PAKHALA: A COMMONER'S DISH WITH ROYAL PATRONAGE Nothing personifies the essence of 'unity in diversity' like a bowl of pakhala – a ancient antidote to healthy gut (and hair), it has loyalist across classes.

By Madhulika Dash
Come summer, and the one dish that someone would find across homes – both rich and farmer – across Odisha is Pakhala (pronounced as po-kha-lo by many). Loosely explained as a bowl of fermented water rice, it is a dish that is both loved for its interesting taste as it is for the 'cooling' effect it has on the body (and mind). It is one dish that any Oriya – even those who haven't lived in the kingdom of temples – easily falls for with inexplicable ease. So much so that those who have seen an Oriya crave for this traditional dish often call it the 'soul-comforting food.' And in many ways, it is.

Pakhala, fascinatingly, is one of the first food that children are often treated to as soon as they can chew. And the reason for this is two-fold: first, pakhala is really soft and is easy to mash up; and two, it is one of the natural gut-strengthening tonic. In Odisha, this translates into protecting against the skin-burning heat and its ailments. The bonus of course is the easily digestible starch content that keeps one satiated for long hours. This perhaps explains how pakhala, which is today an all-favourite lunch special, began its journey as breakfast. The fermented rice water, as a matter of fact, remained for a long time a commoner's big meal ticket to work for long hours. For royalty of course, it played the role of what nihari did in north – pakhala became the hero of a filling meal that could put one to instant sleep. Of course, by the time it reached the royal corridor – and then eventually to the temple of Lord Jagannath – this homemaker's innovation had changed considerably. For one, it was no more the stale, fermented food.

By the time, Pokhala became the meal of those in power – and this according to historians was around the Gupta period – it became more refined and less stale and gave birth to a version that is commonly called the Saaja Pokhalo (translated as, redressed water rice). Yet another change was its garnishing. While the poor farmer preferred a dash of local lemon-juice and mustard oil with green veggie on the side; the one served to rich royalty and their nobility used crush ginger and curd. Later, as spices reached the ports of Odisha, more ingredients were added like roasted cumin powder and chillies.

A common border with Andhra Pradesh meant the inclusion of curry leaves as well, in tempered form of course.

It was the latter, more sophisticated style of Pakhala that reached the temples, where it was reincarnated as washed rice that was served with curd, salt and ginger with an occasional sprinkling of roasted cumin powder. Of course, on its way up, Basi Pakhala had various versions, including the Sugandhi (fragrant) Pakhala (which is believed to be one that is served at the temples) and two, a rare-to-find, Meetha Pakhala that has slices of sweet orange, jaggery (which is now sugar), ginger and roasted cumin powder.

And while all the versions – one that is our version of thayirr sadam and is made by squeezing the fermented rice that is mixed with curd, ginger, chillies and roasted cumin powder – are loved across Odisha, the most prized is the Basi Pakhala, which today is a rarity. The reason for this, says Chef Ajay Sahoo, Indian Masterchef, Diya (The Leela Ambience, Gurugram), “is the know how of making the perfect pakhala.”

To make the basic pakhala, says Chef Sahoo, “one needs the right kind of rice, cooked to the right consistency. Ideally, a good choice for this is boiled, unpolished rice. The starch in such variety is more and hence adds to the process.” While a preferred and widely practiced style of making the rice is through the boiling method where the rice is slowly cooked in 3:1 ratio of water and rice and excess water is drained out, an absorption method (generally reserved for cooking biryani rice) works as well. The idea, says leading nutritionist, “is to retain much of the starch and sugar in rice that will help in fermentation."

A benchmark of how the rice should be is the pinch test. The rice, say the experts, “should be malleable." A little water is left to keep the rice moist.

Made of leftover rice, a trick to making great pakhala is to do the preparation while it is still warm. Add as much water into the rice, a pinch of salt and keep it in a humid place. Eight to nine hours on a high humid night does the trick, but if it doesn't happen, says Chef Sahoo, “you can squeeze in some lime juice or drop in a dry mango to help the process."

Much like curd, it helps to keep a bit of the fermented water for better result. In case, it gets over fermented – which can be identified by looking at the bubbles and the typical sour notes and extra whiteness, squeeze out the rice, add fresh water, curd water and then the fermented water to taste.

A well-done basi pakhala will have a slight sweet-umami-sour tasting-notes.

Another reason of Pakhala's popularity is the way it is eaten across Odisha. Designed to appease both vegetarians and fish eaters, a bowl of basi pakhala is traditionally served with a serving of bhaja (stir fried veggies), bharta (mashed vegetable), boari chura (made of dried lentil dumpling), sago (spinach/leafy greens), fried fish and a portion of salad that has cucumber, chilli, salt and indigenous onions. Fascinatingly, the science behind the little feast is the same as that of dal-baati-churma.

While Basi Pakhala plays the role of the rich starch (read: carb) and probiotic, the rest bring in the vitamin, protein and other nutrients to balance the meal. It is, says Bhassin, "an ideal way to get your days' worth of nutrient with added gut-friendly probiotic."

In fact, pakhala, by the virtue of how it is cooked, is natural, oil free antidote for those with arthritis and type 2 diabetes- and weight loss too. All that with the added goodness of fermentation.