This Humble Bangla Rice Dish Has Won Over Masterchef Judges

This Humble Bangla Rice Dish Has Won Over Masterchef Judges
In India, the dish is popular in Bengal, Assam and Odisha, Photo Credit: Shutterstock

A rice dish from the Bengali kitchen has taken the world by storm. But it is so ubiquitous that people are still confused if it should be on the global culinary map or not

Uttara Gangopadhyay
July 18 , 2021
08 Min Read

Can you present a humble, rustic dish in the final round of a prestigious globally acclaimed cooking competition? Probably even Kishwar Chowdhury, the Bangladeshi-origin MasterChef Australia contestant, did not know the waves she was about to create when she put the ‘smoked rice water’ dish in front of the judges. Served with a side of ‘alu bhorta’ and marinated fried sardines topped with a salsa of onions, coriander and other veggies, the dish drew rave reviews from the judges.

 
 
 
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While viewers around the world marvelled at her presentation, people from Bangladesh and India realised it was but a dressed up version of ‘panta bhaat’ (as it is known in Bengali). A dish that is so characteristically rustic that nobody ever thought it deserved a place on the culinary map.

The soaked rice, usually kept overnight, gets slightly fermented. The gruel is a fortifying food for the farmers who leave home early morning to toil in the fields. It is also eaten in rural homes during summer as the gruel has a cooling effect. Usually, the fermented rice is eaten with a little mustard oil, slices of onion and green chilli.

 
 
 
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According to Bangladeshi author and former BBC journalist Urmi Rahman, while the panta bhaat is usually associated with the peasants, it was a regular item in many homes. She recalled her grandmother preparing it at home. “If you were poor, you ate the paanta with slices of onion and green chillies. Depending on your economic circumstances, you may have it with alu bhorta [mashed boiled potatoes], or with fried fish,” she said.

Interestingly, in Bangladesh, now it is almost customary to eat panta bhaat and hilsa fish fry on the Bengali New Year’s Day. “Although I do not know how the custom evolved, I still remember there was a restaurant near Ramna Park where the New Year celebration is held. After the event, most people would visit the restaurant for their special meal of panta bhat and hilsa fry served that day,” she recalled from her younger days.

While she is glad of Chowdhury’s achievements, Rahman has a mixed feeling about panta bhaat going global. “On one hand, this may pave the way for attempts to commercialise dishes that are basic and unpretentious. On the other hand, it can be a matter of pride that Bengalis’ own panta bhaat will figure among the exotic dishes around the globe,” she said.

People from Bangladesh have hailed Chowdhury’s achievement in the competition and her courage to take the simple dish to great heights.

In India, apart from West Bengal, the panta bhaat is also popular in Assam and Odisha, where it is known as ‘poita bhaat’ and ‘pakhala’, respectively. It is also eaten in parts of southern India.

According to award-winning author and journalist Ranjita Biswas from Assam, “Poita bhat is similar to panta bhaat,” she explained, “where rice or left over rice is soaked in water, left to ferment overnight and eaten the next morning with a dash of salt, green chilli and a spoonful of mustard oil. This is what farmers would often have before heading out to the field. Particularly liked in summer for its cooling effect.”

 
 
 
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“But it is not very popular or common,” said Biswas. “The young generation in particular is not very enthused by the idea.” She gave her own example saying she has never felt an urge to try panta bhaat, the reason being it was not part of her urban home setting.

But unknown to most people, Odisha had lifted the ‘pakhala bhaat’ to a culinary speciality long back. According to Sumitra Panigrahi, a housewife from Odisha who is adept in cooking traditional dishes at home, the rice is first boiled and the water rice water or ‘torani’ is kept separately. ‘Ambula’ or sun-dried mango is added to the torani to make it sour; this is then added to the rice. To make it a complete dish, Panigrahi serves it with sukhua (dried fish). Depending on people’s choice, pakhala bhaat can be served with a lot of sides, such as badi chuda, alu chokha, vegetable fritters or small fish. She also reminded that pakhala is traditionally cooked in earthenware or heavy metallic bowls as the acid may corrode metals like aluminium, etc.

 
 
 
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According to content creator and food specialist author, Indrajit Lahiri, traditionally panta bhaat has been considered as ‘a poor man’s staple’. “While it has been the darling of the rustic land, panta has become the new found love for the urban people,” said Lahiri. “With whatever name it may be called, let us enjoy it with elan.” In conclusion, Lahiri also pointed out that panta bhaat has already  been on the menu of Dhamsa Tribal Restaurant [located inside Eco Park on the eastern fringe of Kolkata] before the dish went global through Chowdhury.   


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