Poda Pitha : Spiced Rice and Coconut Cake from Orissa

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 According to a lot of women in my mother’s generation, most of whom did not own an electric oven, the poda pitha was the “risky-est of them all” . Yes, the haladi patra pitha (steamed rice cakes in turmeric leaves) is aromatic, owing to the fact that it is steamed in fresh turmeric leaves, but the poda pitha has more layers. The arisa pitha (fried rice cakes) needs skill, but this one needs skills, patience and prayers. (I actually remember my mother praying that there would be no power cut so that the pitha could bake peacefully in the oven). It needs prepping the night before. Has a long ingredient list.  Takes forever to cook. And, had you been a house wife half a century ago in a traditional house in Orissa, you would perhaps have spent the whole first half of a rainy day alternating between raising prayers to Lord Jaganath, muttering incantations, and looking anxiously over the burning coals in the clay oven, within which lay the talking point of the next 3 days–the poda pitha. Yes. It is the Godfather of pithas in Orissa.  You ruin this, and for the next one year everyone who has had a bite of this –your maid, your great-grandfather, your long removed second cousin, everyone who knows you is going to report you to everyone they know, and so everyone is going to keep reminding you how you failed on that one day when it mattered. How badly you failed. In one word-completelossofface. In two words-public humiliation.You will get a chance to redeem yourself. After one full year. But if you are successful, and the pitha turns out as it is supposed to be-a sexy burnt sienna top, with notes of spice mingled with caramelized jaggery and coconut, and studded with cashewnut and raisins, you will make a lot of women jealous.  That’s good enough of a reason to take this risk, if you ask me. Plus, it tastes good. Very good. The slightly burnt bits of raisins? The accidentally charred edges of coconut? Yes, them too.

Poda pitha is almost exclusive to the the Raja festival, which marks the onset of the rainy season, and is celebrated over three days in Orissa. And, since this festival is symbolic of a menstruating earth, the food that is prepared is not offered to the Gods, like it is in all the other festivals. (Correct me if I am wrong). The first day, called the “paheli rajo” ( pa-hey-lee rah-jaw),  is when girls scrub themselves with turmeric paste before taking a bath, change into a new set of clothes to mark the beginning of the festival, apply alata (red dye) to their feet, and spend the day taking turns at the swing made out of thick long ropes on the grandest tree around. Or in urban homes like mine, made out of nylon ropes and a wooden slab, hung somewhere in the courtyard or in the balcony.Not that it took away anything from the festival for us kids. The preparation for the festival in coastal Orissa starts almost a week before the actual festival, with all the shopping for new clothes, shoes, nail varnishes, bangles, anklets, hair bands with bunnies, and everything else that parents of little (and big) girls give their nod to. Some lucky ones get three sets of new clothes for the three-day festival. And some annoyingly stubborn ones, like yours truly who make their parents go from shop to shop in search of that perfect skirt that hits the knee get threatened with puffy dresses in garish blue.

The poda pitha recipe that I have used is from my father’s family. There are other versions which use pumpkin puree (Kakharu Poda Pitha) , or cook the batter before baking it (Janta Poda Pitha).  The simplest recipe would probably consist of the rice batter, jaggery, grated coconut, and maybe be a hint of cardamom. But who does plain Jane on a festival? I don’t. And I am assuming, you wouldn’t want to too.

Ingredients:

 Rice-1.5 parts

Black lentil (dehusked)- 1 part

Coconut

Jaggery

Sugar

Raisins-a handful

Cashewnuts-a handful

Green cardamom-3-4

Black cardamon-1-2

Peppercorns-3-4

Bay leaf-1-2

Ginger (grated)-1 1/2 tablespoon

Ghee-5-6 tablespoons

Salt

Baking powder

Notes:

I have kept the quantities unspecified since it would depend on the amount of batter that you have. Two important things to note, however.

1) The proportion of rice:lentil is 1.5 : 1

2) You can use only jaggery instead of a combination of sugar and jaggery to sweeten the mixture. But jaggery tends to stick to the bottom and sides and burn easily, so I have used a mixture of jaggery and sugar in the ratio 2 : 1.

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7 thoughts on “Poda Pitha : Spiced Rice and Coconut Cake from Orissa

  1. Aruna Panangipally

    Beautiful…. I have not had too much of a chance to explore food from Odisha and I am glad to have come across your blog. “…but I wish I had gone to a culinary school instead.” are words that resonated with me. :-)

    I look forward to being a regular visitor and trying out the delicious recipes on your blog. :-)

    Reply
  2. Aruna Panangipally

    Hello,

    One of the biggest bonuses of blogging is finding a community of like-minded people with whom I can share my passion for food and from whom I can learn an enormous amount.

    You are one of them. I enjoy going through your posts and look forward to doing so for many more years to come.

    I’m nominating you for the “Versatile Blogger Award”. You can check the rules to accept the award through the link here – https://aahaaram.wordpress.com/awards/.

    Aruna

    Reply
  3. Sasmita Mishra

    Hi,
    I am just googling for Poda pitha recipe…..something authentic from rural villages of Odisha….your blog is good and its nice to see some odiya food blogs are still there for us to refer…..but something strikes to me that in Poda pitha, we do not add cashews, raisins or peppercorns, but it still tastes heavenly…and even 5-6 tsp ghee…..OMG…..we just use ghee around the baking pan and its mostly a smear……
    I am totally in for any kind of variation in food….but it will look good if you could put the extra items that you are suggesting as “OPTIONAL”….
    Good blog. Keep your posts coming.

    Reply
    1. More Than Just Curry Post author

      Appreciate you stopping by and commenting :)

      I think I did mention in my post that there are many versions of the Poda Pitha. This particular recipe has been in my father’s family for decades. It is a signature dish, you could say. This being a “personal” food blog, the recipes that I document are a part of my larger biography, and hence are the way they are. But I generally keep the quantities of condiments unspecified and mention the quantities of base ingredients like rice and dal in terms of ratios so that people can tweak it according to their preferences. In the closing paragraph I did mention the way to make the simplest poda pitha, something I think you have mentioned in your comment. Since poda pitha is made only during Raja (at least, in my extended family) and is a festive dish, I think ingredients or quantities that might otherwise seem excessive on normal days sort of get the green signal. One does not skimp while making, say Christmas pudding, does one? The amount of ghee that I used is about two thirds of a tea cup, which is less than what one normally uses for a sponge cake. But just to clarify, the amount of the batter that I used was quite large, so I think the ratio of ghee to the batter was just fine, not even bordering on the excessive.My recipes are just a template, albeit a deeply personal one. You are free to add or remove ingredients according to your tastes. Since I live away from home, food that is made in “specific” ways brings back memories that I hold dear. And, since this blog is not just a “recipe” blog, but a chronicle of my life and my journeys through food, it has many things that would probably make it to the optional list of another person’s recipe, but are integral to mine. So, yes, this Poda Pitha is my version of the much loved Oriya dish, through the lives of the women in my family, living and dead. Its my way of tracing my genealogy. Through my mother, my aunts, through them to the grandmother I have never got to meet. That is what ties me to them in a very real way.

      Again, thank you for stopping by.

      Reply
  4. Gee

    I love the bits of coconut pieces and cashews and raisins.5-6 tsps. of ghee is nothing compared to the 1-2cups of oil we add for a normal cake!
    I love all your blogs and its authenticity. Offcourse some people are averse to nuts even in chocolates so they can omit that. Festivity calls for indulgence and all things good. And this recipe brings in very fond memories for me.

    Reply

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