Pitha, or pithe as it is written in most Bengali dialects, is a wide category of cakes and breads popular throughout India and Bangladesh. Most pitha are small snack-like dumplings or cookies traditionally made of rice flour, and filled with any number of vegetables, sweetened nuts, or spices. Some varieties are reserved for cultural or religious festivals, though it is, in some form, eaten year-round in homes and restaurants throughout Bangladesh and the Indian North.
There is no single pitha recipe, as the term is more like a category than a specific food, as many different cake varieties are included under the title. Rice flour is the most common base, but wheat flour or corn flour can also be used. Most are sweet, but not all are. Ingredients are usually things that are seasonally available or personally pleasing to the cook, with the result being an adaptable array of Indian desserts.
Most of the desserts are presented as small dumplings, though they can also take on the shape of flat crackers or shaped cookies. The basic pitha dough is comparable in all presentations, usually made of a combination of rice flour and oil or clarified butter, known as ghee. The dough is worked into a flat round, spiced or sweetened to taste, and then either filled or baked as-is.
Fillings for these Indian breads can be either savory or sweet, though they very rarely contain meat. A very simple pitha may be filled with little more than coconut and cane sugar, known as jaggery. More complex versions include sweetened steamed vegetables, candied nuts, various cheeses, or curried lentils. The filling can be combined directly into the dough to make a flavored round confection, or filled and sealed to make a more traditional dumpling.
Flat pitha are usually presented either as crackers that are meant to be topped with a prepared chutney or spread, or as independent bread snacks, often in intricate shapes, meant to be enjoyed alone. Pieces can be baked, fried, or steamed, and are commonly served all day long, all year round. Pitha with potatoes are common breakfast foods, particularly in India’s northernmost states, and sweet varieties are commonly served with both morning and afternoon tea.
Particularly in Bangladesh, this bread is also an important part of many different festival celebrations. Many Bangladeshi communities have special kinds of pitha that are made only at certain times of the year to coincide with religious and cultural festivals. Specific ingredients, styles of preparation, and festival mandates vary from place to place.