July 16, 2021
In the early hours in Assam, women in saris or cotton mekhela sadors start mixing rice flour with grated coconut, jaggery flakes, or sugar at makeshift stalls near bus stops, railway stations, and local markets. They pat down the mixture into a thick oval on a piece of muslin cloth and tie the ends of the muslin to the lid of a kettle, filled with boiling water and placed over a hot stove. Within minutes, piping hot ketli or tekeli pithas — referring to the kettle they are cooked with — are ready to be served, usually ₹5-10 each, to the waiting queue of customers.
Whether eaten with a steaming cup of tea, stuffed with coconut-jaggery paste, served with sweet and sour condiments, or savored with curry, pithas are an integral part of Assamese identity and culture. The earliest mention of the word pitha is likely from children’s folk tales in Burhi Aair Sadhu, or Old Mother’s Wise Tales, by Sahityarathi Lakshminath Bezbaruah, originally published in 1911. Since then, Assam has birthed several varieties of pitha, which also feature prominently in the state’s Bihu festivals and jolpan, or traditional snack platter.
But, despite their ubiquity in Assam and their diversity in taste and texture, you won’t find them on the menus of most restaurants, even those featuring northeastern cuisines. And Assamese restaurants serving dishes made at home or as street snacks are rare, even in Assam. A new crop of entrepreneurs and restaurateurs, however, are investing in making and serving pithas at scale — and, in turn, moving the delicacy from the kitchen to the mainstream.