The coastal edge

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By Odisha's light yet flavourful cuisine is a revelation of sorts, says Rahul Verma
  • Published 27.03.11
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Mangsho dudhia tarkari

One of the best things that a young friend’s younger sister did was to marry a boy from Orissa, or Odisha, as it’s now known. I am happy because whenever he goes home, I ask him to bring back some chhena pora for me. These days the poor guy goes away without telling me because I fear my constant demands may have raised the price of that wonderful Oriya sweet dramatically.

It is a sweet to die for. Like the rest of the food of Odisha, it is understated — but brilliant. People across the country know about the rasgulla. Even the srikhand of the west and the Mysore Pak of the south are as loved as they are known. But the chhena pora, which I think is one of the best sweets in the country, is hardly known outside its state.

I suppose that’s because there are not too many places outside Odisha where you get the cuisine of the region. In Delhi, my introduction to Oriya food was at the state bhavan where I ate the most sublime thhali several years ago. I call it sublime because the food was incredibly light, yet so very tasty. And that, my friends from Odisha tell me, is the USP of the cuisine.

Chef Utpal Mondal

Indeed, the food has a large fan club. And that’s one reason why Utpal Mondal, the corporate chef of The HHI Group of Hotels, has been devoting considerable time and energy to an Oriya food festival in his Calcutta hotel. He tells me he has been going regularly to the HHI in Bhubaneswar to learn more and more about Oriya cuisine.

“Like Bengali food, the preparation of Oriya food is simple. It’s not very spicy, and you don’t need a special cooking method or technique to cook the food. It’s like home-cooked food — delicate and tasty,” says the chef.

I second that, for I have always been delighted by the simplicity of the dishes.

People outside Odisha find the food similar to that of Bengal but the food actually is very different, though there are a great many similarities too. Both the Bengalis and the Oriyas like their fish and mutton, and have various ways of preparing them. The sea provides them with ample seafood, which is one reason why prawns and crabs are the highlights of a feast in the two states.

Again, both the states have a wide variety of vegetable dishes. For instance, something like the parmalpotol or wax gourd — can be cooked in so many ways. It can be sautéed or cooked with potatoes. Or it can be scooped out and filled with something like minced fish or meat and then allowed to simmer gently in thick gravy.

But I think what sets Odisha apart is the lightness of touch. There is nothing elaborate about the cuisine, and even deep frying and other such methods are rare. The vegetables retain their freshness of taste mainly because they are cooked without the mandatory frying that many regions cannot do without.

Even mutton is often cooked without too many spices and too much of frying. The chef’s mangsho dudhia tarkari, for instance, is nice and light. Though it has some cashew paste and poppy seed paste in it, the overall feeling — thanks perhaps to the cream colour of the gravy — is that of lightness. Another common stream between Odisha and Bengal is the love for rice. Rice is cooked in so many ways in both states that it’s quite mindboggling. In Odisha, you’ll find a little hillock of sweet dishes prepared with rice — from kheer to all kinds of pitha such as enduri, poda pitha and so on.

One of my favourite Oriya cookbooks lists all kinds of rice dishes — coconut rice, carrot rice and channa dal rice to name a few. And chef Mondal has come up with an interesting preparation called the triveni bath — or three-flavoured rice. He prepares this by first boiling green peas and carrots separately, and making separate purees out of the veggies. Rice is cooked and when it’s almost done, it’s baked for a short while with three colours on top — the green pea paste on one side, red carrot paste on another, and grated coconut on the third.

Another reason why the food is different is the fact Odisha shares its borders with many states including Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Bihar. So naturally the food of different regions has been influenced by their neighbours.

Yet, it never fails to surprise me that so little is known about Oriya food. I think it’s time restaurants opened up across the country to celebrate the food of the region. It’s delicate, as chef Mondal puts it, and oh so delicious.

Late Mandi (pan-fried rice and chicken wrapped in banana leaves) (serves 2)

Ingredients:

• 40g parboiled rice • 4 medium-sized boneless chicken breasts • 5g ginger-garlic paste • salt to taste • 1tsp white pepper powder • 1tsp red chilli paste ½ tsp turmeric paste • juice of 1 lemon • 1tsp garam masala paste • 40ml mustard oil • banana leaves for wrapping

Method:

Boil the rice. Marinate the chicken with all the masalas. Pan-fry the chicken till half done. Coat every side well with the cooked rice. Wrap the chicken in a double banana leaf and roast for five minutes on live charcoal till done. Serve hot.

Besara (mixed vegetables) (serves 2)

Ingredients:

• 50g brinjal • 75g raw banana • 75g raw pumpkin • 75g arbi • 20g drumstick • 50g urad dal vadi • 5g chopped garlic • 5g chopped green chilli • 1tsp jeera paste • 1tsp mustard paste • 1tsp red chilli paste • 1tsp turmeric paste • salt to taste • 50ml mustard oil la pinch of panchphoron

Method:

Heat the oil. Add the panchphoron. When the seeds splutter, add the garlic and fry till golden brown. Add all the vegetables and sauté. Add the green chilli, salt, and the cumin, turmeric and red chilli pastes. Add water and bring to a boil. Cook on sim till the vegetables are done. Add the mustard paste and bring to a boil again. Just before serving, fry the vadi and sprinkle on top. Serve with hot rice.