Appraising Pakhala: Wellness in A Bowl

By Madhulika Dash

It may not be as popular as its Chinese cousin, the Congee; it may lack the palate flair of Thayir Sadam; liking it as a dish may call for some seasoning of the palate. And yet, in the past three years or so, few have marked their presence on the global plate as Pakhala, Odia cuisine's foundation dish.

From being the focus of alternative wellness cures for AIIMS' Centre of Excellence for Clinical Microbiome Research that finally reinstated Pakhala place amongst foods that heal to playing canvas to MasterChef Australia contestant Kishwar Chowdhury who presented it as Smoked Rice Water to having its own celebratory day.

The Curious Case of Pakhala

So why was there a sudden interest in a post Harappan civilisation staple? Was it a part of the lost recipe resurgence, or just a conscious effort on the community's part to hail a dish that has been playing an omnipresent part of the changing dining scape? It was neither.

Pakhala or fermented water rice, contrary to perception, is still an integral part of the Odia food habit with a surprising pan India presence in formats like poita bhat (Assamese), pakhala bhat (Odia), pazhaya sadam (Tamil), geel bhat (Bihar), chaddannam (Telugu), and pazhamkanji (Malayalam) among others.

It is a must-have during summers. After all, nothing quite prepares the body to take on the harsh summers of Odisha like a bowl of pakhala served with an interesting range of sides. The ORS-kind of properties of Pakhala is a key reason for this fermented dish's presence and relevance on our table even today.

The Great Equaliser

Incidentally though, it isn't the only reason for Odias' love and obsession for Pakhala, which in its years of existence has not only inspired variations that range from sweet, warm, tempered, with curd, stale and freshly-made, but has been a great social equaliser too. From commoners to kings to even Lord Jagannath enjoy this summer treat during the season, and as a Sunday treat too.

The difference of course is in the choice. While in temples, the pakhala is prepared fresh and served in a sweet (mitha) and fragrant (sungandhi) versions, the urban tables today much like the royalty in the past have the freshly made pakhala with curd and roasted cumin or tempered based on the mood.

The original version called basi pakhala, because it takes about two to three days to get that funky palate play, aroma and nutritive composition that was applauded by AIIMS, these days is a privy of those who have grown with the slight sour, acidic taste of pakhala, and prefer it over the other incarnations. But even here there are enough tweaks to turn the fermented dish into a palate pleasure, and it ranges from using mustard oil, pickle oil, curd and even a combination of shallots, chillies, roasted cumin blend to elevate the palate experience of this age-old favourite.

The Virtues of Pakhala

The brilliance of it all is that even with these additions of flavourants, Pakhala, especially the basi variant, only improves in its ability as a healer. Much like Apple Cider Vinegar or even Kombucha.

How? Courtesy acidic fermentation, which not only helps it against any microbial spoilage and development of food toxins, but also aid in improving the nutritional value like turning complex Starch into Resistant Starch that slows down the digestion process and thus keeping us "full" for a long time.

The fact that the sugar in rice is further broken down during the fermented process while make Pakhala not just easy to digest hence supporting a temporary detox and recovery of the liver and gallbladder, but the enzymes help improve the intestinal lining for better digestion of enzymes, amino acids and glutamine. Glutamine, which is a by-product of resistant starch ensures that there is no sudden insulin spike thanks to the slow digestion process, it miraculously helps the brain to calm down by cranking up the enteroendocrine and enterocytes cells in the intestine.

This while on one hand keeps seasonal ailments at bay, on the other, also creates the urge to nap, which would help the body relax and recover.

The Rise of A Favourite

The series of effects that Pakhala has on the body and mind along with economics explain how the fermented dish became a staple. After all, ancient Odisha was one of the earliest rice growing regions, and among the first to adopt rice as the staple food alongside millets, legumes, lentils and other produce.

In fact, old Mauryan agriculture records talk about the many varieties of rice that grew in Kalinga like Vrihi, Sali, Priyamgu, and the two they added to the list namely Draka and Varaka.

Incidentally, economics, availability and climate while were the key reasons to Pakhala acceptance across classes who found it a sustainable, wholesome meal, the wide popularity of the fermented rice  dish was also courtesy handia – a popular hooch that too this day uses the torani (water) as the main ingredient.

A popular rice beer across the ports and towns since the golden days of Kalinga, handia, which was a clever way of using over fermented rice water, was this amazing, cure-all tippler that could salve tired bones, help you sleep, was the proverbial Gripe Water that could heal the body – and do all that without compromising on the pleasure of a dram.  

Between the dish and the dram, Pakhala fulfilled yet another post of wellness for which the dish landed a spot in  Kashyapa Samhita – that of kanjka or kanji. A close kin of the Chinese Congee, Kanji in the Odia lexicon is a warm, tempered soup version of the torani, which often is peppered with vegetables like bottle gourd and is yet another umami-rich way to extract the fermented goodness of pakhala. In fact, it is a part of kitchen cures that comes handy to get the appetite back to improving the taste and even calming a stomach gone awry.

Thus, having a cauldron of pakhala ready at hand was understandably not just a resourceful thing to do but essential too, especially during winters.

Tweak to Whims

Fascinatingly, while the multifaceted goodness of pakhala made it an important part of the cuisine, its endearment across classes of the society came with another ability called versatility. Much like cooked rice, pakhala could be paired with a wide variety of accompaniments that ranged from simple shallots and salt to pagau, a relish made with chillies crushed into rock salt drizzled with lemon juice to any form of spiced mash called chakata, fish, meat and even leafy greens called saag and stir fried vegetables called bhaja.

Brilliantly, each of the additions was either because of season or affordability and to add texture has only helped improve the experience taste-wise but nutritionally too. The outcome was the curation of several classic pairings that today people enjoy much out of habit, and the palate play. Like Pakhala and alu chakata, Pakhala and machcha bhaja, Pakhala and saag; or the gourmet version of everything from saag to bhaja to chakata and even badi chura accompanying the bowl.

From wellness to history to taste, if there is one dish that encapsulates all, it is undoubtedly Pakhala – a dish that deserves its own day.