The dishes that were put out on our dinner table were determined by three things. One, what caught my father’s fancy during his daily morning trip to the haat (the local market). Two, by the Panji (the Oriya almanac, see this ) , which was kept with my mother’s puja samagri , and was consulted every so often. And three, by the day of the week. Since we were practicing Hindus, this meant we could have non-vegetarian food only on “meat days” of the week. If you like me were brought up in a Hindu household, you will know what I am talking about. How Monday was dedicated to Lord Shiva (and therefore was a ” no-meat” day), and Saturdays to Shani (also a “no-meat” day). So in our household there were only three days in a week that were earmarked “meat-days”. On all other days we would eat vegetarian meals. But the Panji always had the last word. So, if a small batch of prawns caught my father’s eyes at the haat one morning, and he promptly brought them home hoping to find a hot prawn curry in his lunch dabba, and the Panji had ear marked that day for a specific fast, my mother would glare at him and say “I have a fast to keep today. How could you forget? How could you bring these home today ?” Ofcourse, the prawns would be thrown inside the freezer compartment of our Godrej refrigirator. Ofcourse by my father. My mother wouldn’t touch them. Not when she was fasting.
It was on the days that she was fasting that she would usually make pithas. Pithas are a broad category of fried or steamed (and sometimes baked) cakes (for the want of a better word) made with a variety of flours usually with a sweet filling inside. Though these are sweet, they are not considered desserts and you will not find them at the mitha dokan (sweet shop). They are made exclusively at home, usually during festivals or certain fasts. And with most things cooked during the day of the fast, these would first be anointed with tulsi leaves (holy basil) and offered to the Gods, and only then would we be allowed to have our share. Manda pitha is a steamed pitha made with rice flour (or paste, as I have done here) with a sweet coconut filling inside. The recipe for the filling that I have used is the most basic one. Every home has its own signature take and sort of builds up on this, embellishing it with a variety of things. So in some homes they add a handful of channa dal, cooked al dente to the coconut mixture, while in some others they add some crumbled chhenna (paneer/cottage cheese). Some even spice it up with some crushed pepper which, if you ask me really adds some kick to the mixture. These pithas can be had just by themselves, or as a part of a whole meal. They go well with the quintessential Oriya dish called Dalma. You could even serve them with some kheer, or even team it up with a hot curry.
-I have used jaggery here. You can replace it with sugar by all means. But make sure you caramelize the sugar.
-You can use just water instead of a mixture of water and milk while making the dough.
-Let the pithas rest for a while before you remove them from the steamer. They will break if you remove them immediately. Slide a spatula and lift the pithas gently.
-The amount of time the rice will need to cook will depend on the type of rice, and the time it has been left to soak. It will help if you keep a cup or two of boiling water ready, in case you need more.
-While making the dough, start whisking the mixture first with a whisk, and then fold with a spatula. This will prevent lumps. If you have made upma before, this wont be a terribly difficult step to master.}
Rice : 1 1/2 cups
Milk: 1 1/2 cups
Water: 1 cup
Salt : a pinch or two
Cardamom : 2-3 pods
Cashewnuts : 5-6
Raisins : a small handful
Ghee: 2-3 teaspoons
For a step-by-step instruction click on the first picture. You can also see the slide show here: