It’s been a while that I’ve wanted to write an article on a dish which is very close to my heart. I grew up in a hostel in South India with the only two months of vacation that was during the summers. Hailing from Cuttack, the summers were extremely harsh and humid. No amount of lowering the temperature of the AC would work. But there was one dish which did the job which an AC couldn’t. Cue to the humble Pakhala.
There is no right way of eating a Pakhala. Growing up in the South, I was used to eat Aurua or the normal rice you get around in the market. But the fact is that most of people in Odisha eat Usuna Bhaata (Par boiled rice) in their meals. We had our own fields just outside of Bhubaneswar which supplied the grains.
Like most other South East Asian regions, Odisha is primarily a rice eating state. Pakhala, as suggested by some linguistic scholars, has been derived from Sanskrit word ‘prakhyalana’ which means to wash down with water. But let’s get into the absolute details of the dish. Our family preferred rice both for lunches and dinners. So the best way of storing the leftover rice was to soak it in water. This was soaked overnight in water in a cool corner thus fermenting into Pakhala.
With the next morning being super-hot with temperatures reaching around the 42-46C, it was time that the Pakhala made a grand entry. While my grandmother needed nothing with her Pakhala and had it just with Fish Fry on the side. But being the spoiled brat that I am and also being back from Hostel just for 2 months in the year, I could order for anything I wanted. So I waited around for my dad to return from the shop in the afternoon and create something unique called a Paga. Now Paga is a term you’d seldom find used outside of Cuttack. We Cuttakias are too spoiled for our good. Shutting shops for an afternoon siesta only to go back in the evenings. You’d seldom find a person on the street in the afternoon if he was a local shop owner.
Paga is a term which can be loosely translated to creating a unique personal take on an already existing dish. Countless hours have been spent on creating the right paga for a dish. From crushing a lanka (green chili) to grinding a specific cut of ginger, add a squeeze of lime or not. Paga is all about individuality. Every person in an Odia household has his own style of Paga.
The next hour in the house would be spent in cutting the necessary ingredients for making the paga for the Pakhala. The one made in our house had lemon leaves, crushed mango ginger, curd, salt, pepper, coriander and that’s it. We always preferred to use Mango Ginger instead of the regular to give it much freshness. If not using curd in the Pakhala, then you can add a squeeze of lime into the kansa.
But Pakhala as a dish is incomplete without the sides. My family was so specific about them that nearly 10 different bhajas (fries) were made as accompaniments. There were the different types of saag (leafy vegetables) which my grandfather got back each time from his morning walk. He’d proudly fight with my dad for even getting a bunch for 1 Re lesser. That’s how most of our table conversations went with each trying to Alpha the other over who bought the vegetables at a cheaper price. If it was either Wednesday, Friday or Sunday we’d be lucky to get a fish fry. Rest all of the days were vegetarian days in our home. But the bhajas and chutneys make for a whole another story.
Time would be spent in roasting many vegetables on the coil-heater while the bhajas were made beforehand. Now the same Paga concept applies to making of each of the chutneys too. As I got my kansa (bowl) of Pakhala, arranged alongside were the Aloo Chutney (Potato), Baigana Chutney (Brinjal), Bhendi Chutney (Okra), Sev Mixture Chutney, Badi Chura Chutney. The Bhajas had basically any vegetable that I mother could pull out the refrigerator for that day. Post finishing the rice, don’t feel left out in lifting the bowl to your mouth and cleaning away every last drops of torani.
But the best part of Pakhala is still yet to come. Soon after finishing a bowl of the Pakhala, what follows is the best sleep you can get ever in your lifetime.
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