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The Food Connect: Gaintha Khira

Could a traditional pudding give us a glimpse into how our understanding of food, nature and wellness developed? Here’s a dish, and a ritual that does both


By Madhulika Dash; Picture & Recipe Courtesy: https://culinaryxpress.com/

Of all the rice pudding made in Odisha, Gaintha Khira or Gaintha Kheeri is perhaps one of the most

fascinating – not just in the mouthfeel and texture but in the making as well. Unlike the conventional

style kheeri or kheer made with rice and milk, the Gaintha version uses rice flour, which is cooked

into a soft, clay-like dough that is then shaped as little balls and steamed in a potful of cardamom-

flavoured and fragrant milk. And it is here where the kheeri attains its fairy tale charm.

To begin with, says Alka Jena, “the kheeri although has graced much of the royal tables including

that of Kanika and Mayurbhanj, and special occasions given its all-white appearance and a surprising

richness that the rice balls lend to an otherwise simple, rustic preparation, was traditionally meant

to be for Bakula Amavasya – a Kharavela time ritual which involves praying to the flowering mango

tree for a season of good harvest.

Why was such a dish developed to mark the flowering of mango trees? There are two reasons for

this. First is the time. Bakul Amavasya is the next festival that we in Odisha celebrate post our

harvest season in December. And since our ancient practices promoted the use of food that are

available in abundance as offering, rice or new rice becomes the obvious choice. And since the

flowering of mango trees signifies the arrival of yet another season of mangoes, kheer made of new

rice seems to be a befitting choice. But it isn’t just the rice which is new, conventionally the winter

season is also the time when most cows who have delivered finally begin giving milk that is high both

in protein, calcium and fat content making it ideal for consumption. One of the many reasons why

the khulad wala doodh becomes such a rage during winters. Of course, there is a scientific reason to

this as well, says nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, who considers the protein and fat in milk as

essential component for giving the body that extra burst of energy as it needs to tackle the season

change and stocking up for summers.


There is a culinary theory too for the Gaintha Khira being developed the way it is, adds Jena, who

finds it the perfect way to consume new rice. The thing about new rice, says the Odia food expert,

“is its delicate structure. Result, new rice cooks fast, really fast. While that makes it the perfect

choice for kheer, it also possessed a genuine issue – the easiness with which these rice kernels can

turn into to a sticky gloop if left unattended. The answer came in form of rice powder, which needed

less soaking in case of new rice, and still produced a flour that could be moulded into a cooked

dough that can be used to make dishes that could be easily digested. Two such dishes that this

process created was the Janta Roti, a flatbread usually served to kids and elderlies because it is easy

to eat and digest; and the Gaintha Kheeri, a gourmet style of kheer which is rich, satiating and

nourishing.”

In essence, Gaintha mirrored the qualities that made mango tree not just sacred to our rituals but

integral to our life fabric. Aside the delicious mangoes – both raw and ripe – that the tree provided

and was eventually loved for, the tree itself was like a wellness center that could take care of a

variety of health issues – from diarrhoea to baldness to lethargy and even matters of the heart. In

fact, mango tea, one of Charak Samhita ancient kashayam made from the yellow leaves of the

mango tree, milk and turmeric fingers is said to be a popular antidote for lethargy or constant

tiredness. Similar was the case of the bark of a mango tree, which in traditional medicine was used

to treat anaemia, cutaneous infections, diabetes, even malignant growths in the body. The tender

twigs are still used in many places as the dantoon.

On the palate, Gaintha Khira achieves a similar feat by becoming one of the few indulgences that is

not only has a rich palate feel and is easy to digest, courtesy the process of making a flour and

cooking into a dough (both of which work at breaking down the complex carbs and nutrients into

easily soluble format), says nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, “but also comes with this mega dose

of glutamine, which is essential for calming the mind, cooling the system, aiding the wear and tear

and of course providing a good dose of energy, which the body needs given the seasonal changes

during this time of the month.”


In fact, continues Bhassin, “even with its rather complex, and skill-demanding process of making the

Gaintha, it is one of the few dishes that showcase how techniques can lead to preservative style of

cooking.” And that, adds Jena, “is what lends Gaintha Khira that air of fascination because despite of

going through three, tricky processes where one can easily go overboard, the dish not only cooks

well, attains its rich flavour, texture and that amazing monda-like mouthfeel but does so without

losing much in the process. In fact, in all this, it does leave enough scope for innovation as well.”

This may explain why Gaintha, at least the one made for Bakul Amavasya, is made into a mango. It

showcases not only the different stages of a mango, but also hints towards the finite purpose the

sacred tree serves – just like the dish in itself.

Clearly, Kharavela, one of the greatest Jain warriors rulers of Odisha, knew a thing or two about

food, rituals and nature when he turned Bakul Amavasya, a day that marks the change of season

marked by the flowering of mango trees into an annual festival. By turning it into a ritual, Kharavela

was not only ensuring that the knowledge was passed on from generation to generation, but

appreciate and followed as well. And one way he did so was with Gaintha Khira – a dish that

showcases abundance, richness, functionality and nourishing in a bowl.