Odia Cuisine: Rich Legacy, Yet Obscure
- Swati Sucharita
Updated : August 03, 2022 03:08 IST
The fact remains that Odia cuisine, for those who try it for the first time, is admired for its healthy and wholesome appeal, and the simplicity of its flavours
For those of you who would have watched the live telecast of Rath Yatra, which concluded this week in the holy seaside town of Puri, would not have missed the adorable sight of the freshest and softest Rasagollas, being offered by thousands of devotees, to the round-eyed Lord Jagannath and his younger siblings, Subhadra, and Balabhadra. This ritual of offering Odia cuisine’s intrinsic food emblem, Rasagolla, along with other sweetmeats like Poda Pitha (a rice flour and jaggery cake) to the deities is followed during Niladri Bije or Bahuda, which signifies their return to the sanctum sanctorum of the temple.
It is believed that the offering of Rasagolla was made by Jagannath to his disgruntled consort Lakshmi, who refused to open the door of the temple after he returned from his nine-day sojourn with his siblings. Since 2015, this day of Niladri Bije has been celebrated as ‘Rasagolla Dibasa’ or ‘Rasagolla Day’ by Odias.
While Odisha might have received a GI (geographical indication) tag for its Odisha Rasagolla in 2019, less than two years after West Bengal’s Rasagolla was accorded its GI status in 2017, the jury is still out on the origins of this delicious sweet. In fact, it is surprising that its neighbouring state pipped it to the claim of a GI tag for the sweet of (arguably) its own origin.
Puri Mahaprasad, which is cooked as part of the Chhapan Bhog offered to Jagannath Mahaprabhu and then retailed at Ananda Bazaar within the temple premises, is much coveted by not just devotees but foodies across the globe for its delicious offerings of Meetha Daali (a thick dal which is slightly sweet), different kinds of Arna (rice) including the sweet Kanika, the Besara, made of vegetables like raw banana, colocasia, pumpkin and pointed gourd cooked in a mustard paste and tempered with Paanch Phutana (a seasoning of cumin, mustard seeds, etc.) and finished with a garnish of Nadi, small black lentil dumplings fried crisp, and grated coconut.
The fact remains that Odia cuisine, for those who try it for the first time, is admired for its healthy and wholesome appeal, and the simplicity of its flavours. One of the high points reached for Odia cuisine was its showcasing at the maverick Bombay Canteen, founded by the late Floyd Cardoz, who along with his protégé Chef Zacharias, were keen on promoting regional, obscure cuisines. Zacharias recalled in several interviews that he found the simple, unmuddled flavours of Odia cuisine and its organic techniques of cooking, like Patra Poda or the use of leaves in grilling shrimp, fish and meats in a mustard chilli paste, very fascinating. In fact, for an entire season, the Bombay Canteen menu (which changes every quarter) featured Pakhala Bhaata (fermented rice soaked in water and served with curd and sides, including fish fry) getting both eyeballs and appreciation for its raw, wholesome appel.
For the most part, however, Odia cuisine remains one of the most under-represented of Indian cuisines, even within the state and outside. It, unfortunately, rarely finds its way to a commercial dining format, be it standalone specialty restaurants or on the menu of multi-cuisine restaurants. In Odisha’s capital city of Bhubaneswar, only a few popular restaurant chains like Dalma and Odisha Hotel come to mind. The Odisha Tourism Development Corporation (OTDC) recently opened a chain of its in-house Odia speciality restaurants called Nimantran, which is trying to revive traditional, rare dishes like Mahurali Jhurjhura with Sorisa Chutney (listed on the menu as Mustard Mayonnaise) or Chingudi Chechha Kakara (a mortar-and-pestle crushed prawn side, made delicious with chopped garlic, green chillies and onion and a dash of mustard oil) wrapped in a rice flour puff, listed as Chingudi Checha Empanadas to give it a contemporary appeal.
But like the proverbial saying goes, Ghar Ki Murgi Dal Barabar. I recall conversing with young techie Abinas Nayak, the 2020 Masterchef India title winner, on his take on why Odia cuisine doesn’t get its place in the sun. His response was that it is both the lack of a commercial spirit and pride in one’s own traditional cuisine of the young Odia community which is to blame. Also, the obsession with keeping up with the Jones in being seen as cosmopolitan has led to the trend of more and more street food joints catering to south Indian, Chinese and now even Mexican, Italian and American tastes (in Bhubaneswar’s own Kao Galli). Ironically, as he says, they don’t taste at all like the cuisines under whose names they are sold.
Abinas had won the MasterChef India Season 6 jury’s hearts in March 2020, with his skilfully crafted dishes, which retained the organic elements of his native cuisine, while being plated with global appeal. His dessert creation named Shuddhata (Purity) which won hearts of the jury, food critics and viewers alike was a work of art. It consisted of Chhenapoda (an Odia cheesecake baked traditionally on Sal leaves, placed on a wood fire and baked to slightly burnt crust consistency), topped with tempered white chocolate, garnished with popped amaranth seeds and paired with Arna Rasabali, a rice-based pudding.
As an Odia journalist writing on food, I have often found it a tad frustrating to find an acute lack of documentation of the cuisine. Although way back in 1928, Sarojini Chaudhury had penned Gruhini Sarbaswa, which while being one of the earliest known cuisine-related books in Odia, went beyond Odia cuisine to feature recipes from across the globe like crab soup etc and also delineated the science of running a hygienic and well-stocked kitchen, including storage of grains, cleanliness, besides cooking methods.
Interestingly, even back then, Chaudhury, the daughter of eminent Odia litterateur and social reformer Fakir Mohan Senapati, had rued that there was hardly any documentation of Odia cuisine. Not much has changed, with a few books related to Odia cuisine and most of them being recipe books.
With plans of starting his own Odia restaurant chain soon, it is heartening to note that the current generation such as the self-taught Abinas is upbeat that Odia food will get its rightful place under the sun, with better styling and presentation skills, keeping a global market in mind. Going by his title-winning three course meal, that would be no tall order.
Swati Sucharita is a Hyderabad-based journalist, food blogger and independent content consultant. You may write in at firstname.lastname@example.org.