Not Knives Or Peelers, ‘Panakhi’ Still Rules In Odisha’s Kitchens
Kitchens of the West has the cook standing at a table or counter and using a knife. But mention a kitchen in eastern India, an image will surface of a woman seated on the floor, cutting, chopping or cooking. In the Indian subcontinent, especially in the eastern region and Odisha, this is a typical posture. For centuries, the Odia cook and her assistant have remained firmly grounded on the kitchen floor. In the kitchen, they often sat on small rectangular or square wooden platforms called pidhas, which raised them an inch or so above the floor.
From the closeness to the earth evolved the practice of sitting down both to prepare and to cook. Enter the panakhi, a protean cutting instrument on which generations of our womenfolk have learned to peel, chop, dice and shred. Despite the recent incursion of knives, peelers, graters and other modern, Western-style kitchen utensils, the panakhi is still alive and well in the rural and urban kitchens of Odisha.
The panakhi is nothing more than a curved blade rising out of a narrow, flat, wooden base. Sometimes the blade is mounted on a small iron tripod to increase its height. Its versatility comes from the many different types and sizes of both blade and base. The uniqueness comes from the posture required to use it: one must either squat on one’s haunches or sit on the floor with one knee raised while the corresponding foot presses down on the base. As in other “floor-oriented” cultures, such as Japan, the people of Odisha were accustomed to squatting or sitting on the floor for indefinite periods of time.
To use a knife of any size or shape, the cook must bear down with one hand on the item being cut, at the same time holding the food with the other hand to prevent it from slipping. But unlike the more familiar knife, the panakhi uses horizontal, rather than vertical, force. To those used to working with a knife, the delicacy with which the rigidly-positioned blade cuts seems miraculous: it peels the tiniest potato, trims the tendrils from string beans, splits the fleshy stems of plants, chops greens into minute particles for stir-frying, and even scales the largest fish. Like knives, panakhis come in many different sizes, with blades varying in height, width and shape. Women using the instrument at home generally have two medium-sized panakhi, one for cutting vegetables, the other for fish and meat. Professional cooks dealing with large volumes of food use considerably heftier panakhis than housewives.
In the heydays, we have seen that the elderly grandmother or widowed aunt was responsible for cutting the vegetables, while the younger women took on the more arduous task of cooking over the hot stove. Some of my fondest childhood memories involve sitting near my grandmother on the floor of the large central space as she peeled and sliced the vegetables for the day’s main afternoon meal. A grand array of shapes and colors surrounded her: purple and greenish-white eggplants; green-and-white striped patols — pointed gourd; leafy greens with their fleshy, rhubarb-like stems; yellow crescents of pumpkin; pale-skinned potatoes.
The woman at the panakhi, however, is not always an elderly narrator. The young, nubile daughter of the family and the newly-married bride sitting at the panakhi are also part of the household story. As they joyfully manipulate food against the versatile blade, the young woman epitomises feminine abilities. When marriages were arranged in rural Odisha, the bridegroom’s family would come to look over the prospective bride, asking to see her kitchen skills and noting how well she could chop with the panakhi. At times the future in-laws often demanded that she sit at the panakhi and cut a bunch of shaak to a very fine cut before stir-frying. The ideal bride had to be able to reduce the bunch into minute particles of green. Yet handling the panakhi well.
Recurring images portray her as young and demure, sitting with her head bent, concentrating on her hands as she moves the vegetable or fish toward the lethal blade. Often a married woman is pictured, her head modestly covered with the shoulder end of her sari, whose colourful border frames her face and hair. Men — whether a husband or a romantic interest — can expect many eloquent, sidelong glances cast with surreptitious turns of the head as the woman goes about her domestic tasks with the panakhi. The body language: the straight back, the bifurcated legs (one crossed, the other raised), the coy eyes peeking out from under the sari covering the head. To the creative eye the panakhi, enforcing this posture, created a uniquely erotic vision of the female figure, rich in implication and suggestiveness.
Despite its long history, it is probably inevitable that in the new global century the panakhi will eventually vanish. The household kitchens are rapidly changing. Knives rather than panakhi are becoming the cutting implements of choice. Tables and countertops are triumphing over the floor; chairs, tables, and couches are becoming as integral to the home as its doors and windows. Women no longer live in extended families, nor do their mornings consist of the leisurely ritual of vegetable cuttings session, when several women worked together, forming a sisterhood of the panakhi. Now women are likely to work outside the home, which leaves little time for that kind of domestic fellowship. But for those of us who remember, the panakhi will continue to be a potent symbol of multi-faceted femininity.