Come March, the people of Odisha have to start battling the high and dry heat of an early summer that kind of side steps over what is supposed to be “Basanta Rutu” or Spring season; a season supposed to buffer the summer and be mild, but which slyly gives the state a miss. Summer is all of a sudden upon us, before we have even packed away our winter clothes. We start feeling the departure of winter when the vegetables, fresh beet and carrots and cauliflowers and laukis and peas suddenly start looking dry and withered, then one day suddenly lose their taste. Then comes the loo, the dry wind that the river bed brings in during the mid-day, that is suffocating and all pervasive. Suddenly the swarms of mosquitoes disappear and you know that the temperature is hovering around the 40s mark. But, the real indicator, that Summer is here? The Pakhala. The dish whose images have started doing the rounds of social media in recent years, and so much so, apparently, a day has been dedicated to it! (Whoever had heard of World Pakhala Day even 5 years back!)
Yes, the Pakhala truly heralds the coming of summer to Odisha. A dish, to quench thirst, egalitarian, all-inclusive and stubbornly resistant to change. It is also perhaps the only dish that people can digest in this small rice bowl of eastern India, during the hot season.
Pakhala – The Dish
What is a Pakhala? It is simply the leftover cooked rice dunked in water and taken the next day in its slightly fermented form. The fermentation gives it a kick and sour taste. The daily wagers, the farmers who toil in the field, the working class, always in need of a fast nutritious dish, relish this simple unpretentious dish in the heat. The basic Pakhala really doesn’t need much of an accompaniment, just some salt, maybe green chillies and some slices of raw onion. But the dish is equally appreciated across all sections of society. One can add on to the dish and make it as simple or as complicated or traditional as one wishes.
A typical family will have some pan fried vegetables and maybe a boiled potato to go with it. Fish fry, or a side of stir fried prawns is appreciated (most Odia side dishes are stir fried, shallow fried rather than deep fried). “Badi”, the sun dried dumpling made from lentils, is another favourite accompaniment with the Pakhala. Fried bitter gourd or pumpkin flowers dipped in rice paste and shallow fried are popular anti pastos (or perhaps ante-pakhala?) before one consumes the main bowl.
The timeless dish has had a revival in recent times, thanks to social media and the countless emigrated Odias rediscovering their roots through nostalgia. For people who went to school in the 70s and 80s, nothing completed a day better than to come to a bowl of “Pakhala” after a hot and dusty day at school.
However this acceptance of Pakhala as a regular mainstay of Odia cuisine was not very palatable even a few years back. I remember asking a friend outside Odisha whether they had pakhala at home and the defensive response was “maybe it is taken back in the villages, we don’t have it," immediately consigning it to a category as a dish for the rural poor. One cannot really blame the Odia “prabashis” for this type of sentiment. We have been categorized so long as an extremely poor state, that this dish kind of slammed the nail on the coffin of “Odisha- a poor pakhala eating state”, hence perhaps leading to a reluctance to its acceptance as a proper State cuisine. At least till a few years back.
Thankfully, perhaps with the realization that Pakhala cannot be the worst thing to happen to us, has come an assertion and acceptance of our essential Odia-ness, and acceptance of all our inherent culture, heritage, quirks, habits, dress codes, dishes, and the ubiquitous and all-encompassing Pakhala in all its glory.
- Sm R