By Madhulika Dash
Come Raja (pronounced Rajaw), and the sweet dish that you get to sample in all its addictive variation – from the rustic, burnt traditional version to the modern, supple take on it – is Poda Pitha, a pancake dish that gets its name from the interesting caramelisation (though most denizen will call it burnt) on the top.
A rice-lentil pitha that is amongst the oldest of flat cakes in the world – even predating the honey-sweetened Satura – by almost a century if not less and yet modern in its appeal, texturing and favour play. But what gives this pitha its unmatched charm is its quintessential Utkal touch. Like most of the sweet pithas in the Oriya culinary ledger, Poda Pitha too is made of the classic mix of rice flour and lentil that is fermented overnight to get the lightness. To this batter, ginger, jaggery and a hint of clove is added (a combination that the West is recently discovering and exploring) before it is wrapped with a banana leaf and smoke- baked in an earthen-pot covered with burning charcoal ambers.
Result, the pitha comes looking like this rich cake (slightly dense) with a beautiful caramelisation on the top. A technique that the tribal people of Odisha had perfected around the 6 th BC when pitha became a staple for not only meals, but of indulgence as well. Legend has it that one of the favourite pithas of Gautam Buddha during his time in Odisha, around the Lagundi area, was the budda chakuli. Soft, idli-like in taste with a sweet aftertaste, it was a dish that could be had both with fruits (banana and coconut are a classic pairing) and even savoury dishes (pairs beautifully with spicy aloo dum or even the tradition khosa manghso). Fascinatingly, all Oriya pithas (with perhaps the exception of steamed monda pitha) are united in this one quality where they can be enjoyed as a dish or be paired with another dish to make a meal. Poda Pitha, which is a sweet that celebrate the essence of Raja, is no different. This marriage of rice flour and lentils in fact gives it an edge of being a meal in itself, or the finale to a good meal.
When and how Poda Pitha came into being is anyone’s best guess. Many historians believe it was the pan baking technique that was developed by the agrarian tribes, who were also the creator of the festival that celebrates Mother Earth (and Mensuration), who saw as more sustainable way of cooking a treat, given that it cooks for at least an hour without supervision and can stay for a good three days; others claim it to be an innovation of the Kharavela Kings, who patronised such slow cooked pitha because of its beautiful marriage of flavours.
There is a third school that believes, Podo Pitha was the result of using the brick kiln by tribal workers who were employed to create some of the stunning buildings across the state. Fascinating as the stories seem, what many agree is Poda Pitha’s perfect representation of Raja. Made with indigenous ingredients grown back then, the pitha showcases the nourishing aspect of a dish. First, making this dish ensures that all ingredients are used, the 3-day shelf life means nothing goes to waste; and the rice-lentil combination was considered the best way to nourish you back to good health and joy. After all, Raja was once observed as a time when Mother Nature went into periods to prepare for the next sowing season.
A time when cooking was abandoned as felling a tree would cause pain to the recovering earth; and womenfolk, who symbolised earth, were left to rejoice the coming in of spring.
Of course, the rise of the Poda Pitha as a nourishing treat was courtesy to Lord Jagannath, who makes a pit stop at his aunt’s place during the Bahuda Yatra to relish this preparation.