As home to the ancient Jagannath Temple at Puri, which cooks for and feeds an average of over 10,000 people each day, the recently renamed Odisha boasts a rich culinary heritage whose dishes are often wrongly attributed to West Bengal. Did you know, for instance, that the gud (jaggery) rosogolla originated in Odisha? Odiya cooks then took their talents to West Bengal, where they were employed in the homes of rich Brahmins. According to many historians, this sweet has been offered to the Goddess Lakshmi at Puri for several centuries, predating the Nobin Das story.
We glimpsed the complexities of Odiya cuisine as we traveled through the state. Although we only spent a few days in Odisha, visiting Puri, Konark, Bhubaneswar, and Chilika Lake, the few dishes we sampled made an impression for their distinctly different flavors. This cuisine is neither heavy nor oily, and its flavors are a subtle meld rather than a loud, joyous cacophony.
Masala Makka Manjee, or spicy corn niblets, made for a deceptively simple yet devastatingly addictive snack. All they do is fry corn with onions, curry leaves, chillies, and turmeric powder, then top with a squeeze of lime. Now why didn’t I think of that?
Being a red-meat man, the Spouse was highly appreciative of the Maansa Kassa, a pungent preparation of mutton fried with spices in mustard oil until dry. It tasted unlike any other dry-fried mutton I have ever sampled – a melding of sharp, spicy, and tangy flavors. It was the perfect accompaniment to the Khichudi Ada Hing – mashed dal-chaawal (rice and lentils) flavored with ginger and asafoetida. The mild, soothing khichudi provided a foil to the fiery meat, enhancing those flavors while somehow managing to retain its own identity.
The Spouse also loved the Dahi Baingana, smallish deep-fried brinjals served in a seasoned yogurt gravy. Me, I dislike aubergine, so no, I didn’t try it. He reported that the seasoning added a new dimension to the yogurt, probably because the spices (a mix known as panch phutana – cumin, mustard, fennel, fenugreek and nigella seeds) were tempered in mustard oil.
We also ate dalma, vegetables cooked in lentils. It’s a simple, homely dish – comfort food, if you will. I liked it – despite the fact that it contained no meat 😉
Since we were traversing coastal Odisha, we consumed our fair share of prawns and fish. Chungdi Malai – freshwater prawns cooked in coconut milk, is typical of Odiya cuisine. Although I found the flavor of the freshwater crustaceans somewhat insipid, the overall flavor of the dish was pleasantly piquant. The one time we tried a Crab Kalia – at Chilika Lake – we gave it a thumbs down, mainly because this particular species of crab had very little meat and required a great deal of effort for very little reward. The curry was decent, though.
To me, though, the dish that will always remind me of Odisha was a dessert that goes by the name of Chhenna Poda. This literally translates to “burnt cheese”. It’s a sinfully rich mix of chhenna (a bit like ricotta), cashew nut, and sugar or jaggery that’s baked until the surface browns. Mr. Small and I became quite addicted to this confection. For those of you who are familiar with Bengali sweets, the texture is somewhere between a sandesh and a rosogulla; the sweetness is offset by the mild acrid aftertaste of the scalded surface; and it’s moist but not dripping with rose-scented sugar syrup. Divine!
To the best of my knowledge, there is only one restaurant in Bangalore that dishes out Odiya fare – Dalma, on Koramangala’s 80ft. Road. I don’t know about you, but I am definitely going to be dropping by there to get my fix of Chhenna Poda.
(Fellow blogger Karthik Shetty has reviewed Dalma. Here’s what he has to say.)