puli pithe

Pithe — the Fast-Fading Art of Culinary Excellence in Bengal

“Food is what creates memories”, says 78 years old Dhiman Banerjee. Sitting in his lavish north Kolkata house that still echoes the old architectural legacy of the bygone British era, Dhiman gets nostalgic in the wintery chill of January. “Its winter. And winter in Bengal is all about nolen gur and pithe puli parbon.

“Back in our times,” Dhiman reminisces, “Come Poush Sankranti and our house would fill up with the lilting aroma of freshly grated coconut being cooked in nolen gur, soon to be wrapped up in layers of rice and sooji dough. We waited with anticipation as Thakuma folded the first patisaapta of the season. And the varieties of these sweet dishes would boggle your mind! From Gokul Pithe, ranga aloor pithe, bhaja pithe, to bhapa pithe, mug er daaler pithe, the list is endless. Our family alone prides of having at least 100 pithe puli recipes! But its hard work and no one wants to make these anymore! These recipes are dying a slow, deliberate death!”

Ragini, a food blogger from South Kolkata and an ardent “pithe enthusiast” tends to disagree. “It’s true that because of our fast lifestyle we cannot invest the time and labour that our grandmas did in creating these Bengali delicacies. But to say that these works of culinary art are dying out would be an exaggeration.” She sounds optimistic as her blog on “banglar hariye jawa pithe puli” had garnered quite a response on a social media platform recently.

While the opinions are polarised on whether pithe-puli, as a Bengali culinary art is fading fast, Tiyasha, the nine-year-old grand-daughter of Dhiman, wonders what the fuss is all about!

Culinary History Fragrant with Aroma of New Harvest

Bengalis dip ever so easily in nostalgia and pride themselves in preserving their heritage. Pithe-puli forms an integral part of the culinary heritage of Bengal. As the sun transmigrates to the zodiac of Capricorn, Makar in Sanskrit, Bengalis celebrate Nabanna, to mark the beginning of the harvest festival.

It is that time of the year that the green horizons of Bengal take up a golden hue with a new harvest and the date palm trees ripen with fresh “kejhur ras” (date palm juice). Freshly harvested rice, new jaggery or notun gur (made by reducing date palm juice) and coconut along with other fresh harvest produce like sweet potatoes etc have been used since time immemorial to create the special sweet platter of pithe as offering to Mother Nature and thanking Her for the bountiful harvest.

Legacy of Lost Flavours — Some Still Continue this Gastronomic Heritage

Even in modern times, it is customary of many Bengali families to offer at least three different kinds of pithe. Starting with the steamed ones like Ashkay pithe whose recipe is as old as civilization itself. Ashkay pithe or Bhapa pithe as it is known among the Bengalis from Bangladesh is unique in its simplicity. “It requires the right set of skills that comes with a lot of experience.

patishapta pithe

My grandmother used to make these steamed rice discs in special earthen moulds over indigenous earthen stoves or ‘unoon’”, says Ragini. “The secret lies in the age-old recipe that uses two kinds of freshly ground rice – atap or the sun-dried one and seddho or parboiled variant”. These secret insights are what are fast getting lost as we move on with our fast-paced lives, severing ties with history and heritage. With no fillings, these are best enjoyed dipped in jhola nolen gur (or date palm jaggery syrup) and coated with grated coconut.

Other Bengali favourites include “ranga aloor pithe” (sweet potato is another winter harvest), bhaja pithe which is made with mug dal (also known as nonta pithe in some homes), dudh puli pithe (rice dumplings simmered in thickened milk) and the all-time favourite Gokul pithe, Lord Krishna’s favourite one.

Of Lost Skills and Craft

Although most Bengali mouths will start watering at these very names, most will sidestep the idea of creating these at home. While many will agree that making pithe is a dying art, the reasons for this go beyond just avoiding hard work or fast-paced lifestyle. Age-old kitchen tools like seel-batta or stone grinders have been replaced with the convenient mixer grinder. After all, pithe made with freshly ground rice is bound to taste completely different from the ones that are made with store-bought rice flour.

Pithe Utsavs with Modern Twist – New Age Pithe Anyone?

In an effort to relive the good old days and to keep this culinary excellence alive, delectable pithe utsavs are taking place in many places. These festivals offer a huge variety of innovative pithe and puli including chocolate pithe, mango pithe and even chicken or green peas pithe.

In keeping with the changing times, the culinary art of making pithe has also been given a modern twist to suit modern Bengali palate. Some famous confectionaries and fine dining restaurants have given the traditional pithe recipes a slip and replaced them with new-age pithe-puli with the hope that the innovative endeavour will draw in the new generation and bring back the sweet old days of mishti pithe.

Perhaps all is not lost. Some of the nostalgia still survives – in old cookbooks, in faded handwritten scribbles, tucked away in old dressers and in the handed-down recipes of our grandmothers. Thanks to this undying energy of our grannies and the enthusiastic young foodies who don’t shy away from these sugary delicacies for fear of adding to their waistline, that Tiyasha and her generation can still lap up the taste of this fast-fading art of culinary excellence.

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