Before the Panta Bhat made its appearance as 'Smoked Rice Water' in MasterChef Australia, perhaps its greatest claim to fame was through the song "Aanki Chali, Baanki Chali" from the film Namkeen, where Sharmila Tagore and Shabana Azmi are seen pounding grains and singing "Panta Bhaatey Tatka Begun Pora", referring to the humble panta bhat and perhaps one of its most-loved accompaniments, a whole aubergine, roasted, skin removed, then mashed with salt and mustard oil. Often enough, additional ingredients would be incorporated, like chopped onion, chillies, coriander and lime juice, but that would make it more like a bharta, and not begun pora. In the Bengali culinary milieu, panta bhat's position is rather precariously perched, a fine balance between laziness and the refusal to dispose of anything from the kitchen. In my house, it would be made on a day where leftover rice from the night before would have to be finished off. This would be the time when my grandmother would look at the refrigerator with a sense of deep distrust and suspicion, and would refuse to ever serve leftover, refrigerated rice the next day. Growing up, I have seen panta bhat being eaten on lazy Saturdays where lunch would be followed by an afternoon siesta, or during the hot summers when hydration is the key to wellness. The rice would be served with a chunk of onion, lime wedges (preferably Gandharaj lime), green chillies, and an assortment of accompaniments.
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What Constitutes of Panta Bhat?
To make panta bhat, the first step is fermentation. The quality of the rice is important, and panta shouldn't ideally be made with rice that's too fine or aromatic (like long-grain Basmati). An exception is the Gobindobhog, but it is not very popular either, thanks to its short grain and texture. Ideally, the rice used for making panta in most households such as mine is a medium-grained rice, preferably parboiled, so that after soaking the rice doesn't disintegrate and hold its texture. In that, texture of the finished dish is crucial and changes from one household to the next constantly. Saptarshi Chakraborty, co-owner of the popular Bengali YouTube channel BongEats, and one of the first vloggers to decode panta bhat noted, "The texture and style changes from household to household constantly. In my house, I wasn't a fan of panta till I understood what were the things I liked adding to it that made it tasty and followed my instincts. I still get a lot of comments on that vlog from people who give me totally new and different flavour profiles to go with it, and I like knowing that everyone has their own style." The rice is left to ferment as per the comfort level of the eater. Some leave it for an hour and then consume it and keep some for as long as 24 hours before they feel the desired level of fermentation is achieved.
When is Panta Bhat Eaten?
Food blogger Debjani Chatterjee Alam felt that the panta was too commonplace, which is what made it versatile. "In Bengal, you'll see panta being eaten for many occasions, be it in Shital Shashti where you're supposed to not cook anything and prepare your body for the upcoming pox and measles season, or the Dashami of Durga Puja, where everyone is exhausted from the excesses of the puja and just wants to relax. Its also eaten to break the fast as a part of iftaari in many Bengali Muslim households, flanked with deep-fried lentil fritters and deep-fried batter-coated onion, a couple of common accompaniments. After a long day of fasting, this makes for a wholesome, nutritious meal, full of good bacteria that are good for the gut. Panta is also a very popular thing among those who cook rice once and then doesn't want to reheat it, since they feel that reheating completely destroys the texture of the rice freshly cooked." Panta Bhat was seen as a common solution of preservation of rice before the refrigerator became commonplace in the house and as it fermented slightly, the sugars in the rice breaking down in the water to release a little bit of alcohol, it is advised to sleep a little after eating it.
Panta Bhat History and Myths
In history, you would find the first reference of panta bhat in the form of kanji or ganji, which can be traced back to the pakhala of Odisha, the poita bhat of Assam, and the panta bhat of Bengal. being decoded as a sour rice water gruel. This sourness comes from the process of fermentation and increases with time and the place where it's left to rest. A warmer climate and warm space would quicken the process, while a cooler place will need a little bit more time to start breaking down the rice glutamines. Panta Bhat also forms a very important part of Bengali folk lore, where panta buri (the old lady who eats panta) is a popular character immortalized by Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury.
What do you Pair Panta Bhat with?
As for accompaniments go, the common ones include mustard oil, an array of raw and boiled vegetables, batter-fried vegetables, shrimps, lentil, and bhorta of various kinds. Leftover daal is slowly thickened till it's really dry and then drizzled with mustard oil and served. The other very common accompaniment is fish, preferably small and whole, or a large piece with a good deal of skin on it, fried till crisp and served. The oiliness of the fish skin is savoured by most, pulled from the flesh and eaten separately to reserve the crunch, the tender, flaky fish inside then mashed in with the rice with hand, and a wedge of Gandharaj Lime squeezed on it to add a refreshing touch of citrus and increasing the natural sourness of the resultant mash that's then quickly consumed, followed by a siesta.
How To Make Panta Bhat | Panta Bhat Recipe
- 2 cups cooked rice, preferably from parboiled medium-grained rice
- Enough water to cover the rice
- Salt to taste
- Wedge of Lime
- Green chillies
- Mustard oil (optional)
- Deep-Fried Fish (optional)
In a bowl, add water to rice. Leave to ferment for at least 6 hours to start the fermentation procedure, but as per your liking, you can actually ferment the rice for up to 16 hours, or give up after 1 hour. Serve with accompaniments.
About Poorna BanerjeePoorna Banerjee is a food writer, restaurant critic and social media strategist and runs a blog Presented by P for the last ten years where she writes about the food she eats and cooks, the places she visits, and the things she finds of interest. She is deeply interested in culinary anthropology, and food history and loves books, music, travelling, and a glass of wine, in that order.