Made of rice batter and flavoured with cumin and dry chillies, this Eastern India (and Assam) favourite fritter base is a curious ode to the paddy bounty of the region.
By Madhulika Dash; Photography courtesy https://culinaryxpress.com/
When it comes to explaining ‘integral’ in cuisine, few dishes of Eastern Indian do it as well as Pithau – a fragrant batter made of rice. A “must” part of a complete meal in Odisha, it is one of the recipe that you would find across what once would be the kingdom of Kanika and Mayurbhanj (basically Odisha pre-independence0. And the reason for this is not just the fact that Odisha and her sisters are paddy rich state, it is also an ode to our ancient culture of fermentation. Yes, much like the dosa batter of Southern India, the pithau too goes through a traditional process of fermentation, where rice kernels are soaked in with cumin seeds and dry chillies before being turned into a goopy batter which lies in between that of a pancake and a sponge. The brilliance of pithau, says Bengali food expert Chef Sumanta Sumanta Chakrabarti (Corporate Chef, Sonar Tori), “and that includes the one we do in larger part of Bengal with a little maida added to it is that it can be made to suit the ingredient that it is coating. For instance, if it is Bok Phool (Agastha flowers), which grows awild this time of the year, then the batter consistency and texture is that of a dosa, but if there is Ol Makha chips (Elephant Foot Yam), it would be much thinner like a tempura batter or even crepe. The reason for this is the traditional style of frying, which is done in two stages: one is like our version of flash frying where the batter dipped produce is dipped in oil for literally 30 second and swooned out – enough time for the foamy bubbles to appear and dry; and two, the second fry that goes for a little longer to get that crisp exterior and to create that flavour play between the ingredient and the batter, which swells up a little. The result is this crunch texture that aids to the flavour of the ingredient. The best part, it retains the texture for more time than one made with besan flour.”
Concurs Odia food researcher Alka Jena (founder, CulinarXpress), who uses it widely for all things fritters and especially prefers it when it comes to turning leaves into fritters. “When it is about extremely delicate ingredients like pumpkin leaves or Colocasia too, few batters work better than traditional based pithau is not just preserving their goodness (a fact for which batters were created in the past), but the fact that it goes through a semi process of fermentation adds to the taste factor too. That is the beauty of pithau, which when combined with an ingredient takes on the role of an effective character artist that while having its own taste, marries it well to make the ingredient the star. And yet, in the end, one does appreciate the crunchy mouthfeel that pithau lends to the fritters.”
Of course, what makes it a favourite among the Odiyas, Bengalis and now Assamese too, who says culinary custodian Geeta Dutta (founder, A Foodies’ Diary), “is the sheer value addition it brings to the meal along with the ace that enables me to turn any fresh produce into a favourite by simply turning it into chips.” Dutta who has recently discovered the twin ways of making pithau and calls it a “neck cousin” of the rice flour batter they prepare to create a rich curry for quite a few meat dishes also rates it high amongst the “sustainable kitchen practices and recipe that one should learn to make.
What is the root cause behind such deep love for pithau, which remains a preferred batter preference over the other wise versatile besan one? The answer comes with the whole idea of why the pithau was first made, says Jena, who finds the rice bounty of Odisha as one of the main reasons. “We have over 70 unique, documented varieties of rice available in the state, each of which come in three versions – khuda (which is broken rice while husking and cleaning), boiled rice and the processed. The same is true for fragrant versions and the red and black variety of rice too. Fascinatingly, when it comes to pithau making, where a hand measured proportion of rice, cumin and chillies are first soaked for over three hours and hand ground in a textured paste, each of the rice variety adds its own flavour profile, which can be cranked up on whim.” Seconds Chef Sumanta, who finds it as versatile a canvas as besan ka batter.
So how does pithau work its magic? Explains Chef Sharad Dewan (Regional Director, Food Production, The Park Hotel). “ In two ways, the fermentation or soaking allows the sugar to enhance and turns the batter slightly fluffy, much like the dosa batter. Cumin and chilli provide – a popular finishing masala in Odisha provide the necessary flavour upgradation along with salt. The process of whipping helps trap as much of air giving it lightness and the shelf life. But the real magic happens when the batter dipped produce hits the hot oil. Deep frying, unlike other methods of cooking, works on the principle of drying.
“In fact, he continues, “batters across the world are formulated to achieve that dryness in a graceful manner where the role of the outside batter is to inflate while the water evaporates creating a cocoon in which the ingredients to yield well. To do so well, you need a batter that is airy and light enough to create this delicately crisp yet melt in your mouth bubble that gives way to the flavour burst of the ingredient that it has coated. It is a magic that pithau does with exquisite finesse while giving you scope to play with a batter for better result.”