When Kishwar Chowdhury served smoked rice water for the grand finale of the 13th episode of MasterChef Australia, she created a lot of buzz among South Asians the world over. Chowdhury’s smoked rice water is derived from panta bhat, a humble dish found in Bengali and other regional cuisines on the subcontinent.
Panta bhat is known by many names across India: in Orissa it is called pakhala, in Assam it goes by poita bhat, in Kerala it is pazham kanji, while in Tamil Nadu it is pazhaya sadam. While the main dish of rice gruel remains the same, the accompaniments vary according to regional tastes and practices.
Staying true to the Bangla tradition, Chowdhury served the dish with a side of burnt chillies, mashed potatoes, fried sardines and onion salsa, and told the judges the dish was something they wouldn’t find in any restaurant.
After the tasting, Melissa Leong, one of the three judges along with Jock Zonfrillo and Andy Allen, said: “This is unbelievable. To have the heart and soul of the dish be as simple as rice and water and seasoning – you know it is powerful with history and it is powerful with flavour.”
The magic of panta bhat lies as much in the profound taste that comes from simple ingredients and basic cooking techniques (leftover rice soaked in water overnight), as it does with the delicious accompaniments it is served with.
Shri Bala, a chef and food historian from Chennai, says when she was young, pazhaya sadam was accompanied by ajwain (carom seeds) and gingelly oil. “Some people also like to have dried fish and pickle alongside in Tamil Nadu.”
Sandeepa Datta Mukherjee, author of Bong Mom’s Cookbook and Those Delicious Letters, says her favourite way of having panta bhat is with a dash of mustard oil, green chillies, onion and some bora or lentil fritters.
Datta Mukherjee, who lives in the US, says: “In recent years, panta and its accoutrements have gained stature and become a customary meal served during New Year celebrations and other parties. Depending on the occasion, the sides with panta go from simple to lavish.”
She adds that during summers in the US, the Bengali community often have panta parties where the focus is on the delicious sides dishes.
Panta bhat is best eaten during summers as it has cooling properties. The overnight soaking leads to slight fermentation, so the dish is rich in probiotics and good for gastrointestinal health, points out Aparna Balasubramanian, a food blogger and photographer from Kerala.
In a study being conducted at All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) Bhubaneswar, researchers found that the fermented rice dish and its water boost immunity and are a very good source of short chain fatty acids (SCFA), which improve gut health, among other benefits.
Balamurugan Ramadass, additional professor of biochemistry and head of the Centre of Excellence for Clinical Biome Research at AIIMS Bhubaneswar, says the team was looking for foods rich in SCFA to include in the diet of malnourished children when they decided to test the fermented rice water of panta bhat. The researchers found the water, known as torani in Odia cuisine, was an excellent source.
“There are a lot of food sources that give you SCFA, like butter and yoghurt, but these cannot be taken in excess because of the fat content and other properties. But fermented rice water is different, it can be taken without restriction, and is an easily available source of instant and high energy,” says Ramadass.
“Microbes present in water rice chew the complex carbohydrate and let out what they don’t need – the SCFA that offer a lot of benefits.”
Ramadass says some people have misconceptions regarding the dish, believing that rice will make them put on weight or make them sleepy. “People whose jobs require them to physically exert themselves can take the rice. But for others, just half a litre of the water is sufficient to get all the benefits.”
Ramadass says he has religiously taken the required quantity every day during the pandemic. “I work in a hospital and meet many people and this has been my way of protecting myself.”
Balasubramanian notes: “Though healthy and a way of avoiding food wastage, it has always been seen as a ‘poor man’s food’. Since man’s general aspiration is to move upwards, this sometimes means leaving behind traditional food practices and dishes such as [panta bhat] also lost out.”
However, given the mass appeal of MasterChef, Chowdhury’s dedication to her cuisine has put this flavourful and healthy dish back in focus. Balasubramanian says: “The dish will probably become more popular now as it is becoming fashionable to go back to many things so long as they are labelled right: probiotic, gut-friendly and such.”