A chance visit to my native place Bhubaneswar during Kaarthik Maasa rekindled happy nostalgia on my palate with a Habisa Ou Dalma meal
‘Out of sight, out of mind’ - this adage is especially true for those of us, who have been working and living outside our place of origin - be it a country, state, or city, just like me. Born an Odia, I have been living outside Odisha for over three decades, ever since I moved to Delhi for higher studies and onwards to a career in journalism. And while the novelty of working as a journalist, after a stint in Delhi, in different states, like Karnataka, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh (now Telangana) has been welcome, and along with it the embracing of distinctive regional cuisines, nothing comes close to the heart-warming flavours of the comfort foods of one’s homeland.
And when one samples those same dishes of one’s childhood, especially the now rare-to-find ones, in one’s native place, one reaches a sublime level of ‘trupti’, which has no equivalent connotation in English, unfortunately. So, while the odd Odia dish like Dalma, Dahi Baigana, Chenna Tarkari, and Maccha Besara nudge their way, once very often into my kitchen in Hyderabad, along with a Bisi Bele Bhaat from Karnataka or a robust and spicy Andhra Kodi Pulav, a tangy-sweet Gujarati Kadhi or a Khaman Dhokla (which I confess making for the first time during lockdown) or an Old Delhi style Chhole Bhature, the pleasure of eating fresh and warm Poda Pitha made by an elder sibling in Bhubaneswar is unparalleled. Or Chenna Poda from the nearest Ganguram with the freshest chhena squeaking on your teeth, and the crisp black crust intact, carved in a customised fashion for you at the sweet shop. No wonder, ‘place of origin’ happens to be the name of a food app and website, which specialises in regional goodies sourced from their origin.
By sheer coincidence, and to my utter good fortune (in retrospect), I happened to travel to Bhubaneswar last week just in time to catch the last week of Karthika Maasa or Karthik Maasam, as it is known here in Andhra and Telangana. Considered the holiest month in the Hindu lunar calendar, the Karthika month is also when both Shiva and Vishnu are worshipped by devotees as it is reckoned to be both the deities’ favourite month too.
In Odisha, along with the month of Karthik Maasam, come a bevy of rituals and fasting practices followed by devout Hindus, such as going vegetarian (sans onion-garlic) for the month, and offering a ghee-laden clay diya to Krishna in the form of Akasa Deepa (sky lamp) tied high on a bamboo pole near the tulsi plant in the courtyard. The religious Hindu widow community is especially stringent about having only one meal a day, which is called Habisa and are known to congregate at Jagannath temple in Puri offering prayers round the day and having a community banana leaf Habisa meal, which comprises Arua Bhaata (pristine white rice akin to basmati) and Habisa Ou Dalma, an austere lentils-vegetable offering, sans any spices including turmeric or other spices.
Occupying centerstage in the Karthika Maasa revelry, speaking personally and I’m sure for most others, is Habisa Ou Dalma, a dish loved by all, young or old, and looked forward to in Karthika Maasa. Ou Dalma is a divinely tasting, nutrient-dense lentils and vegetables concoction, made of roasted split moong beans or green gram, root vegetables like colocossia (Saru in Odia), elephant yam (Desi Aloo or Maati Aloo in Odia) given a tangy twirk, by the addition of the tangy fruit Ou. Originally had as a one pot meal once a day by Hindu widows, Ou Dalma is now made in every Odia household especially on Mondays. The difference between the original version prepared by Hindu Odia widows on earthen pots and the version prepared in Odia households is the seasoning of ghee with ginger, roasted and ground cumin-dried red chillies called Jeera Lanka Gunda, and garnished with grated coconut.
Cut to my trip to Bhubaneswar last week. Our trip happened to coincide with Panchuka, a five-day period, culminating in Karthika Poornima, when almost every Odia proud of his roots goes vegetarian, some of them shunning onion and garlic even. The day after Karthik Poornima is known as Chhada Khai, when Odia households go on binge mode with fish, prawn, mutton and chicken dishes.
My mother was on alarm mode, dismayed that we were coming in a time when most of our trip would coincide with a vegetarian household, knowing as she did that her Bengali son-in-law did not have any particular day of the week or period of the year which mandated a vegetarian diet. Thankfully, the spouse likes his Dalma and furthermore likes Ou Dalma, so with a load of paneer and other vegetarian specials added to the menu, my mother made peace with herself, more than anyone.
If you ask me, Ou Dalma doesn’t require any props, though a papad on the side or a Phoola Badi (badi or bori or vadiyalu as it’s known in southern parts, dried lentil dumplings) on the side never harmed anyone. Ou Dalma is ideally cooked in a clay heavy-bottomed handi, on a slow fire, with roasted moong dal cooked in water and salt, with vegetables like colocasia or arbi and raw banana being added gradually in respect of cooking time required.
At my maternal home, these are the only two vegetables added with salt and no turmeric. The Ou is cut into long petals which are then crushed a bit before adding it to the almost-cooked dal and vegetables to enable an efficient assimilation of its unique mildly sour aftertaste into the Dalma. A tadka of ghee, chopped ginger, dried red chillies is added to the dal, finally finished with a garnish of roasted jeera-dried red chillies powder, and if you are feeling indulgent a handful of grated fresh coconut. Pairing this with rice topped with an extra dollop of cow ghee and with lemon, salt and chillies on the side, you dig into a blissful meal.
Since I had made a specific request for Ou Dalma to be made on a Saturday instead of the usual cook-day of Monday, our flight landed in time for a late lunch and there I was, rubbing my hands in glee. But the Ou Dalma, alas, was not tangy at all and the lapse was attributed to an over-ripened, dry Ou with the petals gone almost brown (ideally should be a yellow-green shade), which had come from the vegetable garden of my maternal aunt.
Much discussion ensued on how the errant Ou had spoiled the taste of the Dalma and our cook was dispatched to get it from the vegetable ‘haat’ or market in the evening. The next day, a recook was conducted by our ever-able cook using a fresh olive-green hued elephant apple and the difference was hugely discernible on our palates!
Ou or elephant apple, with the botanical name Dillenia Indica, is native to Southeast Asia (Indonesia and China, primarily), grown in tropical climes. In India it is cultivated in Bengal, Assam, Bihar, a few districts of Odisha, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and is also grown in the evergreen forests of the sub-Himalayan tract from Kumaon to Garhwal. Ou, also known as Chalta in Bengali and in the north, makes its way into the vegetable markets in autumn and early winter, lasting through spring. While Ou resembles the wooden apple or Bael in appearance the feature which distinguishes it is its waxy green exterior.
Ultimately, these kitchen rituals might have originated due to religious reasons, but their health ramifications can’t be ignored. Ou Dalma is one of the healthiest, plant-based dish every vegan, vegetarian and even stark carnivores in my state look forward to and I suspect that it is not just for its unique taste but for its aftereffects on a happy stomach, thanks to its easy digestion and its ability to sit light on one’s system, thanks to the lack of heavy spices.