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Patrapoda, Paturi and Bhapa: Odia and Bengali Ways of Cooking Food Wrapped In Leaves



Leaves Make things Steamy by Aralyn Beaumont is part of the book, You and I Eat the Same: On the Countless Ways Food and Cooking Connect Us to One Another — a compilation of 19 essays focusing on how the vast array of our cuisines is a collective human effort, often thought as a distinguishing and differentiating factor. Beaumont elucidates, "Cooking in leaves is one of humanity’s simplest and most elegant culinary ideas. Its ubiquity unites us. The myriad ways we adapt the same basic principle is what makes food interesting." I couldn't agree more.


Now, I am not writing this post to elaborate on how old this technique of cooking is. It is widely known that for thousands of years, humans have been wrapping food in leaves and cooking it by steaming, roasting, charring or burrowing it under the soil and subjecting it to heat. The methods are more perhaps, but the concept remains the same — leaves acting as wrappers, carriers, steamers, protectors of the food within, and additionally, as agents of aroma, flavour and at times, antiseptic properties.


Tamales in Mexico, Pasteles in Latin American countries, Bibingka and suman in the Philippines, Kakinoha-zushi in Japan, pepes in Indonesia, Zong zi and Lo mai gai in China, Ha mok pla in Thailand, Bánh chưng in Vietnam, Sarma in Southeastern European and Ottoman cuisine, and of course the lineup of leaf-wrapped food preparations in different regions of India — Gujarati patra, panki and damni dhokla, Parsi patrani machhi, Maharashtrian patole, paniya from Madhya Pradesh, Mangalorean kotte kadubu, Therali kozhukattai from Kerala, Manipuri paknam, Kumaoni singori — are just specks in the vast universe of this food category around the world.


I don't aim to educate you on the plethora of dishes that cultures across the globe make, using this method of cooking, nor the variety of leaves that these cultures use for wrapping food. There are some great writeups available on these aspects such as this one, which talks about ten flavor-packed leaves from around the world to bring into your kitchen, or this one, which has some nice recipes like the Mediterranean dolmades. And, this one by Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a thoughtful roundup of how regions in India have adapted this age-old culinary technique to churn out some fantastic dishes from their kitchens. Then, there are of course essays like the one by Aralyn Beaumont as noted above.


In this post, I want to share how I use this technique to cook some of the most easiest meals at home, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian at the same time. The first one in the series, Poles Apart.


Regional Context and Nomenclature


Growing up in Odisha, where food is often cooked by wrapping it in leaves sticky batters, vegetables, mushrooms, meat and fish, effortlessly embalmed with spices or stuffed with sweet somethings  I have seen this practice closely, and keenly. It is common in the neighbouring region of Bengal as well. In Odisha, we call such dishes, patrapoda, literally meaning charred or sometimes, seared, in leaves. Patra = leaves, poda = charred/burned/seared.


Abundantly used by people in the bygone, especially tribals and villagers, this method of cooking is a stroke of ingenuity. In the olden times of Odisha, food was often wrapped in leaves of the sal tree and was cooked over an open fire, often in the dying embers of earthen ovens dug up in the ground. The heat of the fire would char and sear the leaves, which acted as an impervious casing and prevented the food from being exposed to direct heat and getting burned. The charred leaves generated a smoky flavour in the food while trapping some steam and sealing in the smokiness, cooking the food slowly in mellow heat. Once cooked, the leaf wraps are opened and the cooked dish is revealed. The result is a perfectly cooked dish with minimum effort and fantastic taste.



If you have the time and space to setup an open fire, an Odia patrapoda is a fine dish to make. In modern kitchens, we create patrapoda by roasting the leafy parcels on a hot griddle or a pan with a tight fitting lid. The Bengali paturi uses the same method.


The pioneers of the patrapoda, the tribals and villagers, used leaves of the sal tree for wrapping food. In present day too, if you can find sal leaves, they work great and nothing beats their smoky scent. But if you can't, don't be intimidated. There are a variety of leaves employed to make leafy parcels! An Odia sweet, chenna poda is cooked by wrapping kneaded cottage cheese mixed with sugar and some spices in sal leaves and placing it in an oven. The classic enduri pitha or haladi patra pitha is a sweet dish where a rice and urad dal batter is stuffed with grated coconut and jaggery, and sealed between leaves of the turmeric (haladi in Odia) plant and then steamed. Apart from these, Odia cooking uses banana leaves, bottle gourd or pumpkin leaves and even taro leaves to wrap marinated fish, mushrooms or vegetables and roast or steam the leafy parcels. The paturi can use a similar variety of leaves as well. The choice of leaves depends on the availability or seasonality and the amount of food they will carry.


The Bengali paturi has several famed dishes in its stock as well. Macher paturi (fish paturi) is undoubtedly the most common of all paturis. Ilish or Hilsa fish is the popular ingredient which is coated in spices and wrapped in leaves, and the banana leaf happens to be the usual wrapper. However, more variants exist like the bhetki paturi that has baramundi wrapped in banana leaves, kumro patai ilish that has hilsa wrapped in pumpkin leaves, chhanar paturi that has paneer or cottage cheese wrapped in (usually banana) leaves, and more.




A Little Detour


A slight modification of the patrapoda is daba poda where daba means box and poda means charred or burned or roasted in Odia. The designation daba poda is not accurate, rather a reminder that while the term is derived from the older dish, patrapoda, the new version itself doesn't actually involve any roasting. Sweta Biswal, in her book Beyond Dalma describes daba puda as a modification of patrapoda or purga. Sweta elucidates "as people stopped going into the jungles to collect firewood everyday, the availability of fresh leaves to wrap and cook the food went down. At the same time, new utensils started gaining popularity in the home kitchens." The daba refers to these utensils. Instead of leaves, people started putting all ingredients into these dabas and cooking it on the embers. This brilliant organic evolution of the patrapoda though lacks the smoky scent of leaves, it does pack a punch of flavour and is a timesaver in the kitchen.


In modern kitchens where we don't have embers, charring or roasting food in a small bowl over the fire is difficult, rather dangerous. In this case, we use utensils with tight fitting lids and cook the marinated food in it with no addition of water. The enclosed environment mimics an oven and the food cooks in the steam from its own juices.



The bhapa dishes in the Bengali cuisine are a class of dishes that cook food in enclosed containers by steaming. Bhapa means steamed in Bengali, and true to its name, the dish is cooked in steam. The ingredients are packed into a box usually a tiffin boxclosed and placed inside an enclosed vessel filled with just enough water to create steam for cooking the dish. In older traditional kitchens, you will often find a sealed box containing fish or chhana (cottage cheese or paneer) or a combination of greens and shrimps/prawns coated with spices, sitting in a water bath or in a pressure cooker with its whistle taken off, cooked in no time.


Although the cooking method of bhapa does not inherently require the food to be wrapped in leaves, many recipes call for the food to be wrapped in leaves like banana or pumpkin or gourd, placed inside an enclosed container and then steamed.


The Bengali Bhapa ilish (hilsa fish steamed) and chhana bhapa (cottage cheese steamed) are both classics, and have undoubtedly earned a place of love and pride in the cuisine. The ilish steams quite well on its own, enclosed in a steel tiffin box but when steamed while wrapped in a bottle gourd leaf, it becomes even more special as lau patay ilish. And, then there's kochu patay ilish which is hilsa steamed in taro leaves, another delightful steamed version of ilish which I love. More than the fish, I enjoy shrimps or prawns steamed in this way. The chingri bhape or bhapa chingri is not only easy to prepare but also way more flavourful than the usual cooked shrimps or prawns. You can even add tender vegetables or greens to enhance this dish.


I also relish strips of boneless chicken steamed in this way. A good rub of chilli, mustard and garlic paste, mustard oil, some yogurt with a hint of turmeric and red chili powder over the chicken strips and more spoonfuls ladled over are just the prep you need to do. A delectable bhapa murgi is ready!


Although chhana bhapa steals the limelight in the vegetarian category, I find tofu to be a really good candidate. With no particular flavour of its own, it becomes an open canvas to experiment with the mustard paste. I sometimes add melon seeds instead of grated coconut or increase the fieriness of the paste with some chili oil. A soft crumbly tofu works great for a tofu bhape but a medium firm one does not disappoint either.


Traditionally, there aren't many versions of vegetarian bhapa just as there aren't many versions of a vegetarian paturi. But I like to think beyond the standard recipes in this regard. I have found that vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli, sweet potatoes, bottle gourd, zucchini, and winter squashes or pumpkins taste quite nice when cooked using the bhapa method. The idea is to choose vegetables that take relatively less time to turn tender. For cauliflower and broccoli, I cut medium florets. For sweet potatoes and pumpkins, medium thick slices work well. And, for soft squashes like zucchini or bottle gourd, and even sweet potato, grating or chopping fine is preferable. A mustard based paste surely adds to the inherent flavours of the vegetables and steaming generates a tender bite. For whole florets or thickish slices, you may want to lightly sauté/pan fry the vegetables first, and then go for steaming. Trust me, the additional sautéing does not add a ton of time to the overall cooking process.


Spices for Coating


All of these leafy parcels, the Odia patrapoda and the Bengali paturi, and their non-leafy steamed and roasted variations, daba puda and bhapa, are absolutely easy to put together. The only trick is to get the combination of spices right, which isn't difficult to master after a couple of attempts. The spice paste in both Odia and Bengali patrapoda and paturi, has essentially mustard seeds as its base. Mustard, with its pungent flavour, is an acquired taste but for the less inclined eater, a mellowed version can also be prepared.




The Odia version of the spice paste uses black mustard seeds, a tad bit of cumin seeds, dried red chillies and garlic pods, which are ground together into a fine paste with slight addition of water. The Bengali version also uses black mustard seeds as the base but adds green chilies, grated coconut, sometimes a bit of poppy seeds and nigella seeds, and often curd (yogurt). A little turmeric may be added for a bright yellow hue.


Although purists will tell you that a traditional sila bata is indispensable to get the right texture, I am all in for a method that saves you time and effort in the kitchen. I love to use the pestle and mortar when I can but a good blender also generates an excellent paste to work with. Add water in increments, and some salt to tie the flavours together, and your paste is ready.


To tone down the pungency of mustard, a combination of yellow and black mustard seeds can be used. The use of coconut and yogurt in the Bengali version also helps to bring a roundedness to the sharp mustard notes. The mustard paste can be mellowed by using yellow mustard seeds along with the black.


Choice of Leaves


Now on the question on what leaves to use, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do I want to only wrap the food or eat the leaves as well? For the latter, use edible leaves like pumpkin, bottle gourd, taro. Banana leaves render the smell and flavour but are discarded before eating.

  • What is the size of the ingredients I am planning to wrap in the leaves? Banana leaves have a large surface area and can hold bigger pieces of fish fillets or cuts. Banana leaves must first be exposed over open fire for a bit to help them stiffen and not tear when being folded during the process of wrapping.

  • What is in season? Are there any particular variety of large edible leaves available locally that I can use to wrap food? A chard or a collard can also be an excellent wrapper.


Method of Wrapping


On the topic of wrapping, I am happy to say there isn't any magic involved. Although it may seem so :) Treat the leaf as a gift wrapping paper. Place spice coated ingredient on the leaf, fold the leaves so that the ingredients are cocooned inside, and use strings to tie the leaf parcel so that it's easy to handle and keeps the ingredients sealed.


Method of Cooking


For the Odia patrapoda or Bengali paturi:

  1. Coat the fish or shrimps or mushrooms or paneer or any tender vegetables with the spice paste you prepared.

  2. Place the coated ingredient in the leaves, add green chillies and coriander leaves for freshness, drizzle a glug of mustard oil and seal.

  3. Place on a hot oil greased griddle or open fire to roast until done. NOTE: If you skip wrapping the food in the leaves, and simply roast the marinated food on a hot oil greased griddle or pan with a tight fitting lid, you will make what is called a daba puda in Odia.


For the Bengali bhapa:

  1. Coat the fish or shrimps or mushrooms or paneer or any tender vegetables with the spice paste you prepared.

  2. Place the coated ingredient in a box with a tight fitting lid, add the remnant spice paste, green chillies and coriander leaves for freshness, drizzle a glug of mustard oil and close the box.

  3. To steam: In a pressure cooker, add water to the cooker, place the ring in and lower the container. Remove the whistle and steam for 12 to 15 minutes. OR In a microwave oven, combine everything together in a microwave safe bowl. Cover with a lid and cook. The cooking time will vary depending upon the ingredients and the power of the microwave. OR In a steamer, place the leaf parcel inside the basket and steam for 12 to 15 minutes. OR In a tall vessel, create a water bath such that when you place the tightly closed container in the vessel, water should reach only up to 1/3 of the box and not close to the lid. Placing the sealed box on top of a steaming raiser is a handy trick.


How do I use this method to make veg and non-veg simultaneously?

I choose a single spice paste to keep things simple and move things quickly in the kitchen. For example, I make a maccha (fish) patrapoda for myself and a chhatu (mushroom) patrapoda for my husband. In this case, I make a large batch of the Odia style masala, and the rest is like a breeze! Or say, I make a bhapa maach (Bengali steamed fish) for myself and a chhannar bhapa (Bengali steamed paneer) for my husband. The typical Bengali paturi spice paste works quite well for both these ingredients.

To understand or recognize the veg parcels from the non-veg ones, I either use two separate pans when I am running short of time or do it one after the other when I am not rushing.


Once you know the basic spice paste, it's easy to add variations. For example, a bunch of fresh green coriander leaves in the Bengali version of the paste works wonderfully or adding chopped onions, tomatoes and spring onions to the coated ingredient in the Odia version adds another layer of texture and breaks the monotony of mustard.




 

Recipe


If you are here after reading the post all through, do you really need the recipe now? :)

I highly encourage to get a hang of the spice paste by making smaller batches first and using leaves as parcels if you have never done before.

But if you really need the ingredients measured by the standard, here's something to get you started.

Patrapoda

For 2 to 3 pieces of fish or a big handful (about 2 cups) of mushrooms:


Ingredients

  • 1 large banana leaf or 3-4 large taro leaves or a bunch of gourd leaves/pumpkin leaves

  • 2-3 tsp black mustard seeds soaked for 1-2 hours and drained (take lesser quantity for less pungency)

  • 1 tsp cumin seeds (optional)

  • 1 dried red chilli

  • 6-7 pods of garlic

  • 1/4 tsp turmeric powder

  • Salt to taste

  • 2-3 tsp cold pressed mustard oil (If you don't have access to mustard oil, then skip it)

  • 2-3 fresh green chilies, optional

  • a handful of chopped coriander leaves, optional

  • 1/2 cup chopped onions and tomatoes, optional

Method

  1. Make a fine paste of mustard and cumin seeds, dry red chilli and garlic. Add salt and turmeric and mix.

  2. Coat the fish/mushrooms well with the spice paste you prepared. Use your hands for this process for better results.

  3. If using banana leaves, wipe with water and expose them to heat without burning, to ensure the leaves don't tear apart when folding. For other leaves, nicely wipe with water.

  4. Place the coated fish and mushrooms in the leaves, add green chillies and coriander leaves for freshness, chopped onions and tomatoes if using, drizzle mustard oil and seal using cotton strings.

  5. Place on a hot oil greased griddle or open fire to roast until done to your liking. If you find that your leaf is torn, wrap another layer of leaf around it. If using taro leaves to wrap, I always place the leaf parcels in a steamer for 5-7 minutes and also use a good squeeze of lime/lemon juice along with mustard oil over the spice coated ingredients. This is to avoid any itching that may be caused due to the oxalates present in taro leaves.

When ready, open the leaf parcels and enjoy with hot steamed rice.


Bhapa

For 3 to 4 pieces of fish like ilish or bhetki (3 cm thickness each) or 2 to 3 pieces of thin salmon steaks (or 1 to 2 fat steaks) or a slab of paneer or equivalent quantity of vegetables:


Ingredients

  • 4 tbsp black mustard seeds or 2 tbsp + 2tbsp black and yellow mustard seeds, soaked for 1-2 hours and drained

  • 3-5 green chillies

  • 1/3 cup grated coconut

  • a handful of chopped coriander leaves, optional

  • 1/2 tsp turmeric powder

  • 1/3 cup beaten yogurt

  • A good pinch of sugar

  • 1 1/2 tbsp cold pressed mustard oil (If you don't have access to mustard oil, then skip it)

  • Salt to taste

  • 3-4 fresh green chilies, optional

Method

  1. Make a fine paste of mustard and green chillies by slowly adding water and taking as many turns as needed. Next add the grated coconut, salt, sugar and turmeric and grind again. If adding coriander leaves, skip the turmeric, and grind.

  2. In a bowl, mix the paste made in step one with yogurt and 1 tbsp mustard oil till everything is well incorporated into a smooth paste.

  3. Coat the fish and paneer well with the spice paste you prepared. Use your hands to ensure the mixture coats all of the fish/paneer.

  4. Place the coated fish and paneer in separate boxes, add green chillies for freshness and an extra kick, pour in the remaining spice paste, drizzle a glug of remaining mustard oil and seal tightly with respective lids.

  5. Heat a vessel and place a stand/raiser at the bottom. Pour hot water, making sure it doesn’t reach up to more than half the height of your tiffin box, or there’s a chance of water seeping in. Once the water has come to a boil, place the tiffin box on the stand. Cover the vessel and steam on medium heat for 15 minutes.

When ready, open the tiffin box and enjoy with hot steamed rice.








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