Chunga Pitha: Sylhet’s secret winter delicacy
"Dolu" bamboo, newly harvested Binni rice, banana leaves and straw.
If one has these four items, they're all set to celebrate winter with Sylhet's traditional delicacy, Chunga Pitha.
Also known as Chungapura Pitha, this delicious dish used to be a must-have in the rural areas of Sylhet and Moulvibazar districts. Not many know of the origins of this traditional rice cake. Most locals believe its roots lie in the indigenous communities, who once lived in the hills where Dolu bamboo is widely available.
Preparing Chunga Pitha is quite complex, as witnessed by this correspondent during a recent visit to the area.
It starts with collecting and cutting down bamboo into small pieces, keeping a knot at one end intact, to make "chongs". This is where the name "Chunga", meaning a tube-shaped pot in Bangla, comes from.
Banana leaves are then patched inside the bamboo pots, before being filled with pre-soaked Binni rice.
Working as a natural non-stick foil, the banana leaves prevent the rice cakes from sticking to the bamboo walls. Once ready, the pots, with their tips secured tightly with straws, are slow-cooked on fire pits for 40-50 minutes.
The special texture of the Dolu bamboo slows down the burning process and ensures moisture for the rice to be cooked properly.
The cakes are then set aside for cooling and later pulled out before being unwrapped and served warm, with fish freshly caught from the haors. They can also be stored when cold.
It can also be paired with meat curry, rice pudding, milk, grounded coconuts and hand-grinded Lai leaf chutney.
Once a must-have in rural areas of Sylhet and Moulvibazar, the glory of Chunga Pitha has dimmed with time, owing to the unavailability of Dolu bamboo (Schizostachyum dullooa).
A bundle of 20 bamboos are sold for Tk 500-700. The prices are higher during festivals like Poush Sankranti, according to locals.
"Earlier, we could harvest enough bamboo to make 15-20 such bundles every day, but now, we only get enough to make 2-3 such bundles. Population of this bamboo variety is declining and needs protecting," said Hira Das, a bamboo seller of Baralekha upazila in Moulvibazar.
Catering to rising demand, two sisters from Sylhet's Zakiganj upazila -- Sawda Akther Chowdhury and Shamima Yasmin Chowdhury -- have made a Facebook page, with Chunga Pitha being their main attraction.
"Many cannot make this pitha, as they cannot find necessary raw materials. We are bringing this dish to them" said Sawda.
Sold nationwide through their page, the demand for this pitha is very high. This has led to several challenges for the two, who often struggle to source raw materials.
"We will keep trying our best to preserve this tradition," said Shamima.