Chanda Chakata is the no bake cheesecake from Odisha that defines the phrase “no one can eat just one”. Here’s a closer look at a sweet that is also a prasad for the Moon Festival called Kumar Purnima.
Popped paddy (lia), jaggery, chenna (fresh cheese), shredded coconut, ripe banana, salt, and cardamom powder.
For most, a mystery box like this may mean an array of interesting dishes, including the popular breakfast of lia gur had across most of the states, but in Odisha, these ingredients mean only one dish: Chanda Chakata, a ridiculously simple, instantly assembled, sublime indulgence whose fan base rivals the rasagula’s. One day that it does so with aplomb is Kumar Purnima or Odisha’s very own Moon Festival with a twist.
Much like its Chinese peer that celebrates the start of a fresh season, Kumar Purnima too marks the beginning of a new season (winters) and the second harvest season. Food-wise, it is the day that marks the beginning of the month of Kartik when the state of Odisha follows the tradition of eating niramish bhojan—essentially plant-based meals made with less masala and no onion and garlic.
Astrologically, Kumar Purnima, which even today comes according to a thithi based on the moon’s movement, is a point when the night gets longer and winter or sharad ritu finally sets in in every aspect of nature including the food produced. But the reason the festival is most loved and looked forward to is quite another. Rituals have it that the full moon is Lord Kartik, our own version of the Greek god Adonis, making his appearance on earth and granting wishes of unmarried people for a happy alliance. Since he is said to like white—a symbol for all things pure—the foods offered, Chanda Chakata and Gointa Kheeri (kheer made with steamed rice dumplings) are offered along with banana and coconut. In fact, on this day, single men and women are often told to pray to a young moon rather than when it takes on its milky white appearance because the older the moon gets the older will be the groom or bride. While this explains why the puja happens in early dusk, there is, of course, another reason. It is said that once the brother has granted the wishes of all those eligible, Goddess Lakshmi goes on her nightly perambulation blessing the rest with dhan, which in an agrarian society often meant a good harvest and profits. It is to welcome her that most homes are decorated with jhoti chita, floor art made from a rice batter, while men gather to play a game of cards or ganjifa.
The traditional card game dates to the time of the Kharavela Kings when the festival was celebrated on a grand scale with even a podium created in the centre of the city to enable all to take part in the ritual. Today, while the festival has returned into the familiar precinct of individual homes, tradition-wise, it remains one of the few ancient festivals where every ritual is performed with remarkable eagerness, especially the making of shavet (white) dishes that are offered as bhog and includes the shija monda pitha (steamed), a sweet dish that culinary anthropologists believe inspired modak.
But the highlight of the evening remains Chanda Chakata, a sweet that is so simple and easy that it can be made through-out the year but is often reserved for Kumar Purnima when it is consumed in epic proportions. What makes this sweet-on-sweet delicacy so addictive has two explanations. One is the taste. Much like cinnamon during Christmas and pumpkin during Halloween—which incidentally remains the closer peer of Kumar Purnima in the West—Chanda Chakata (a term that roughly translates into ‘mashed moon’), says Odia culinary researcher Alka Jena, “too tastes best during the festival, especially the version that is made by grandmothers and mothers. The finest example of culinary ingenuity, the beauty of Chanda Chakata is in its making. Even when the recipe of making this delicacy is simple and involves absolutely no cooking apart from the chenna, each household’s version is different in taste and has this one element which makes its incredibly tasty.”
A plausible justification to why it happens continues Jena, “is courtesy the different kinds of coconut or banana one gets through the state. The regions close to Andhra Pradesh have a distinctively sweeter banana variety than the north. The other is the use of jaggery and also the popped paddy (khai) variety that is used.”
The khai that comes from Baripada, for instance, is sweeter compared to the rest. Things like whether the popped paddy was made in the traditional manner or in a machine and the age of the paddy too, says aficionado Subrat Mishra, “makes a stark difference to the dish. And lastly is, of course, the milk which is responsible for the sweetness of chenna. Traditionally, most people prefer the chenna made from the milk of a cow which is into its second month post delivery as it is better in the fat content that makes the milk sweeter. And for khai, the unpolished short grain paddy is preferable as it has this nice bite to it, and reduces the need for sweeteners like jaggery, crystal sugar, sugar and, in a few places, sugarcane juice.”
In fact, the choice of ingredients that have varying degrees of sweetness, say the experts, “is what makes this no-bake cheesecake experience, sublime. It has just that right amount of sweet harmony that makes Chanda Chakata a palate delight as you can taste each ingredient separately and in sync with each other.”
This perhaps explains why Chanda Chakata is often referred to as a sweet that is light, airy and a great palate reviver.
Which brings us to the imperative questions, why is the festival so high on sweet food and rice? The reason, says Mishra, “is because Kumar Purnima falls at a time of harvest for quite a few regions in the state. So even the khai is made of the new paddy that gets harvested around the time of Durga Puja. Another aspect is the fruiting of the banana tree that starts giving ripe bananas around this time, and, of course, the palm season’s jaggery that is still available in abundance.”
The bounty aside, the reason why the body can take the preparation and the combination of sugar and fat is also the season. Rice which is known for its cooling properties and for its digestion-boosting capabilities plays the perfect foil to cool down the system after a long festival and its feast. It also works as a cue to the niramish month ahead which is a well-thought 30-day process where the liver, gall bladder, and the brain are given time to recuperate, repair and prepare for the heavy-duty work that winter brings along.
But the one aspect where Chanda Chakata and Gointa Kheeri—two subtle versions of sweet made with rice and milk—scores is in settling down the cortisol levels of the body. Says functional food expert and nutritionist Shveta Bhasin, “chenna is perhaps one of the few dairy products to have good levels of tryptophan, a protein that regulates the calming hormones in our system, especially the brain. Apart from being a rich source of protein, chenna is an easy-to-digest fat that is needed for the body to kickstart thermal activity in our body. It repairs the softer tissues and masses like your brain thus calming them down. When paired with grated coconut, popped paddy, and banana, a rich source of potassium and Vitamin C, it helps horsepower the agni, which helps fight against the change of weather. In fact, the preparation given its minimalistic method of making transforms Chanda Chakata into this delicious power booster that preps the brain and the body while the season changes.”
This is the reason why the first bowl of Chanda Chakata fills one with such a sense of soulful calmness. The fact that it can be had not only by people across all ages but with conditions as well makes it one of those impressive one-day ‘boosters’ that ensures a better, happier winter.