This ancient superfood from the east (of India) should be a part of your healthy eating arsenal. Here’s why.
What is Pakhala? Simply explained, it is a fermented rice dish made by soaking leftover cooked rice in water overnight. A dish that is at the centre of a scrumptious, wholesome meal in every Odia, Bengali, Bihari, Assamese and Bangladeshi home. A classic that has effectively wowed palates across generations.
This fine example of sustainable practices – pakhala was invented as a means to utilise leftover rice – is also an effective antidote to not just scorching summers but also high humidity. A dish that is had both by all – the rich, poor, royalty, and the Holy trinity of Jagannath Puri. And yet, this ancient dish, which once formed the staple of the Kalinga army and sailors remains obscure for most of the culinary universe – until now, that is.
So, what changed?
Two back-to-back surprising events this week. The first was the study released by the AIIMS’ Centre of Excellence for Clinical Microbiome Research (CCMR) that found pakhala good for the immunity with a special emphasis on the torani (which is the probiotic-rich, fermented water). According to the study that began in 2019, the team of researchers headed by Balamurugan Ramadass (also head of CCMR), found that pakhala contains short-chain fatty acids known to improve gut health and boost immunity.
Says Ramadass, “As at AIIMS we treat stunted children, we usually give complex carbohydrates with supplements such as short-chain fatty acids that offer a lot of energy and have anti-inflammatory properties. The search was for food that is affordable and easily accessible by everybody. After a lot of research, we zeroed in on torani, the water in the fermented rice.”
The study cemented three things: One, it gave a stamp of approval to the age-old belief that pakhala is a superfood and source of great immunity. Two, it lent credence to the long-standing practice of having an extra bowl of torani after the meal for digestion and rehydration. Three, it indirectly hailed the culinary practice of making torani kanji – an all-season drink that is made by tempering the fermented water with panchphutan and any form of vegetables during the season.
In summers, it is bottle gourd or any gourd available (except bitter gourd) or dahi pani (whey); in winters, it is made with a mélange of different kinds of leafy vegetable, ash gourd and radish, among others.
In fact, Odisha also has a gourmet version called the Suryamukhi Kanji made with ash gourd, radish and a slew of leafy greens. A known antidote to all stomach and bowel related issues, this rare-to-find torani kanji version was once a prized possession of every physician that served in the royal corridors.
What made it special was that unlike most kanjis which are cooked, Suryamukhi Kanji traditionally used the art of fermentation (the same used for making kombucha or kimchi) to create a drink that was designed to detox the digestive system, which according to Ayurveda and Charak Samhita is the root of all health and all maladies too.
Fascinatingly, one of the earliest mentions of kanjka is in Kashyapa Samhita, with a recipe that reads as follows: a medicinal sour rice soup made with parched podiari rice, long pepper, dried ginger, and pomegranate, served with deep fried lentil cakes called Vatakas.
The other significant event that made pakhala the culinary highlight on the world stage was the decision of MasterChef Australia contestant Kishwar Chowdhury to serve the traditional cross-border food of ‘panta bhaat’, with ‘aloo bhorta’, alongside fried sardines and salsa, to the judges.
Rechristened as ‘Smoked Rice Water’, while the bravado of presenting a farmers’ meal was applauded by Bengalis, Odias and Assamese alike, the dish also paid tribute to the culinary prowess of an ancient culture and its food practices, known fondly as Hindustan in history.
The presence of pakhala or poita bhaat (in Assamese) showed how advanced our forefathers were not just in the matters of taste but also in understanding food’s nutritive value and the art of extracting it. They were the reason that most of our traditional food practices are replete with dishes that have the dual benefit of both palate play and wellness.
A fact that noted food author Michael Pollan in his book, Omnivore, had pressed upon as he called the ancient cultures and their food knowledge as “essential link to a sustainable food future”. There’s little doubt that Kishwar’s handiwork has set the ball rolling for the superfood of the east to finally take its place under the culinary sun. On the home front, it has put the focus back on the basi pakhala that, among all its versions, holds the maximum health aces and was the varietal used as part of the AIIMS study of immunity-boosting foods.
This brings us to the question: What is it about pakhala – a rustic, fermented rice dish – that makes it such a brilliant creation? And what really does it do within our system that is so crucial to our health, especially in the present times?
Pakhala, history tells us, has been a work-day staple for farmers and kings alike since the early centuries. “It’s one of the finest case studies,” says nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, “not just on the art of natural fermentation but also on the nutritional recomposition that it leads to. How else does one explain that a dish, which is such a rich source of starch (almost 70 per cent) and with such low protein content (100 grams of rice has only 9 per cent protein), after fermentation, transforms into this power builder? Traditionally, the fermentation process is simply adding of water and leaving it next to the lukewarmness of the slowly cooling chullah. Pakhala not only cranks up the gut and intestinal health, but also creates an ambience for better protein and complex nutrition digestion.”
“In fact,” she continues, “pakhala is one of those traditional foods in which the probiotic enzymes are created not only during the fermentation process but also post digestion. The starch (read: sugar) in the rice becomes a resistant starch post digestion, aiding in continuing the process. Resistant starch slows the process of digestion, giving us that feeling of being satiated for longer.
“Consequently, pakhala is effective in treating not just the gut but the intestinal lining for better digestion of enzymes, amino acids and glutamine. Glutamine, which is produced courtesy resistant starch, works at calming the brain and cranking up the enteroendocrine and enterocytes cells in the intestine. This offers a boost to the digestive system that now can digest complex proteins and other nutrients more effectively.
“In addition, the continuous production of probiotics in the body because of the bacteria and starch works at spiking our response to any inflammation caused by an infection. Thus, keeping all kinds of flu, fever and other seasonal and virus infections at bay.”
Fascinatingly, the above functioning was a known fact in the ancient world where pakhala was the full meal. Even today, pakhala and salt is considered a square meal in most homes. But to ensure that pakhala remained the king of a complete meal, our forefathers created different versions that gave fermented rice the extra ammunition it needed to be more effective.
An unwritten diktat made it a pre-sundown meal that can be had for breakfast, brunch and lunch.
Hence the process of creating meals for seasons was introduced: while the most basic format is that of pakhala and alu chakata (also known as pitika in Assam, bhorta in Bengal, Assam and Bangaldesh, and chokha in Bihar) along with pagau (made of chillies crushed into rock salt drizzled with lemon juice), the accompaniments change according to season and affordability.
Machcha bhaja (fish fry – both fresh and dried), for instance, is a must-have in coastal Odisha; santula (our version of ratatouille) along with other forms of chakata depending upon what grows in the garden (that’s how tomato or bilati became a part of the accompaniment); badi chura that cranked up the umami quotient of the Umami-rich dish. Saga bhajja (leafy greens) that completed the nutritional palate is kept for winters and Amonsoon that sees the addition of bitter saag into the diet to help liver health.
And so on and so forth. The addition of sukhua (dried fish) becomes a must for women above forty as it helps with bone density, while the chakata (which is mashed vegetable) is the perfect way to get kids to eat vegetables and elderlies to have their balanced diet without the need to chew much.
Cranking up the nutritive performance with added accompaniments was one part of the pakhala story, the other was the addition that enhanced the taste and added to the charm of this healing recipe. And that was done with addition of dahi, cumin during summers and tempering of curry leaves, mustard and hing in winters or monsoon.
A dress up that, over the years, has taken newer versions as well, including the sungandhi pakhala which has minimum fermentation time but gets its flavours from the addition of fruit.
However, when it comes to nourishing goodness, basi pakhala – the original version that has completed an entire circle of fermentation – has proved its mettle. Not just for our forefathers but nutritionists and researchers as well. Could it be the key to fighting the pandemic?
Yes, says Bhassin and the AIIMS study, even if it is eaten with the torani once in a while.