‘Masterchef Australia’ is late to the party. India’s fermented rice dishes, from Bengal’s ‘poita bhat’ to Kerala’s ‘pazhamkanji’, have long been moving up the culinary ladder from farms to restaurants, as gourmets discover their many benefits
Pantha bhat, trending after it was featured in Masterchef Australia by contestant Kishwar Chowdhury, is known by many names in India — poita bhat (Assamese), pakhala bhat (Odiya), pazhaya sadam (Tamil), geel bhat (Bihar), chaddannam (Telugu) and pazhamkanji (Malayalam). Call it what you will, but fermented rice is comfort food for many in India and in Southeast Asia. Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam have their own versions.
Author and academic Krishnendhu Ray, associate professor of Food Studies at New York University, says there are three reasons for the popularity of fermented food in general and rice in particular. “One, the idea of a national cuisine is passé. We know that there are regional and sub-regional cuisines. Two, the 21st Century has seen the death of the taste for cold and sweet in the American century of taste. Realising the ill-effect of sodas and colas, people are going for tepid and sour foods. Three, studies have shown that gut health is closely related to the immune system, health, and mental health. Earlier, the ambition was to boil and cook everything to kill all microbes. But now, we know that certain microbes are necessary for our health. Fermented food is rich in microbes, yeast, and mould, all necessary for our health.”
Krishnendu says that, like music and textiles, tastes in food can also travel from the subaltern to the mainstream and he attributes the popularity of fermented rice gruel to that movement.
Fermented rice gruel, he says, has existed for centuries in one form or the other in every place where rice is grown, especially in the era before refrigeration. But it was the food of the common man, not of royalty. “That was one of the reasons why it was not served in restaurants. Now, fermented food has caught the attention of gourmets but we have to wait and see if it is a fad and how long it lasts,” says Krishnendu.
Fermented for fine dining
As the locavore movement gains in strength, regional staples like fermented rice finds a place in the sun — and in upscale restaurants around India. Regi Mathew, chef and culinary director of Chennai-based Kappa Chakka Kandhari, has been serving pazhamkanji and cherupayar kanji in his restaurant since 2018. “Diners were pleasantly surprised when they saw it on the menu for lunch. Unless we serve these ethnic foods, they will vanish from our plates. Nutritious and packed with probiotics, pazhamkanji used to be a staple in households in Kerala,” says Regi. He speaks nostalgically of sharing the pazhamkanji that farm labourers working their land in Kottayam used to bring for lunch. “Pazhamkanji reminds me of vacations, home and childhood,” he adds.
Agreeing with his sentiments, chef Suresh Pillai, culinary director of Raviz Hotels, gushes about pazhamkanji. Although it is not on the formal menu of Raviz, he says there are many expatriates who ask for it. “We prepare it for them. Cooked rice is soaked overnight in water with shallots and bird’s eye chilli. In the morning, it is served with chutney, pickle, fish curry or fish fry (sun-dried fish fry), curd, pappadam and, occasionally, kappa (tapioca),” he says.
The sides served with the fermented rice vary from place to place. Even the number of hours it is soaked can vary. When it is soaked for more than 48 hours, the cooked rice releases a small amount of alcohol, which has a kick.
According to Regi, pazhamkanji has a cooling effect on the body and that is why farm labourers used to prefer it to cooked rice.
Combined with a variety of sides, pazhamkanji is also now offered by small dedicated eateries, where it is often the only dish on the menu. Moopilans, perhaps the first in Thiruvananthapuram to serve only pazhamkanji, began five years ago. “For three-four months, there were queues at our place. Seeing its popularity, other joints also began serving it,” says Vijayakumari V, who has reopened her small eatery after the lockdown. Now, only parcels are being given.
In Orissa and West Bengal, it is usually served with potato and fried fish. Regi says that in Kerala, the fish curry served it with the pazhamkanji was also usually the previous day’s fish curry. “Our older generation never wasted food. Pazhamkanjiwas a way of making the best of the what was in the house when there were no refrigerators. Soaking the rice overnight broke down the micro-nutrients in the rice, making it easily digestible,” says Regi.
In Malayalam, kanji is often used as a derogatory term to refer to someone who is not quick-witted or in with the times. From the looks of it, this will soon have to be changed to keep with the times as kanji takes centre-stage in the culinary world.