rise, a signal that it’s ready for work”.
Another important aspect of the batter is the water, says Jena, who over years of research has discovered that groundwater drawn from wells is the secret to not just better-tasting chakuli pitha but also pakhala. A claim that is supported by science that finds water not only helps in gelatinisation of the batter, giving it the right consistency but also is an amazing medium for sugars and other substrates of the fermentation process along with enzymes. Clean groundwater, says Jena, “works out to be this amazing base for the growth of various microorganisms and even adds the minerals needed for the fermentation process, thus, resulting in a batter than can be played with.”
A batter, say the experts, “well done is like this canvas that can be made into a variety of delicious things. This includes playing the role of a less-oil holding pithau for vegetables to be dipped in and fried. But more crucially, it can create chakuli pitha that is light, easy to digest and can be paired with a variety of things that range from milk, banana and jaggery to even a sinful mutton curry and a sublime santula—an Odia version of the famous ratatouille.”
Says culinary revivalist Chef Sabyasachi Gorai (Fabrica By Saby), who has been brought up on a healthy dose of the staple flatbread since his hospitality school days in Odisha, “In culinary adaptability, chakuli pitha almost rivals that of a puttu or for that matter any appam. Made with a smidgen of oil, which is initially used to baste the griddle, this pitha uses very little fat for its taste or making. Soft as the appam, much of chakuli’s brilliant taste comes from getting the batter consistency right. The subtle umami aftertaste also allows it to be paired with a wide variety of dishes including bhaja, which is vegetables stir fried and flavoured with phutana/pancha phutana (the five-spice mix).”
And while that may have made chakuli pitha standard fare across many Odia homes, and specials at a feast or restaurants, it is what happens once the meal is over that gives this bread that was a favourite with Buddhist monks its relevance in modern times. Owing to the fermentation process, chakuli pitha—even when it is tempered—aces in all the qualities that the process lends a dish. It’s gut friendly, easy-to-digest and tasty (even addictive at times), making it a meal of choice for not just toddlers but also the elderly. In fact, says journalist Siba Mohanty, “it is a great working person’s meal, and can be made light or satiating depending on the dish it is paired with. Chakuli pitha with milk is satiating and makes for a mild, easily digested breakfast. Pair it with guguni or ghanta (a mixed vegetable preparation), and it’s a good work lunch that can keep you full and energised without the drowsiness that’s associated with pakhala. Pair it with mutton curry and it becomes a treat.”
A fact that seasoned nutritionists Niti Desai and Sveta Bhassin emphasise upon. The brilliance of chakuli pitha, says Bhassin, “also comes from the fact that the process of making it fortifies it with useful nutrients such as vitamins, folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, thiamine, biotin, vitamin K and some free amino acids as well as some antibiotic and anti-carcinogenic substances. All of these work in sync to not just cool down the system and bring a balance to the circadian rhythm of the body, but also releases a booster dose of energy thanks to the sugar and carbs that have been broken down during the process of fermentation; the rice-lentil proportion ensures that the phytic acid and oxalates present in the lentil is taken care of by the rice, making the lentil more effective when it comes to protein breakdown and digestion.”
That aside, says Desai, “the lactic acid formed during fermentation acts as a preservative giving chakuli pitha a longer shelf life, and also promotes growth of healthy intestinal flora by inhibiting bacteria such as Shigella and Salmonella, among others.”
Having said that, cautions Desai, “like most fermented foods, chakuli pitha’s goodness and its complete usage by the body depends on two factors: one, moderation. Just because it is healthy doesn’t mean it would do good when consumed in excess. Secondly, what it is paired with also plays a decisive role on how well the quick-digesting food would work in the body. Depending on when you are having the chakuli pitha, pair it with food that either has low glycemic index for consistent flow of energy -a good option is guguni or santula; or even with chutney that can go into the nutrient-extraction process soon after. But for dishes that require heavy-duty digestion such as chicken, mutton or even sweets, try having it at a time when you have a day to digest it completely.”
Intriguingly, adds Bhassin, who has been working on fermented foods across India, “Chakuli pitha when had with milk and a bit of jaggery in fact works as a great calmer of the brain and can be had not only at a time when one feels low, but especially in the early hours of the morning when the brain—suddenly awakened or otherwise—registers high stress levels. A dose of fat, milk, jaggery and chakuli then becomes an instant food to satiate and calm down.”
No wonder, chakuli pitha, including the jaggery, pepper and ginger flavoured one called Buddha chakuli, is said to have been a favourite of the early Buddhist monks. Some foodlore suggests they considered the pitha as a “food of nirvana”. In some measures, it is even today.