Pazhankanji, or previous day’s kanji (rice gruel), which was once the staple breakfast among a large section of society in Kerala, is now recognized as a nutritious dish, offering health and strength.
It is made by adding water at room temperature to leftover rice after supper and keeping the mixture overnight. By morning, some fermentation takes place and the nutrition content goes up significantly. The taste too changes dramatically. Ideally ‘kanthari’ chilli and salt, along with thick curd accompanies pazhankanji.
Historians have suggested that this dish was the breakfast item of peasants and other poor sections of the society, but it is a fact that even the royals of the time enjoyed the taste.
The origin and preparation
In olden days, there was a belief that no food should be wasted. An unknown mother, who noticed that some rice remained after supper, decided to add water to it and keep it overnight. She felt that it would not get spoilt. But some genius went into improvising the dish. Crushed shallots and green chillis mixed with the gruel would change its constitution. Served with thick curd, the taste would be heavenly. Poet Kunjan Nambiar, who created the art form of Thullal, has described pazhankanji as something more precious than nectar.
When preparing the dish, one would be tempted to wash the leftover rice. This has to be avoided. A steel or glass vessel can be used to make pazhankanji, but to get the perfect taste, an earthen pan or pot is best. Drop a couple of crushed shallots and a green chilli into the vessel. A little curd is also preferred. Then take a wooden ladle and mix gently. Leave it undisturbed for the night. Chemical processes take place, transforming the mixture into the nutritious pazhankanji.
In the morning, the dish can be served along with mango chutney or fish curry or tapioca. None will feel hungry till afternoon.
Malayalam cinema lovers would recall a Mohanlal dialogue from the movie Kalippattam. “Instead of choosing Basmati or Vasanthi, take rose chemba rice and serve pazhankanji in a flat vessel with sufficient depth. Add thick curd, sliced green chilli and mango curry. Crush them so that they mix well. Some pieces of tapioca boiled the previous day can also go in. Stir thoroughly. Then raise the vessel to your mouth and gulp gown at one go. It is so nutritious that women taking it regularly produce kids who are so bubbly,” says the actor to the character enacted by Urvashi.
How to enjoy
Some precautions need to be taken to prepare the best pazhankanji. Rice can be matta or chakkari. Native varieties like pazhayari, Tulunadan, cheradi and ponnaryan are also suitable. The rice should not be cooked up to normal level.
Old-timers used a spoon made of the leaf of jackfruit tree to savour the dish. However, to enjoy the taste thoroughly, one should eat with the hand. In the past, pazhankanji was served in small earthen pans known as karachatti.
In Thiruvananthapuram side, the dish is taken with palm jaggery. The combination is considered a remedy for several ailments.
In northern Kerala, people engaged in hard physical labor preferred thekanji for breakfast. It is prepared by boiling the previous day’s leftover rice gruel and keeping it in mud pots, which are hung from the roof. In the morning, a pulse or gram mixed with gingelly oil and salt is added to the pot and consumed. There was a belief that this dish would give much strength to the body.
M T Vasudevan Nair, in his ‘Muthassimarude rathri’ has also written about this dish. “A distant relative, Meenakshi, used to stay with us to help my mother and aunt in household chores. Every night, she kept the leftover rice after adding water to it. She could not do without it in the morning. After a wash at the well, Meenakshi added some salt and a green chilli to the gruel and enjoyed her breakfast. I have often felt like tasting it. She used to offer it to me saying that it was so good,” wrote MT.
Pazhankanji has a connection with Onam too. In the past, all the dishes remaining after Thiruvonam day were mixed together in a stone pan. Sambar, aviyal, kaalan and other items all go into the vessel together. The next morning, the mixture, which would have started fermenting, is heated and consumed with pazhankanji. Old-timers considered this preparation as a medicinal item.
The side dishes that go with pazhankanji vary according to the region. Most popular is the chutney, but that too differs. Several varieties are preferred, including those made from coconut, chillis, kanthari chilli, tamarind, curd and chilli, ginger and several others.
In central Travancore area, boiled tapioca or yam is mixed with the chutney. Many demand fried fish along with pazhankanji. People in central Kerala prefer fish along with the old rice gruel. Add some of the previous day’s fish curry and nothing can match the taste, they claim. Those having a sweet tooth can crush a ripe mango and add the juice to pazhankanji.
It is this versatile nature of pazhankanji that makes it a universal and much-loved dish.
Old rice gruel is not only a tasty and healthy food, it has much medicinal value too. Being a fermented item, it provides more nutrients and energy to the body. For instance, while 100 gm of rice contains 3.4 mg iron, the same rice when changed into pazhankanji will have 73.91 mg of iron. Pazhankanji also provides potassium, which controls blood pressure. Some studies have indicated that the dish helps to prevent cancer.
One dish of pazhankanji has 340 calories, which is equivalent to three idlis, but is more beneficial as it contains rice as well as water.
Calcium, magnesium and selenium, which are essential for the bones are present in the gruel. Vitamin B 6 and 12, which the body absorbs easily, are in plenty in pazhankanji. As a result, it helps recovery from fatigue quickly.
Another area where the dish is useful is digestion. It can check acidity as well as ulcers and prevent constipation.
As plenty of anti-oxidants are present, pazhankanji helps retains the glow and youth of the skin.
When rice gruel ferments, lactic acid is produced, which is beneficial for lactating mothers. Though it is a soothing remedy for heat-related conditions, pazhankanji is not suitable for people suffering from phlegm-related diseases and rheumatism.