I have never been a dessert fan while growing up. Pithe and Puli was definitely not something that I would crave. My neighbourhood in Bandel and as well as in Chandannagore, had many families and Bangal families (the ones having their roots in erstwhile Bangladesh), who would make pithe and pulis. They would send them across to our home. It was the same case when I would visit some friends, whose mothers would not let us leave the house without having Pithe or Puli.
What is Makar Sankranti and pithe-puli?
Pithes and Pulis almost symbolise the festival of Makar Sankranti. Sankranti is a harvest festival celebrated all across India in various names – Lohri in Punjab, Pongal in South India, Magh Bihu in Assam, Uttaranayana in Gujarat and many more. One day, which marks the beginning of the end of winter and the start of the longer days and freshly harvested rice for West Bengal and other parts.
Food forms an important part of the celebration. Carefully handcrafted, some of the Pitha or the Pulis would carry so many stories with them. While the Pulis are elongated rice flour dumplings stuffed with coconut jaggery and can be of various shapes, the pithes are normally flat shaped with a resemblance to crepes or sometimes round dumplings. The fillings or the pur as known in Bengali, differs from one to the other. The ones that are served as a sweet dish will use Sugar syrup, kheer, datepalm jaggery or Nolen gur and other sweet syrups.
From Lohri to Sankranti
It’s been a couple of years that I have started liking Sarson da saag. I am not a lover of any saag, perhaps that’s one of the reasons I had never taken a liking towards Sarson ka saag. Honestly, while growing up, I’ve never come across a good Sarson ka saag too. Sarson ka Saag is the same to Lohri Festival as pithe-puli is to Sankranti in Bengal. It’s exactly 13 years that I experienced my first and only Lohri festival. On an official off-site conference, we assembled at Lonavala and the Head of HR – Ms Mandeep Maitra, a Punjabi married to a Bengali gentleman insisted that the entire team celebrates Lohri. In the lawns of her sprawling Bungalow in Lonavala, we participated in the celebrations.
How celebrations bring people together from the length and breadth of the country cannot have a better example. A boy from Chandannagore, experienced his first Lohri, a Punjabi festival in Lonavala in Maharashtra.
Sankranti is all about food and we made sobji pitha
I realise that my food horizon is slowly expanding the boundaries. And next on the list for me is to be a part of Pongal celebrations. Sankranti should be remembered as one festival that unites the country on the same day, without any communal link up, without any particular God in forefront but food as the main protagonist. We all know food somehow plays a central role in any festival of Bengalis and also to a large extent for India. However, how many festivals are only centred only around food? Do you think there is any other day in the year when food is the main deity and celebrations happen centered around food?
Our celebration starts a week before Sankranti. Madhushree makes various kinds of pithe-puli every day for breakfast. The house smells of gur and coconut all the time. One day, it would be shoru chakli. Another day it would be patishapta. Breakfast would mean a combination of roshopuli or doodh puli with chitoi pithe. On the evening before Sankranti, the clay oven is lit and sobji pitha is made.
What is Sobji Pitha or Nonta Pithe?
This clay oven used for making this Nonta Pithe has been lying idle for a long time. Somehow because of circumstances, it has not been used. Finally Madhushree got a reason to start it. It took me to a journey back to the past when food was cooked in clay oven only. We call it ‘unoon’. Nonta is a common term used in Bengali for Savoury taste. Unlike most pithe, this one is savoury, hence nonta pitha or sobji pitha. It is also called jhal pitha. This jhal pitha is cooked with rice flour batter with winter vegetables of green peas, red carrots and coriander leaves. A very simple dish, almost similar to idli. Although, this s doesn’t require fermentation and can be made instantly.
Another notable feature, especially if made in a ‘shora’ (the clay pot similar to an appam patra) and then over a clay oven is the smokiness along with some flavour from the clay pot in the pitha as well as the slight char at the bottom which makes the bottom crispy while the inner part of the pitha soft is interesting. This is a variation from chitoi pitha or shora pitha since the pitha is made in the shora. Chitoi pitha, on the other hand is sweet. While sobji pitha is not a popular one and definitely not the one making rounds on social media, it is worth the try and don’t worry, if you cannot find a clay oven. One can make it over a gas stove too. Use an appam patra if you can’t find an earthen shora.
I started comparing Pithe and Puli with dessert but can they actually be classified as a dessert? Perhaps no.
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How to make Nonta Pithe
- 2 cups gobindobhog rice flour
- 1 3/4 cup water
- 1/2 cup green peas
- 1 cup grated red carrots
- 1/2 cup chopped coriander leaves
- 1/2 cup Ghee
- salt as required
- Mix all the ingredients expect the ghee in a bowl. One thing to be noted is that the rice flour needs to be made at home. I have noticed that shop bought rice flour never has the same outcome.
- To make rice flour, soak gobindobhog rice in water for a couple of hours. Then drain the water and grind it in a fine powder. Finally strain the powder through a muslin cloth (we use the cloth of a dhoti to strain the powder).
- Place the shora or the patra over a clay oven or even a gas oven on low heat.
- When the shora or appam patra is hot, brush the cavities with ghee. Then use a spoon to pour the batter into the cavities. It will not rise, so just fill it to the brim.
- Wet the lid completely with water and then cover the patra with it. Place a wet cloth around the sides. You will notice the lid drying up within no time. From time to time sprinkle water over the lid.
- It takes about 10 to 15 minutes for the pitha to be done. The amount of time taken will vary depending on the size of the pan as well as the intensity of the heat. Since it is a round pan and the heat may be more on one side, one may need to turn the pan around half way.
- After fifteen minutes, remove the lid and check. Once the batter has solidified and does not look translucent or too whitish and has become a bit off white, you know that the pitha is cooked. Also, if the pitha is cooked, it will easily come of using a spoon.
- Serve it hot after you have brushed the pithas with more ghee, salt and pepper. It tastes wonderful with a cup of tea.