Revisiting one of the oldest coolants of Odia cuisine and what makes a simple fermented rice water one of the wellness old most prized possession today?
By Madhulika Dash; Photography: Alka Jena/CulinaryXpress
Early this week, Odias across the world had their biggest culinary celebrations. Reasons: two. First, an AIIMS study that put Pakhala back in the wellness map – more torani and pakhala in fact. And two, the reaching of pakhala or panta bhat into the biggest culinary competition of our times: MasterChef Australia thanks to Kishwar Chowdhury final feast of Smoked Rice Water, Aloo Bhorta and Sardines. The basic farmer format which is more popularly known as pakhala, chakata au mahurali machcha bhaja in Odisha and its Eastern cousin not only reinstated the culinary supremacy that made India and its various dynasty – most prominent being the Kalinga Era – one of the superpowers back in time, but also was an ode to our wellness expertise.
Long before the team under Balamurugan Ramadass, additional professor of biochemistry and head of the Centre of Excellence For Clinical Microbiome-AIIMS Bhubaneswar discovered that while pakhala has its own microbial benefits to our health, the real deal is the torani or the rice water that gives pakhala its distinct taste and umami-ness. The study releveled that the Lactobacillus present in ‘torani’ promotes secretory immunoglobulin that fight local infection, particularly in the lungs and the intestines. Known clinically as SFCA, these enzyme pack are not just good source of energy and anti-viral properties (that make it effective in the current situation as well) but can aid in foetus growth and overall pregnancy health status.
A few properties of pakhala and torani that was already known in the past where Torani Kanji prepared both with adding curd and tempering after being seasoned with vegetables especially gourds and leafy greens was a common place. In fact, the ritual of having an extra bowl of torani after a meal has been a long-held tradition that is followed in every Odia household even today. This old granmother’s trick to extra goodness and better rehydration has found credence in numerous studies done abroad that has found the water to have the same probiotic richness that pakhala has.
In fact, it is the soluble starch in the water which helps bacteria thrive not just when the pakhala is getting ready through fermentation but also enables the gut friendly bacteria to survive within our body creating more probiotic enzyme that aids in the upkeep of the intestine as well as creating antibodies that can fight any form of respiratory and stomach inflammation – the two roots that as per Charak Samhita are the backbone of our health. Even Ayurveda that doesn’t endorse fermentation often views the stomach – which is the gut, intestine and the liver – to be the health headquarter of the body.
It is, says Chef Sabyasachi Gorai (Founder, Fabrica By Saby), “as the dwellers of the Harappa Culture believe is the matrix that is responsible for overall goodness, including that of the mind and soul. One of the many reasons that a lot of gruels back in the day, especially the ones that was had for the biggest meal of the day had around mid-day were made using some form of fermented beverage. In Eastern side of India, the obvious choice was that of torani thanks to the abundance of rice and a tradition of eating pakhala. In fact, torani’s lightness often made it a favourite drink in the morning as well where it could act as a natural coolant for the stomach and keep the body rehydrated as people went about their day’s work.”
Torani as per history and Kashyapa Samhita thanks to its nutritive composition of starch, bacteria, and residual protein – since it isn’t ever without a handful of kernels of rice in it – was also the perfect base for a lot of concoctions that were created for treating respiratory, bowel and skin related issue. And as part of treatments, especially of hair and skin irritation that eventually found its way into Kamasutra – the time of good life. But its glory came much through the history as the tastemaker of pakhala and as a kanji, which was a Vedic preparation that used the fermented rice water and its microflora as an effective base to plenty of their herbal mixes that if administered as it is could cause more harm than goodness, especially to the stomach.
What made torani so effective, says nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, “was the presence of micronutrients and phytochemicals like Glutamine and Resistant Starch in the water that helped create a conducive environment for the digestive track not just to heal and repair but also enable other nutrients creation including probiotics and protein multiplication in the body. The fact that torani is most water with few ingredients whose nutritive structure was broken down further for easy digestion thanks to the microbial functions, there was an instant supply of energy while giving other food to assimilate slowly in the system thus making each food item more effective.”
This perhaps explains, adds Chef Gorai, “the many varieties of kanji in the Odia food ledger that in versatility, taste and functionality almost rivals rasam, which is another format of Kashayam that also led to the creation of torani kanji.”
Just to give you a glimpse of how this humble torani transforms into super drinks comes with the basic, popular dahi torani kanji, which uses curd and is tempered with paanch phoran to serve as an effective summer coolant. The same torani when cooked with gourd, curry leave, peja (cooked rice water) and tempering becomes one that helps in rehydration, taking care of the respiratory system and treating acidity. A round-the-year popular drink, torani transforms into a vitamin, iron, antioxidant and fibre rich drink in winters when a variety of spinach that includes the poi saag, khatta saag, local bathua saag, moola saag and spinach is used to make the drink. It is in fact this kanji that was used mostly to also help revive the liver while keeping the digestive and respiratory track in order.”
Of course, say the experts, “then there is the Lactobacillus that makes it good for pregnant women and kids as well, who use of all the mind-and intestinal-friendly glutamine for their energetic disposition.”
However, the ace up torani sleeve, says Chef Gorai, “and the one that would floor the world is that typical pucker up taste that torani has, which is akin to a nice miso soup, that can be cranked up with just the right addition of ingredients.”