The Curious Case Of Pakhala Kansa

‘Honey, You shrunk the Pakhala Kansa!’  was my initial reaction during a shopping expedition with my sister-in-law in April last year. We were out restocking the kitchen shelves with a few pieces of ‘Kansa’ for serving Pakhala. While most Odias never had the family silver to flaunt, we have always prided ourselves on the family Kansa or bell metal. That was before globalisation opened up a world of new possibilities. Needless to add, many fell prey to them. Heirloom pieces were bartered or sold off to make space for shinier and lighter stuff. And among the first ones to go, was the Pakhala Kansa. This again brings to focus the relationship between the Pakhala and the Kansa.

The fermented, highly inundated rice served in a bell-metal bowl has always been regarded as the savior of the toiling masses. An adaption to prevent the cooked rice from spoiling was necessitated by the practice of cooking only at dusk when the diminishing sunlight made other activities impossible. Often vegetables like potatoes were dunked into the same pot to maximise resource utilisation. The family would enjoy a hot meal for their dinner, and store the rest for the subsequent day, a practice that still prevails in most parts of rural Odisha.

The next morning, the fermented rice would be consumed with a meagre quantity of boiled/stir-fried leafy greens, some dried fish, or roasted vegetables. The carb-heavy meal ensured that people got a quick burst of energy to carry out activities linked to their livelihood.  More often than not, these activities demanded physical labor and long hours in the sun. The high water-content of Pakhala also kept them hydrated.

But a lot has changed over the last few decades. The diminishing size of the Pakhala Kansa signifies a change in our work profile and living standards. Sidney Mintz’s ‘Core-Fringe-Legume’ theory holds good specifically for Agrarian societies, and a shift in meal patterns indicates a shift from farming as the primary source of sustenance. As the number of sedentary jobs increases and farming activities get highly mechanised, Pakhala consumption is confined to a few months every year. Only during the soul-snatching summers, does the Pakhala Kansa reclaim a fraction of its erstwhile glory. A fact resonated by its changed dimensions. The Pakhala Kansa of today is roughly equivalent to just half, or at times, even a quarter of its original dimension a century ago. Even Pakhala is no longer the sole centre of attraction. It has been overshadowed by the multitude of side dishes served alongside it as a mandatory accompaniment. Blatant changes like these have transformed the Pakhala meal from being a carb-heavy one to being a protein-heavy one. And therein lies the catch.

Protein is complex to digest and raises the body temperature more as compared to carbohydrates due to the former’s higher thermic effect. Heat is related to Pitta dosha which tends to aggravate during the summer season, and therefore, the traditional summer diet in these parts minimises the ratio of proteins in the meals. Another reason for going low on protein is the compromised ‘Agni’ of the body. The human body naturally transitions to a lower metabolic state during summer to regulate body temperature and prevent overheating. This, in turn, translates into a weaker digestive system, making it challenging to handle a higher ratio of proteins. A high protein diet during the summer is taxing on our kidneys as they have to put in more effort to flush out the excess amino acids. Plus, the process is water-intensive. Consequently, it can leave the body feeling dehydrated if one is not consuming enough fluids.

The evolving profile of the Pakhala meal has changed its underlying quality. Pakhala is no longer the hydrating and cooling ‘functional food’ that led to it gaining traction with the masses. The Pakhala being consumed nowadays is sans fermentation. It is made by cooling and diluting freshly prepared rice and topped with a good amount of curd and seasonings to compensate for the lack of flavor. Even the fundamental ingredient, parboiled rice, has been substituted with steamed or sun-dried varieties in many households. This alteration affects the fermentation process as the partially digested starch profile of the parboiled rice facilitates fermentation and yields a flavorful and nutrient-rich ‘Torani’. Hand-pounded parboiled variants, which retained parts of the bran, yielded the most flavourful ‘Pakhala’. In the older days, a small amount of the ‘Torani’ would be retained each time, and added to the fresh batch of Pakhala. Much like a well-aged sourdough starter, this ‘lactobacillus culture’ ensured that the Pakhala developed a ripe aroma when left to ferment for a designated period.

As we celebrate Pakhala Dibasa, perhaps it is time to spare a thought on the changing dimensions of the Pakhala Kansa and everything that it symbolises.

I rest my case.

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