Dalma: A Lentil Dish Beloved By Lord Jagannath & His Devotees
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THE combination of dal-chawal is one that prompts most Indians to wax poetic about comfort food, home-cooked meals, simple pleasures and more in that vein. Even in this culinary legacy though, the devotion the “dalma” — Odisha’s lentil and vegetable preparation, with a delicate balance of spices, and no oil — evokes, is a class apart. 

Dalma isn’t the only popular lentil dish from Odia cuisine of course; there is “dali” — buta (midly spiced chana dal with coconut, raisins and other dry fruits), mittha (toor dal, jaggery, ghee), muga (mung cooked with coconut; mildly spiced) and masura (masur dal, cumin, mustard seeds, bay leaves) — which is as much (if not more of) a staple at mealtimes. But you won’t find the same passionately lyrical realms devoted to decoding dali as you would dalma. Dalma is as much a favourite for everyday/festive home-style meals as it is on occasions like the Jagannath Puri Rath Yatra. It is not only an essential element of the bhog offered to Lord Jagannath, but also a big component of the food prepared in the temple’s “ros ghar” (kitchen) and given to devotees.

There are a couple of stories associated with dalma’s origin. The one that seems to have greater credence is that the dish was part of the cuisine of a tribal community known as the Sarvars, who offered it to “Neela Mahadeb” (as they referred to Lord Jagannath). You can read this iteration of the dish’s origin story here on Slurrp, where we’ve delved into it at some length. 

The other version connects with the Mahabharata and claims that Bhima inadvertently created dalma (side note: just how many dishes is Bhima credited with creating? Avial is another where the culinary-minded Pandava’s name often pops up) in the 13th year of his exile. The story goes that a famished and desperate Bhima had sought refuge in the Kingdom of Viraat at this time. Sneaking into the royal kitchen to find some food, the Pandava was discovered by the head chef, who punished him by giving him the seemingly impossible task of preparing a dish with no oil and minimal spices. A resourceful Bhima mixed lentils and vegetables in a pot, made use of the few spices he was allowed access to, and the dish that resulted is what we know today as dalma. 

Food writers and culinary experts do note that the dalma shares most attributes of Sarvar tribal cuisine as one of the reasons they set greater store by the first version of the origin story.

There is no standard dalma recipe: there are as many dalmas in Odisha as there are families. Each household uses the vegetables they have handy or have a fondness for, and the lentil type too is a matter of preference. Spices differ. Most people don’t add chillies or curry leaves to their dalma, but a few might, if that’s the version they grew up eating. The temple version tends to be more standardised, since there are specific guidelines to be followed in terms of what’s allowed and what isn’t.

The better-known dalma varieties (apart from the common mung and toor versions, that is) may span from badia (served at Jagannath Puri temple), habisa (satvik dalma cooked in the month of Kartik), muga-bandha kobi (mung and cabbage), buta (chana da) to kolatha (horsegram). Raw papayas, pumpkins, plantains, brinjal, yam, taro and other root vegetables find their way into the pot. Some recipes call for the inclusion of badi — fried lentil dumplings. As for the spices, this again depends on whether the dalma is meant for bhog or for a regular meal: pancha phutana, a five-spice blend that encompasses mustard, cumin, fenugreek, aniseed and kalonji, is the most widely in use. While most homes would make use of a pressure cooker, the traditional method (as followed in the Jagannath temple) is to stack earthen pots one above the other, over a wood fire. An ingenious arrangement ensures that the dalma in the bottom-most pot — the one closest to the fire — cooks last.

With the Jagannath Puri Rath Yatra kicking off from Tuesday, 20 June, you can bet the dalma will occupy pride of place in the festivities once again: a seemingly simple dish that brings a state and its people together.