And why the needle-thin, mesh style crepe should be on every chef’s new bill of innovation.

By Madhulika Dash; Picture courtesy Alka Jena

The first one will always crumble, says Manju Dash, as he guides tiny hands to make a cross on the griddle, or as most of them call it 'plus crepe'. It is almost the same, she continues, “albeit with a few differences like the batter is made of rice, and instead of the spatula, here it is a bunch of dhoobo grass (bermuda grass) tied into a brush that will be used to create patterns that are as thin, soft and supple as a well made French crepe. This however will be Chunchi Patra Pitha, or as some would call, Chinchi Patra Pitha.”

Incidentally, both the names come from the appearance, which is like a finely woven mesh, andthe technique of making it which at one point of time, says the septuagenarian culinary custodian, “was done with hand much like the Bangladeshi Chita Pitha Ruti, then came the brush made of grass which gave the pitha the same paper thin effect but with ease of doing so, to eventually a cotton ball/muslin cloth that eased the process of making this quick treat even easier.”

Fascinatingly, the two different styles of making the pitha is still followed in Das' maternal home and that of her in-laws where it has turned into a favourite treat for Lord Krishna.

For a pitha that is traditionally made today for the ocassion of Manabasa Gurubar (Lakshmi Puja) mostly, the journey of Chunchi Patra pitha , explains Dash, “began as one of the many ways that the produce could be used more efficiently. As a coastal kingdom back in the day, Odisha or Odra Desh was always a rice growing region that was rich with palm, coconut trees, fish and boasted of one of the oldest jaggery making industry. In fact, not just the portal towns of erstwhile Kalinga, every village that  bore proximity to the sea were adept at a few things: the cultivation of a variety of paddy, the making of puffed rice (mudhi) and puffed paddy (khai), jaggery from palm and the art of pitha making –  a huge variety of that some of which today we hear in stories or only can see a much evolved format.”

What however garnered Chunchi Patra pitha, which, she continues, “needs a little skill to perfect is the easiness of the pitha. Unlike most pithas designed for a particular ritual or celebration that needs special preparation, Chunchi Patra Pitha can be made often with available resources. The only ingredient that is a must-have is the rice, which can be polished, unpolished, boiled or even broken.”

Chunchi Patra fame lay in its simplicity. Unlike its brethern that needed soaking, fermentation after grinding, this stylised version was made with a simple rice batter, says Dash, “where the rice was soaked for a few hours prior and once they could be broken between two fingertips, it was ready to be ground into a thin paste that was applied on swift stroke on a griddle, stuffed and folded into a parcel.”

The complete process works like a clockwork and  quick. The idea behind making the pitha this way, she continues, “was to ensure that there is no moisture in either the paper like pitha or the filling, and yet it is soft enough that allowed creativity – the pitha can be rolled like a cigar (as shown in the picture) or the traditional way of turning it into a pracel -  and had this melt in the mouth consistency. One of the reasons why the batter was kept absolutely thin for easy spread and the size of the pithas no more than two good bites.”

These factors while made Chunchi Patra Pitha a popular snack that could energise and  a staple on the port and trading routes, it also lend it that intricacy, especially back in the day when most cooking was done on a chullah, and only the most experienced hand would be given the responsibility to make the pitha as over the time that griddle would turn super hot and thus needed both speed and timing to get these soft, delicious parcels out in time.”

Curiously, for all the easeness, artistry and goodness that the pitha had, recalls Dash, “over the years, it did lose the plot to the likes of Chakuli Pitha that even though appears like a plain Uttapa has the same versatility of taking on any filling, is soft and has a shelf life for an entire day thanks to the lentil used in the fermented batter. Why, there is little explanation even for the culinary custodian,  who has taken upon herself to educate  the new generation to some of the lesser known pithas of Odisha, one pitha at a time. But is glad that its association with Lakshmi Puja, we still speak about it.

In the past few years, Chunchi Patra Pitha has seen a resurgence courtesy culinary researcher like Alka Jena, who find the composition of the pitha a classic case study in the creation of classics. “It is the finest showcase of cook's ingenuity of not just knowing the ingredient and how to use the technique and heat to create a dish that is as unique in its flavours as it is in presenting a  canvas to experiment.”

That could be the perfect reason to discover Chunchi Patra Pitha –  the wondorous crepe of the East.