For a state so notable in its chhapan bhog offering at the world famous Jagannath Temple at Puri, the eastern Indian state of Odisha is one of myriad musings in the context of its food. Each of the dishes of religious prominence tend to be culinary delights in themselves, elevated perhaps in stature and sensation through association with the godly. Even beyond though, the cuisine of the state reveals to be one variously distinct and distinguished. Simplicity rules the roost in most of what defines an Oriya platter, surprisingly in even the most indulgent of its preparations. Standout in its sweet sensibilities and as remarkably revealing along the other many identities of taste and texture and flavor, the composition of the state’s culinary character comes across as a curious blend of influences galore. Here’s some of the very interesting dishes of Odisha that bears testimony to her essential uniqueness-
The dish of national favoritism, khichdi takes upon itself a distinctive form and identity in Orissa. Locally called the khechdi and offered as prasad at the world famous Jagannath Temple of Puri, this essentially rice and lentil based one pot dish resides in a unique Oriya connotation. Offered to the Lord in five types, this very basic combination of rice and lentils with vegetables is cooked in ghee and mildly spiced for a flavourful serving relished even otherwise as a comforting, nutritious meal.
The not so sweet issue of sweet contention that Orissa is (in)famously known in might be its claim over the rasagulla- asserted also by the neighbouring state of West Bengal to be their own. But the state actually finds sweet prominence in another much distinctive, special type of dessert. Even when being a chenna preparation like the rasagulla, Odisha’s chenna poda is unlike any other sweet that one would taste anywhere in India.
Literally translating as baked cheese and often alluded to as the Indian version of the cheesecake, chhena poda might not be one of the more traditional dishes of the state. But it sure is a favorite in its own sweet right. Well-kneaded homemade fresh cheese i.e. chhena is mixed together with sugar and semolina, that is then baked for several hours on end. The result is a delightfully crusted, beautifully brown mound of cake prominent in its flavor of perfectly caramelised sugar. Claimed to be Lord Jagannath’s favorite sweet- even though it is a fairly recent 19th century invention, the chenna poda also makes it to the expansive list of the divine offerings. Godly or otherwise though, this truly is one of the most outstanding sweets of a country known for its panoply in offering of the saccharines.
Carrying forward the ‘poda’ essence of the chenna poda is another sweet that is yet again a Lord Jagannath favorite. Emerging out of the encompassing range of the pitha identity is this pancake like preparation of rice flour and urad dal powder fermented and sweetened traditionally with jaggery and coconut. Healthy in its baked assertion and definitely unique and time consuming as well in that same spectrum of traditional residing, the poda pitha is another characteristic Oriya specialty in its perfectly done charred essence. The crispness of the browned crust is complemented impeccably by the soft and white sponge like inside making for a different experience in both taste and texture alike.
A dish so droolworthy that one would believe it to be loaded with the richness of ghee and the flavors of spices at least, allowing for its vegetarian essence to deal with the deliciousness. But treat yourself to a bowl of simple dalma with some plain rice or even with pitha and one would know that less is more indeed in many cases of occurrence. A humble dal based dish, usually moong dal roasted without onion and garlic and accompanying doses of health in the form of some seasonal veggies, this no oil serving infused with just the basic spices is divine again in being an offering of the Jagannath temple. A staple of the Oriya meal and one essential as well in its legendary identity of being a creation by one of the Pandava brothers Bhima, this very pious, pure food is extraordinary in every aspect of its ordinariness.
Seems like Odisha is quite the maverick when it comes to sweets, steeped as it is in rare profusions of uniqueness. Sarsatia for instance shapes up as a distinctive sweetmeat remarkable in its mildness and even the sight of it. A Sambalpuri specialty and occurring as a variant of pitha almost, it is the very ingredient of making Sarsatia in as much different a technique that what accords it that unique identity. Not so sweet to exactly identify as one yet not savoury as such as well, sarsatia defines indeed the classic Oriya flavor in being unyielding to one specific strand of assertion.
Made with crushed Arua rice grains, sugar and the gum of a plant locally called ‘Ganjer’ is this intensively intricate craft almost of the culinary that asserts as a three coned specimen. Jali like in appearance, achieved by dripping the batter in hot oil with the use of the fingers and folded when still in the oil to prevent it from breaking down, sarsatia stands true to the Odia affinity for elaborateness in preparations. No wonder the savoring of each of its tastes tends to be the absolutely delectable experience in as much difference as well.
Not one to be left behind on the meaty trail is the state of Orissa that has been exploring forever of uniqueness in every aspect of its eating. Case in point the combination of mudhi mansa hailing from the region of Mayurbhanj that is indeed every inch of what its name suggests it to be. The humble fare of some healthy muri paired with some hearty meat curry, mostly mutton is what dominates the snacking or even breakfasting scene in the town of Baripada but also is a hit elsewhere in the state. The thick, potato based gravy perfectly coats and complements the crispness of the puffed muri grains making for an authentic Odia delicacy irresistible in its factoring in of the intrigue.
A coming together of three core components of the Odisha identity namely the ingredient called rice, the flavour of sweetness and the reverence in divinity is what curates the character of Kanika. An aromatic and sweet rice dish very similar to the pulao, kanika though is quite versatile in its consumption. As a main dish, it is enjoyed with dalma as a vegetarian option or even with chicken or mutton curry as a non vegetarian alternative. Even more distinctively is this sufficiently spiced and flavored version of rice relished as a whole dessert in itself. Made in ghee with fragrant local rice, with the typical addition of dry fruits and a range of spices and flavoring agents, the Oriya kanika is not very different from the Bengali mishti pulao though it tends to be not as mild in flavor.
We all are fans of dahi vada and aludam as dishes that are whole entities in and by themselves. But doing things the Odia way and mixing the two together will lead one to an experience in flavor explosion that is one of gastronomic excellence indeed. The idea might seem a bit perplexing for people elsewhere from the country used to enjoying the two preparations separately. But so famous is their conjoined reputation that this Cuttack based combination asserts as one variant of the dahi vada itself.
As their own individual selves, the dahi vadas and the aloo dum would be exactly what you know them to be. And yet when you go on to combine them into one singular serving of choice, the whole experience emerges as one revealing even in all familiarity. The fresh chatkara of the dahi infused baras perfectly complements the spiced potato gravy to make every bite account for definitely delicious savouring.
Sweet again and religious still an offering in Orissa, kora khai however manages to be quite unlike the many other dishes of similarly characterised identity. The basic ingredient of it is unique itself, known as the khai which is a rice based product but different still in form and texture. Combined with coconut and jaggery or sugar and flavoured with cardamom, kora khai asserts as a crunchy delight. Particularly popular in Bhubaneswar even when it is offered at the Jagannath temple, this is a dry preparation of much ease but availed out of a centuries old recipe known only to an exclusive group of confectioners in the city.
The deliciousness of deep fried brinjals permeating the soulful essence of a rich yogurt based gravy, dahi baigana is an Odia specialty that wows in its amazing culmination of taste. A very simple recipe to master and one that uses only a handful of ingredients, that too easily available pantry staples, this is a dish of much convenience indeed. Garlic and onion can be easily omitted from the preparation of dahi baigana which makes this festive favorite even more easy an option in versatility and piousness to dig into.
A fish preparation unlike any other, Orisha’s mingling together of vegetables and fishes in this iconic curry of theirs is a culinary masterpiece indeed. The essence of this dish might be very simple even in its elaborate incorporating of ingredients but the unique traditionality embedded in it means that it is a must on every celebratory menu. And the unique manifests in the ‘range’ of its preparation as well with fish head and tails rather than the body of it making up this wholesome curry. Also sporting some lentils or even some leafy greens along with the assortment of veggies, this uniquely composed mix of the veg and the non veg makes for a finger licking accompaniment to gobble up every grain of your rice platter with!
Attakali known also as Gaintha pitha is another among the assortment of foods that emerges out of the divine essentially running through the essence of Orissa. But even in its occurring as a pitha, this in fact is a kheer like preparation based on rice but in a different interpretation of it. Instead of rice grains it is rice flour that is used to make ball shaped pithas which are then again cooked in milk for a unique dish of Odia authenticity. Like its differently defining pitha identity, the divine connotations of the attakali too are evoking of the blessings of the Goddess Lakshmi.
It is the beauty of Odiya cuisine managing to emerge as assertions in as much simplicity as in intricacy that defines the distinctive appeal of its foods. And one such much humble and as healthy dish is one that finds expression as santula. Ordinary yet classic and soothing enough for the taste buds as well as on the stomach, this easy to digest preparation of vegetables like papaya, brinjal, pumpkin, potato and tomato can also be made as per preference. Sijha santula is where all the ingredients are boiled and seasoned and served as it is. Bhaja santula on the other hand goes a step further to fry the veggies in little amount of oil and fewer medley of spices. Either way though the nutrition content and health quotient of santula makes it a staple preparation in all Oriya households.
If jalebi had to take on an Oriya identity, it would indeed need to make itself encompass the versatility of some chenna. And that exactly what chenna jalebi turns out to be in that characteristic spiral pattern and spiral shape, albeit in the chenna state of its existence. Kneaded fresh chenna is fried in the form of jalebis and then soaked in sugar syrup for a dessert that is not quite crunch like its more explored cousin. The tender essence of the chenna lends indeed its all to the jalebi preparation making for soft, juicy discs of sweetness that oozes delight in every bite.
Very similar to chenna jilapi and often occurring as another name for it is another delectable dessert of the Chenna Jhili. Born out of the Shyam Sundarpur Village of Nimapara in Puri district, this creation by Aarta Sahoo makes for a mound of melt in the mouth deliciousness. Unique in its shape eked out through a definite method of preparation, the recipe for chenna jhilis however is a family secret and one that is ever so slightly but definitely different from its aforesaid counterpart.
Easily the most distinct of traditional drinks from the Indian subcontinent both in essence and in composition is the preparation of tanka torani. A prominent drink of Orissa, more prominently of the mahaprasadam of the Jagannath temple in Puri, this is a drink with rice as the ingredient! Unlike the fermented rice beers stemming from the north eastern part of the country, tanka torani is almost a liquid meal in itself. Fermented rice is mashed into the rice water and spiked with yoghurt, lemon juice, lemon leaves, ginger and a tempering of curry leaves, cumin and chillies for a chaas like beverage that is served cold.
Chhena again, divine still and delicious much, the heritage dessert of Odisha that goes by the name of rasabali is one as unique and as ordinary in its premise. Flattened discs of chhena are deep fried and then immersed in cooked, thickened milk so that the scrumptious reddish brown patties soak up the sugary taste and milky essence of the ‘gravy’. Despite being a part of the offerings at the Jagannath Temple, rasabali originated instead in the Baladevjew Temple of Kendrapara.
Sajana Chhuin Bhaja
Drumsticks in a mustard sauce? Sounds piquant enough to weave the Odia magic all around. A dry preparation of the wonder food that drumsticks are, this sajana chhuin bhaja is a favorite all over the state in being one of the standout accompaniments to the pakhala bhaat serving. But it goes as well with rice too in its very decipherable taste and flavour, with the nutritional content of sajana making for an even elevated experience in indulgent eating.