Take a dish from the subcontinent, give it a fancy name, serve it with style and present it well, and it will impress people from other parts of the word. This is what happened recently, when a dish native to West Bengal and Bangladesh was featured in a grand finale episode of MasterChef Australia.
Kishwar Chowdhury, a contestant on the show, decided to serve judges the humble and traditional cross-border food ‘panta bhaat‘, with ‘aloo bhorta‘ (or ‘aloo-bhaate‘, as Bengalis on this side of the border call it). Only, on MasterChef Australia, the dish was re-christened and called, ‘Smoked Rice Water’, served alongside sardine and a side of salsa.
As Indians, and with many of our loyal Bengali readers reading this article, we cannot, for the love of food, call the dish anything but ‘panta bhaat and aloo bhorta‘. Certainly not ‘smoked rice water’. As for the curious ones wondering what is so special about this food, well, for starters, it is not just a dish, but a feeling agreeably shared between Indians and Bangladeshis with a cultural connection.
Mothers and grandmothers, for generations, have been vouching for the health benefits of this peculiarly-simple food item, which is prepared overnight. In many households, the fermented rice dish is made by first preparing the rice separately, and then adding some water and leaving it to ferment overnight, for at least 12 hours. It continues to be a staple in many households in the eastern part of India, especially those whose livelihoods depend on physical labour. It is consumed as a breakfast item, but before that, mustard oil, a pinch of salt, and lemon is sprinkled and added to the bhaat (rice).
It is filling, healthy and cheap, often referred to as a ‘poor man’s breakfast’. Outside West Bengal, the dish finds takers in Assam, where it is called ‘poita bhat‘; Bihar, where it is called ‘geel bhat‘; and Odisha, where people call it ‘pakhala‘.
As mentioned earlier, it is served with a side of aloo-bhaate (mashed potatoes), fish fry, smoked eggplant (begun pora), curd or kasundi (mustard sauce).
This dish is especially consumed in hot and humid climates, for it is known to keep the body hydrated, and being easily digestible, it is good for gut health, too.
If you are thinking of preparing it, there are many recipes available online, some of which are from renowned chefs, who have found creative ways to add it to people’s plates, thereby shattering myths about it only being consumed by people of a certain socio-economic status and class.
In conclusion, you can savour this recipe any time, but if you want to enjoy it, please do not go around calling it anything but ‘panta bhaat‘.