I swelled up as she finished cooking the meal that would elevate her to joining two other grand finalists on MasterChef Australia’s season 13. Kishwar Chowdhury was teary-eyed as she shared a few words about her diasporic ancestry from Bangladesh that was integral to what she cooked: a platter of panta bhat (fermented rice) and aloo bharta (mashed potatoes).
When the episode finished, I realised that I had also teared up along with her.
But why? Was it just a trickle of filtered emotion watching a show where a South Asian had hit it right or was it beyond that?
A barrage of images and memories rushed to mind: of the famines of 1770 and 1943, of impressions held in sepia-toned photographs, of women and children queuing up for free rice in front of government grain shops and starvation deaths. Sarbojaya’s over-the-shoulder shot in Pather Panchali cooking a basic meal got diffused with Nandalal Bose’s linocut illustration in Rabindranath Tagore’s Sahaj Path (a basic Bangla textbook for beginners) of a woman cooking rice in a handi on a clay oven (chula).
I realised that rice was the holy grail of Kishwar’s and my identity.
We tango – ethnographically, linguistically and culturally. It is the common thread in us in its different forms: the edible dishes and their memories. In there was panta bhat, that embroiled us both till we were truncated in 1947.
The larger picture of South and South East Asia has rice firmly rooted in almost all cultures. Surprisingly, some fine delicacies are made out of fermented rice. There is Jiuniang; the glutinous rice mixed with sweet saccharified liquid, considered as sweet rice wine or pudding in Chinese cuisine, often a marker of Dongzhi (Winter Festival).
There is Tapai pulut – a leaf wrapped glutinous rice pudding from Malaysia. In Japan, rice koji is a fermented rice paste often used to marinate seafood, meats and even vegetables.
The usage invariably hint at the edible and conservation aspect of rice. But in Bengal, its context is complex and all encompassing – equivalent to the sustenance as much as water; the elixir of life.
Bhat (in Bangla) or cooked rice is more than a staple, it’s one of the intrinsic element of Bengal’s political, cultural and food history. It’s that seed identity which determines who is a Bengali. In this context, a colloquial saying in Bangla stands its biggest ground – bheto Bangali (rice-obsessed Bengalis).
Historical records reveal impressions of a prosperous, agricultural Bengal as early as the 8th century with the Pala dynasty ruling vast territories. Gauda, their capital, was one of the biggest melting pots of Asia. Presumably, bhat, commonly used as a metaphor for a meal, was available for one and all then.
So when did fermented rice slip into the edible narrative of Bengal? Was it a surplus that lead to making of panta or was it scarcity fo which a morsel was carefully saved for the next day’s first meal?
By the 15th century, Mangal Kavya (a genre of eulogy literature of popular deities) started being written. In some literature dedicated to goddess Chandi (a fearsome version of the mother goddess), there are descriptions of an uneven society, of poverty and of food variation that demarcates class.
The reference of Kalketu, an indigenous poor hunter come to mind. Often, when he couldn’t sell his catch by the end of day, he and his wife Phullara would have a stale portion the next day or ferment the meat they had stored. It is not improbable that panta bhat made an entry to their diet at that point, with some collard greens, which any village in Bengal would normally grow.
Several versions of such eulogy literature got written from the mid-16th century to the early 18th century and none ignored these scenarios. Present scholarship relates the literary narrative with the political and economic situation of then Bengal. The defeat of the Sena kings and the beginning of Bengal Sultanate, which concurrently saw the revival of Brahminism and finally Vaishnavism led by Mahaprabhu Chaitanya, finds a deeper connect to the social context of disparity. Interestingly, the protagonists of Mangal Kavyas are mostly Vaishyas or the trading caste and other lower castes and not Brahmins.
By the time the last batch of these texts were written, the goddess depicted in the texts was more Puranic and was the custodian of food and nourishment itself. Annada Mangal, the last of its kind is about the goddess Annapurna – the better half of Shiva. Bharatchandra, the writer, sought the blessings of the goddess with an earnest prayer of nourishment (amar santan jeno thake dudhe bhate – literally translated it would mean, “let my progeny always be prosperous and have access to food, rice and milk forever)”.
The blessing that the poet seeks is worth a note, for its widely known in Bengal that a combination of rice and milk turned into a rice pudding termed paramanna is auspicious as it is the symbolic divine platter and must be offered to the deity first.
Beyond the religiosity, it was the political circumstances of Bengal that made Bharatchandra seek such a blessing. Four years from Annada Mangal’s creation, Siraj -ud-Daulah would be defeated in the Battle of Plassey, marking the end of prosperous Bengal and the rise of the violent corporate power of the East India Company.
The next 150 years remains the most debilitating period in the history of Bengal, as it slowly sunk into poverty with the devastating famines that began around 1770.
The hunger resulting from the 18th century famine mostly likely lead panta bhat to make its way into the meals of vast majority and clearly acquiring the tag of being the poor man’s food. While panta bhat became the default meal to be had with dried fish, a piece of pickle, it was much later in the mid 18th century that its most popular side dish aloo bhate got added once the Portuguese introduced the starchy vegetable. By the time it became a frequent vegetable and finally became an essential and basic in any Bengali kitchen across class and caste, some more decades had lapsed.
At which exact juncture Kishwar Chowdhury’s panta bhat and aloo bhate became a combination for Bengal’s teaming millions is hard to decipher from records, but it was surely not before the 20th century, when poverty of Bengal mounted high, diffusing the distinctions of rural or urban poor. Panta bhat was the only go-to food and became symbolic to poor man’s diet. The brutal starvation deaths of 1943 saw thousands begging for a bowl of starch, and accidentally panta baat became the symbol of food availability.
From there, to becoming the customary ritual dish of Bengali New Year both in Bangladesh and in parts of West Bengal, the rechristening of its status has been checkered.
So when Chowdhury elevates it into a fine platter by adding the diasporic element, I am reminded of how the transformative journey of panta bhat has come full circle.
Nilosree Biswas is a filmmaker, author most recently of Banaras: Of Gods, Humans And Stories.
Featured image: Pariplab Chakraborty