Also called bati basa (an ode to the vessel it is made in) and patrapatua (tribute to the leave), this technique of making food is one of the finest instances of a homemaker’s ingenuity with spices and sustainable cooking.
By Madhulika Dash; Illustration courtesy: Seema Misra and Swayamprakash Mohanty, ; picture by CulinaryXpress
It was almost a decade ago, when as a reviewer I had visited Kokum, the regional cuisine-based restaurant at Radisson Blu Resort & Spa in Alibaug. The food mostly from the Kokan region of India was delicious, but what was more interesting was the way most of the vegetarian fare was made. Much like the seafood and meat, veggies too were marinated with the masala. When coaxed the chefs let out a home secret: “it enhances the flavour and when slow cooked can retain much of the flavours.” True to their words, I did find that remarkable difference in the food, which was made homestyle, served restaurant style. I left the hotel pondering where have I seen a similar technique before – the answer came a few months later during a visit to my grandmother’s village where I saw not just the cook but also those working in the farm often resorted to the traditional technique of marinating the vegetables in the same spices/ masala that they would eventually use. The name of this taste bomb of a dish was patua – essentially a melange of vegetable, roots, skin, leaves and even shrimps or small chunks of meat that were voraciously seasoned, marinated, drizzled with oil and slow cooked either wrapped in a leave or in a heavy bowl called bati till done. Depending on the style of cooking the dish, it would earn the moniker: patrapatua/patrapoda (an ode to the leaf wrapping), bati basa (tribute to the specially designed bati or bowl) or simply patua, which was a name given to the technique of putting this little treat that was often a classic case of “taste from waste.” In Bengal, a similar kind of preparation is called Chorchori, which is this boldly flavoured mixed vegetable that would often have tastemakers like the cauliflower stems to mushrooms and even pumpkin stalks debuting once a while.
A quintessential of most Odia’s meal today, pairs exceptionally well with Pakhala – patua in Odia cuisine isn’t about a dish but a technique that developed both out of the need of something interesting to have and necessity. Zero wastage and repurposing still is a big part of homemaking in India today – and was the ethos on which kitchen management in India was based. One of the reasons why most patua recipe that are commonly made at homes are versatile enough to call for some very curious pairings of local vegetable, stalks, skins and such with the humble potato playing the unbiased matchmaker. In fact, the big highlight of this sustainable recipe is not the pairing or the kind of prep work that go into putting this curious mix of ingredients together, but the spices that would be used to give it that unmatched, unforgettable taste. Patua, as a matter of fact, remains one of the few culinary segments that is open to a wide variety of combination that ranges from the farmers’ special of using a coarsely mashed paste of onion, garlic and green chillies with mustard, salt, and turmeric to the rich besara (mustard paste) and the fragrant lanka masala, which essentially is coriander, green chillies, garlic, and green onion mashed into a rough paste. And yet, when it comes to demanding a recipe, there isn’t a fixed recipe for this absolutely popular side dish that has the potential of turning even a basic meal into something ridiculously delicious – a treat even. As for the taste, patua’s ability to walk all the sides of spice levels allows it to appeal to any kind of palate, even those who are novice to this concept. And the reason for this is the smokey flavour that patua attains while it being slow cooked either in a heavy kadai or an aluminium bowl called bati. The benchmark of making the dish is to first finely dice the vegetables so that each of them cooks at the same time – which means a cabbage stem needs to be smaller than that of a potato or yam and the skins can be as wide as a broad bean. Once done, the vegetable (or even prawns set which often has potatoes, parboiled yam and beans thrown along with it) is marinated with the masala – both dry and fresh- drizzled with mustard oil and then massaged for a while till most of the ingredients are well coated with the spices and then the bowl is set on low flame till it is cooked and then a little bit more. A good Bati Basa’s (which unlike the leave wrapped version can use raw ingredients) is marked by that little charring that happens around the side of the bowl and the brown sheet in the bottom. These slight burnt edges on the side provide patua its hallmark smokey taste and that amazing aroma for which the dish is most known for – and loved. When it is cooked in the leaf, the same affect is achieved by grilling the parcel on a tawa for some time so that the charred leave can infuse it with the flavour. Yet fascinatingly, that very “burnt effect” which today is seen as one of the benchmarks of a good patua was never a conscious part of the dish, not at least when it came to form.
Patua, by some of the old granny accounts, came as this quickly put together dish that served as an extra if there was a possibility of food falling short once the family sat down to eat. As tradition would have it the women folk, especially the daughter-in-laws would be the last to eat and would often know if they were falling short of any dish. Patua would be the rescue dish that would be put together by the eldest often who knew the taste quotient of the women in the house and would design the patua to appeal to that. The result, patua that often appears to the outside world as this hurriedly thrown in dry dish, would have the boldest of flavourants and would often play the different levels of spiciness to the hilt. Given that it had to be ready by the time the women folk sat down for their meal, it would be put on a low flame to cook for as long the rest of the family, guests and others finished with their meal. The initial iteration of this clever dish was mostly vegetarian and had variations that allowed its presence on the plate for days when niramish food had to be served and who had by twist of faith had to follow a vegetarian diet with a lot of vegetables out of the purview. But as fate would have it, patua soon took place as one of the dishes on the family table thanks to its amazing taste – and adventurous style of making it. After all, here was a dish that could be made within a few minutes, was versatile enough to take on any kind of pairing and is ridiculously delicious – be it with rice, chakuli, mudhi (puffed rice) or even pakhala.
Today, of course, patua is synonym to one of the tastiest slice of Odia cuisine, a dish well mastering, and definitely worth trying.