Rice has been a staple food of West Bengal from antiquity and thus was grown in abundance all across the region. At one time, 60 varieties of rice were cultivated in Bengal. Pantabhat, which is basically cooked rice soaked overnight in water, was probably a way of preserving rice as 'smoking' was in Europe
Pantabhat - well slept rice
rice has been a staple food of West Bengal from antiquity and thus was grown in abundance all across the region. At one time, 60 varieties of rice were cultivated in Bengal. Pantabhat, which is basically cooked rice soaked overnight in water, was probably a way of preserving rice as 'smoking' was in Europe. This rice and the fermented water called amani (kanjika in sanskrit) are eaten the following morning. The dish sustains many poor farmers of West Bengal for practically the better part of the day. It is equally popular in Bihar, Orissa and Assam. The amani with a little bit of salt and chilli is also a favourite morning beverage in many parts of South India.
Pantabhat is supposed to have a cooling effect and is just suitable for consumption during summers. Due to slight fermentation, it is nutritionally rich. It is usually eaten along with salt, onions and green chillies. Those who can afford, accompany this with some sour stuff like green mango, lemon or tamarind, and a dry vegetable. On some occasions, dry fish is also eaten. Being sweet-toothed, Bengalis sometimes have it with gur or a ripe banana and, if available, crushed leaves of fragrant lemon.
A distinct variation of pantabhat is found in villages: in a container, usually a clay handi, water is placed along with cooked rice and the pot is covered with a piece of cloth. This is placed in the sun and everyday a handful of newly cooked rice is added. After three or four days, the water from this is taken out for consumption and simultaneously some more is added. To make the drink more palatable it is sometimes seasoned with mustard, cumin and red chillies. The sour water is also used for preserving mango and lemon. According to Maurique, a French traveller, holes are dug in the mud floor of the kitchen to serve as a container for this drink.
The Bengali genius has made several embellishments to the dish to make it tastier and acceptable to a wider class of people. These changes include mixing freshly cooked rice with water, and then seasoning it with ginger and raw mango paste, chillies and some other spices including crushed leaves of fragrant lemon trees. These are then eaten with kasundi -- a mustard sauce, onion, dal vada , dry vegetable preparation, roasted fish and ambol -- a sweet and sour mango dish. A more fancy pantabhat is cooked rice topped with sugar syrup and rosewater. If necessary some water may also be added. After six or seven hours, this can be eaten with lemon juice. It is interesting to note that on the final day of Durga Puja, an offering of pantabhat is made to the devi , along with a dish of lotus stem.
Ena Desai taught economics at Lady Brabourne College, Kolkata. At present she is writing a book on the history of traditional Bengali food
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