Different parts of India celebrate different festivals during monsoon. In Odisha, two festivals are extremely popular during the rainy season, mid June to August, Rajaw and Ratha Jatra. Both are incomplete without the renowned rice cake, poda pitha, which has a distinct charred bottom. Poda in Odia means burnt, and pitha means a class of cakes made of fermented, semi-fermented or un-fermented batters of rice, urad dal or semolina, or a combination of these grains and lentils. In the context of poda pitha, poda implies the charred caramelization of the bottom of the cake.
Made and perfected through centuries, pithas are undoubtedly the cornerstones of Odia cuisine. I can't think of an Odia festival which does not include some kind of pitha in the celebratory menus.
The phone rings for a while as I figure a way to answer it with batter laden hands. "Next week, Monday, is Ratha Jatra", Maa's voice full of beans echoes through the speaker. "Ah! I checked it on the internet. Thanks Maa!" I wipe a somewhat sticky paste of rice and urad dal off my fingers with a soiled kitchen towel. "I already made the batter for poda pitha", I announce. "Oh Google tells everything now..." I interrupt before she can finish her sentence, "But I wait for your call."
Ever since I moved from home and started living on my own, Maa continues to remind me of all festivals throughout the year. Makar Sankranti, Basant Panchami, Holi, Rajaw, Ratha Jatra, Ganesh Puja, Durga Puja, Diwali and everything in between are constant reminders from her. As Hindu Indian festivals follow a lunar calendar, the dates of the festivals aren't fixed. For example, Christmas is designated as December 25 irrespective of the year. But Diwali, does not always come on a certain date of the year, although it usually falls on some day during the months of October and November. Hindu Indian festivals follow something known as 'teethi', a particular alignment of planets and stars during specific times of different seasons. So, the Hindu festival calendar, known as pānji in Odia and panjika in Hindi, has brand new content every year.
The concept of monsoon doesn't exist for me after moving to Canada, though the festivals associated with the season remain unchanged, and Maa's aide-memoire keeps me afoot of the impending celebrations, nourishing those bonds that tie me back to the place I was born and raised in.
Lord Jagannath's favourite dessert
This year on July 12, Odisha's favourite lord, Jagannath, will travel from his holy abode, Shri Mandira, in Puri to the Gundicha Temple, along with his siblings, Subhadra and Balabhadra, sitting upon wooden chariots hand drawn by thousands of devotees. After eight days of pampering at his aunt's home, Gundicha Temple, he will commence his return journey to Shri Mandira, and halt at Mausi Maa temple to eat poda pitha.
The lord is known to love poda pitha. It's also believed that in an earlier incarnation as Shri Rām, he had promised Rani Kaikeyi— his father's second wife— that in a later birth he would come to her and savour this dessert. This promise was to console a grief stricken Kaykeyi who realizes her folly of sending off Ram with his newly wed wife, Sita and brother Lakshman, to live in the forests for fourteen years, when her own son, Bharat, confronts her. The Mausi Maa temple at Puri is believed to be Kaikeyi's abode and poda pitha represents her motherly love for Shri Rām.
Traditional way of making poda pitha
When we look at how poda pitha is traditionally made, we fathom the effort involved, something you would do out of sheer love for someone.
The process begins with washing rice. Washed rice is spread upon thin linen or cotton clothes and left to be sun-dried. Next, the rice bereft of any moisture is hand-pounded to powder, chaula chuna, in a tool called dhenki. Fragrant and fiery spices like black pepper, bay leaf, ginger, cardamom and camphor are added to the powdered rice along with some sliced and grated coconut. Then, water is added, little by little, to form a paste-like batter which is cooked on slow heat to form a loose dough. Think of non-glutinous flours which are made into doughs using hot water. The same method is followed to make a dough from the hand-made rice flour. The loose dough is wrapped in leaves, either sal or banana, greased with ghee and stitched with twigs. This ensemble is then placed in an earthen vessel over wood fire, and many cinders are kept on top to gradually cook the dough. The resulting steamed cake has a caramelized layer at the bottom, the result of rice and jaggery burning and sticking at the base. This burnt base is what christened the cake as poda pitha. To enhance its wholesomeness, lentils like urad dal, soaked overnight and ground on stone mill, are also added to the batter.
The truth behind the fable of Kakeyi's poda pitha is debatable. Although it subtly explains why the queen would want to make this dessert for Shri Rām to make up for the injustice she inflicted upon him.
Puri and Poda Pitha
The town of Puri dotted with many narrow lanes, crisscrossed with human-pulled rickshaws and straying cows tussling to own their space, often maddens me, yet continues to beckon me no matter where I live.
Perhaps it's the numbing serenity creeping amidst the chaos of the lord's temple and the many facets of past on its ancient walls, or the lord himself with his deep alluring eyes, ebony skin, or maybe the unremitting waves of the Bay of Bengal roaring and falling between ombré and sublime moony nights, or the eternal expanse of golden sands kissing and sending back the surging foams of green and white.
Perhaps it's the train rides to Puri taken in childhood that sparkle in my mind like a firefly or the pouring crowds rushing to pull the lord and his siblings' chariots during Ratha Jatra, the cart festival, or the beaches teeming with chaat and jhaal mudhi wallahs in the evenings and Baba's narrations of lores about Jagannath, his voice clashing against the backdrop of the deafening sea.
And, how can I forget the food of the lord which upkept culinary art of Odisha amidst other art forms, and that attracts you like a magnet for a bite, only to make you come back for more. Like chenna poda, the burnt cheesecake of Odisha, poda pitha remains sough-after in many markets of Puri, which is known to serve some of the most toothsome versions of this rice cake. There are no two thoughts about it. If the lord adores it, then the best kind of the pitha ought to be made in Puri.
Hiatus from rice growing and a celebration of womanhood
Some weeks prior to Ratha Jatra, the festival of Rajaw is celebrated, a time of transition from rabi or dālua (summer rice) to khariph or biāli (autumn rice). With the completion of sowing rice for a new season, farmers take a hiatus from rice cultivation, and let the earth, also hailed as Bhoo Devi, rejuvenate before a new season of growing rice. During the four-day long celebrations, the earth's resting period is symbolized as her mensuration, a reminder of the fertility of the soil that provides us with food for survival. Women are revered like the earth, as they too give birth to new life, and Rajaw celebrates this.
In olden times, with the clay oven, wooden hearth and the cooking and prep equipment mainly on the floor, activities in the kitchen involved significant load on the earth. During Rajaw, no intensive cooking was done to ensure the earth could repose, like women during their period. So, poda pitha with its 4-5 day shelf life and nutritive benefits, apart from being utterly tasty, fit the bill for Rajaw.
Tribal food, rice farming and the cult of Jagannath - Poda Pitha in between the three
Ratha Jatra which celebrates the humanness of Lord Jagannath, bringing him to the streets to mingle with the masses and Rajaw that celebrates the glory of the Earth goddess, both have poda pitha entwined in their rituals and practices.
While poda pitha's connection with Rajaw bears pragmatism, its correlation to Ratha Jatra seems fabled. Or is it? Rice is the soul of Odisha. It's so pertinent to the Odia diet that a meal is akin to bhāta or cooked rice. "Bhāta khāila ki" which translates to did you eat rice, implies did you eat or did you have food. Most festivals in Odisha revolve around rice and its many growing phases, and involve not one but many dishes made of rice. Poda Pitha is one of them, a pitha with relatively higher longevity requiring minimum supervision when slowly cooking on its own — practical and sustainable amidst the lull in cooking and farming during Rajaw.
Of the many desserts made from rice, Jagannath is believed to relish poda pitha the most, a cake that goes way back into the state's food history, to a time when Odisha was a giant kingdom of many tribes, Kalinga, and secluded from the rest of India, over 500 years before conquerors like Ashoka came to own and change it. The traditional method to make this pitha is nothing short of a craft, and many historians believe that olden agrarian Odia tribes pioneered it, who are also known to have unfolded the festival of Rajaw.
Lord of the universe, Jagannath, is also believed to be Sabara Dāru Debatā, lord of the sabara tribe, one of the oldest in Odisha, where dāru means wood. The Jagannath cult with the parallel impetus of Shivaism, Shaktism and Vaishnavism has symbiotically grown with ancient Odisha which was largely tribal, each tribe specializing in farming, foraging, seafaring, trading and other crafts. It's plausible that spiritual and religious waves of thought are also influenced from tribal or Atavik ways of worshipping divine powers in the form of a log of wood, a post or stone pillar, and the prasad or food offerings to the deities is logically inspired from tribal ways of cooking and serving food. Similar to dalma and pakhala, poda pitha perhaps also made its way from a tribal plate to the lord's platter.
Modern day cooking of poda pitha
Modern kitchens and cooking appliances have transformed the way poda pitha is made in homes. Temples still follow the older method. At home, I bake the pitha in an oven. I begin with soaking rice and urad dal overnight, and making a slightly coarse batter in the morning by grinding the two in a blender.
I make a rustic batter by adding jaggery, black pepper, bay leaves, ginger, fennel and coconut, and pour into a cake pan or tin. I let it bake at 375 F for about 45 minutes, and increase the temperature to 400 F for the last 5 to 7 minutes to render a char on the cake.
This cake is a traditional pitha, and tastes best with its rusticity intact. The fieriness of pepper and ginger is balanced with the sweetness of jaggery and coconut, and complements the earthiness of rice and urad dal. A faint aroma of fennel, bay leaves, ghee and banana (or sal) leaves floats on top, and the sliced coconuts with fried cashews and raisins add crunch and texture.
1 cup rice
1/2 cup split or whole hurled urad dal
1 cup jaggery
3/4 cup grated coconut
1-inch ginger chopped and pounded
1 tsp crushed green cardamom pods and black peppercorns
1/4 tsp roughly crushed fennel
5-6 bay leaves
4 tbsp ghee (or oil - although oil will not taste the same)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1 tbsp brown sugar or jaggery powder to dust the cake pan
1/4 cup thinly sliced coconut
1/2 cup cashews and raisins
1-2 banana or sal leaves to wrap the batter (optional)
Soak rice and urad dal for 5-6 hours or overnight. In the morning, wash and drain the water. Then grind into a coarse paste with as little water as possible. Leave the batter to ferment for 3-4 hours. If you live somewhere extremely hot, you may leave it to ferment for an hour or so too.
In a pan, add 1 tsp ghee and roast the cashews and raisins until the raisins puff up. Keep aside.
Grease a baking pan or tin with some ghee, dust it with brown sugar or jaggery powder, tear 4 bay leaves and lay them on the pan, and keep it ready. If using banana or sal leaves, then line the cake tin with the leaves first. Preheat oven to 375 F.
In a bowl, pour the fermented batter and add jaggery, grated coconut, half the sliced coconuts, remaining ghee, cardamom, pepper, fennel, remaining bay leaves torn to bits, salt, baking powder and half the cashews and raisins. Mix everything well.
Pour the batter into the cake tin and layer the top with remaining cashews, raisins and sliced coconuts to decorate.
Place the cake pan or tin in the oven and bake at 375 F for 40 minutes. For the next 5 minutes, bake at 390 F. Check for doneness by inserting a tooth pick - it should come out clean. Else bake again for 5 minutes at 375 F. Note: Baking at 390 F for 5 minutes is optional. I do it to ensure a char but I usually succeed without it too. Ovens can be different and their heating can vary. If you do this step, make sure you don't cook the cake too long at this high temperature.
Let the cake cool completely before slicing.
Enjoy as is or a hot cup of lembu cha or lemon tea! It stays well on the kitchen counter for 3-4 days.