And what really makes it one of the all-time favourite specials of Rath Yatra
By Madhulika Dash
Come monsoon, and each home across Odisha weaves and wafts with the sweet fragrance of Monda Pitha – a delicious delicacy filled with the scrumptiousness of chenna, palm jaggery, pepper and season’s sweetest coconut shavings. Call it an addictive habit or a ritual that with the first drop of raindew the heart begins to crave for the steam gooeyness or the crunchy bite of these perfectly rotund sweetmeats. And rightly so. Much like cinnamon during Christmas, Monda Pitha – or as Chef William Harold ‘Odra’s own money bags’ – is best enjoyed during monsoon. However, for most denizen, it is a sweet that can make any occasion special and is often had very much on a whim. Result, you would be find Monda Pitha round the year.
One of the reasons that makes Monda Pitha an absolute favourite of the erstwhile Odra-land is of course the easy taste – it is coconut and sweet jaggery and chenna after all – as compared to the more intense Arisa Pitha; and the fact that it can travel, the fried form of it at least.
The other reason for its absolute popularity is that it is part of many traditional celebrations – including the Rath Yatra.
But how did this 12 th century dessert which finds its cousin in Modak originate – and how did it rise to such prominence?
There is little definite history on how Monda Pitha came into existence, although there are old texts who have made it a favourite of the kings and lords.
Theoretically, the sweet’s beginning is traced to the same time as idli, when, according to KT Achaya, the art of steaming arrived to India from Indonesia. But if historians and old ledgers are to be believed that the art of creating sweets with rice began somewhere around the 8 th century with rice taking prominence in Eastern India. In fact, rice balls that travelled to these coastal areas with the rice kernels and Chinese traders became the vessel to create interesting variations, including stuffing them with sweetened coconut and berries. The inspiration for this was the Chinese Jin Deui – a fried ball with a sugary filling. Although there is another school that believed that it was the Indonesian Onde Onde, an improved sweet glutinous rice balls , which arrived during the Ganga dynasty and became the inspiration behind Monda Pitha.
So can Monda Pitha be called a Chinese inspiration thanks to the similarities? By appearance, yes. But Monda Pitha comes with its own unique techniques that makes it a far cry from its Asian cousins. Monda Pitha, a labour-intensive dish, is made by cooking the rice dough with water and cardamom first to a pliable consistency. The other difference is that Monda Pitha instead of the rice flour uses rice – an old season rice, which gives a better texture and aroma – which is soaked, dried, pounded into a coarse powder and then cooked over low flame.
Making the dough in fact plays a big role in determining how brilliant the Monda Pitha will turn out to be – which is essentially a little gelatinous yet soft to touch. What makes it an art is that the dough is cooked twice – one while making it and another while steaming or shallow frying the Monda. Another aspect that benchmarks this dish is the jaggery, which is usually the darker aged version which has this interesting bitter-sweetness to it. An aged palm jaggery is more intense in its flavour and can create this beautiful contrast with pepper and desiccated coconut – and when cooked turns into this naturally rich caramel with its own woody fragrance that makes Monda Pitha a complete palate treat.
Incidentally, the technique of cooking dough existed during the Kharavela Dynasty time, thus timelining Monda Pitha around the same time as most steamed sweet versions became a popular eat. Story has it that even Gautam Buddha loved the Monda Pitha and called it the ‘essence of life.’ Thanks to its making, Monda Pitha seem to have its early beginnings in the table of the rich, much like its Chinese cousin, the Jin Deui. Thus, earning its moniker, “money bags.” Later on rising to become a part of the collection that a bride would often take to her in-laws place as a symbol of her happy, sweet nature.
Monda Pitha was in fact one of the few things that the Gupta royal court adopted after Emperor Ashoka had finally won over Odisha. It is believed that it was Ashoka who made Monda Pitha, a celebratory meal by offering it to his people to celebrate a special day or ritual. However, the credit to popularising Monda Pitha goes to King Anantavarman Chodaganga, who patronised the sweet by making it a prasad for temples. It was a dish that replicated the concept of beauty perfectly. One such occasion is Kumar Purnima, a 10 th century ritual where unmarried girls prayed to the moon for the perfect husband – and offer the jaggery sweetened dish to please him.