Competitive cooking show puts humble fermented rice dish on world stage

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It was Kishwar Chowdhury, competitor and second runner-up in the 13th season of MasterChef Australia, who made an internationally famous dish called panta bhat. A rather humble dish from eastern India (Assam, Odisha and West Bengal) and Bangladesh, one could never have imagined it reaching such high levels of critical acclaim.

Panta bhat is cooked parboiled rice that is soaked in cold water and left to ferment. Very often it is left overnight, although some may even ferment it longer. The rice is then eaten with accompaniments which can vary according to the economic situation of the family or the individual – ranging from basics such as mustard oil, raw onion and green peppers to more elaborate accompaniments such as fried fish, fried vegetables and potatoes.

Fermentation in pond water

Ten years ago panta bhat was associated with several cases of cholera. The dish is a rural staple and popular breakfast in eastern India and Bangladesh, but the use of contaminated water in the preparation of the rice has created the perfect conditions for the disease to develop. .

Using water from a pond to make panta bhat had been a major cause of the disease. Several public health campaigns have been specifically designed to prevent villagers from using pond water, but they have often been ineffective.

Despite its role in cholera, the dish’s popularity never waned. It’s an inexpensive meal that doesn’t need to be refrigerated. Additionally, rice can be cooked in one pot and leftovers soaked in the same pot. Finally, it is not only cheap and convenient, but also takes very little time to make.

The role of the panta bhat is so central to Bengal that there is a popular folk figure called Panta Buri – “the old woman who eats panta” – who has many adventures after a thief stole her panta bhat. In order to seek justice for the theft, she sets out on a long journey to meet the king. On her way, she encounters many eclectic characters like a talking knife, a catfish, a bael (a native fruit species), and an alligator. As the characters change in different versions, the context of his journey remains the same.

Panta bhat is a dish that reflects the soul of rural Bengal. Yet the dish has now made a hugely popular TV show and is fueling the growing interest in fermented foods.

Panta bhat is an acquired taste – a fondness for fermented rice is certainly not as widespread as, say, fried potatoes. Immigrant chefs are now pushing us towards a bolder taste, a taste that is provocative, and not overshadowed by past colonial ambivalence.

Food acceptance

Increasingly, immigrants have become stalwarts of their culinary roots. For example, British-Ghanaian leader Zoe Adjonyoh actively discusses issues like colonialism and racism that influence how traditional cuisines are perceived and accepted. Nadiya Hussein rose to popularity after winning the 2015 season of The Great British Bake Offand helped popularizing unique fusion foods through his writings and a series of television cooking shows.

This interest in ethnic cuisines is also reflected in the growing number of cooking shows and documentaries like Ugly Delicious, High on the pork, Tasty origins and many others who show a growing interest in the subject and a curiosity for authentic food storytelling.

We have a very long way to go when it comes to embracing the varied tastes of non-Western cultures. In 2019, the American professor of national security affairs, Tom Nichols, felt the need to openly denigrate Indian food on Twitter.

Although it caused a great controversy, Nichols’ tweet exposed the flaws in racism that so often express themselves in downplaying the likes of immigrants.

But there is hope and a lot of curiosity. Instead of trying to modify and adapt their cuisine to existing Western standards, young immigrant chefs are learning about their culinary pasts and slowly trying to integrate their unique flavors into the growing world of global cuisine in a very honest and honest way. authentic.

Let’s face it, rice fermented with hot mustard oil and spicy green chilies tastes like a bold, raw defiance.

Aditi Sen is assistant professor of history at Queen’s University in Ontario.

This article first appeared in The conversationyou can read it here.

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