In Odisha, the land of Lord Jagannath, food is a divine celebration, an offering
In Odisha, the land of Lord Jagannath, food is a divine celebration, an offeringmade to god before it is eaten by the masses. While rice is the common staple and mustard oil the main medium of cooking, most temple dishes are prepared in ghee, but avoid garlic and onion.
Odiya cooks from the Puri region were much sought after all over East India due to their ability to cook food as per Hindu scriptures and norms of purity. Many were employed in Bengal during 19th century and, as a result, took several Odiya dishes with them. Perhaps the most famous export is the rasgulla, which was invented in Puri and has a 700-year-old tradition of being served as bhog at the Mahalaxmi Temple. This tradition is much older than the claim that the rasgulla was invented in Kolkata in the 19th century.
Odiya cuisine is not very spicy or oily, which allows the flavours of the dish come through. Curd-based dishes are common, especially with fish, brinjal or okra. Like the panch-phoran of neighbouring Bihar/Jharkhand, the usual seasoning is panch phutana, a blend of five spices – rai (mustard), jeera (cumin), methi (fenugreek), saunf (aniseed) and kalonji (black cumin). In the bordering regions of West Bengal, kalonji and mustard paste are used and the curries tend to be slightly sweet. The influence of Andhra Pradesh to the south can be seen in the fondness for dosa, idli and vada (locally called bara) with sambar, chutney and the use of tamarind and curry leaves.
Odisha’s favoured staple is rice and it’s consumed in many forms – from simple bhaat (steamed rice), mudhi (puffed rice) to chuda (flat beaten rice). Cooked rice when mixed with water is called pakhala bhata. If left overnight in water to ferment, it forms the sour basi pakhala, usually paired with sukhuwa (fried fish). It is supposed to be the perfect antidote to hot summer months. The unfermented version is called saja pakhala. When mixed with curd, it becomes dahi pakhala and when spiced with cumin, it is jeera pakhala. Ground rice mixed with jaggery or other condiments forms various steamed or deep-fried snacks called pithas.
Fish and Seafood
The profusion of rivers, lakes and an extensive coastline has blessed Odisha with abundant fish and marine life. Chilika Lake, India’s largest saltwater lagoon, is famous for its prawn cultivation. Busy eateries like Chilika Dhaba dish out delicious chingudi jhola (prawn curry) and kankada jhola (crab curry). Freshwater fish from rivers and irrigation canals such as rohu, katla, bhetki (barramundi) and ilishi (hilsa) remain popular varieties, though smaller fish from marshes and mangroves like aluva, kukuli and sabala are also loved by connoisseurs.
Fish is consumed in many ways – from a simple no-frills machha bhaja (fish fry) to curries of various consistencies like machha besara (mustard fish), machha mahura (fish and vegetable curry) and dahi machha, an unusual combination of fish in curd, served cold.
Many shrines in Odisha prepare food offerings to the presiding deity. As per legend, Lord Krishna lifted Govardhan Parvat to give shelter to his village folk from a terrible storm that lasted a week. Since his mother used to feed him eight meals a day, it is a practice to propitiate the lord with chhappan bhog or 56 food items. At Jagannath Temple, this takes the form of mahaprasad with Mahaprabhu’s favourite dishes specially prepared in the temple kitchen and premises. The dishes vary with different meal times and seasons. After being offered to the deity, the bhog is distributed amongst the eagerly awaiting devotees.
Another noteworthy fact is that Lord Jagannath’s kitchen, one of the largest temple kitchens in the world, can feed up to one lakh people at a time.
Pithas are like flat pancakes that can be fried, steamed or baked, with either a sweet or salty filling. They are considered festive offerings and also make perfect teatime snacks. Chakuli pitha is a popular breakfast item. Arisa pitha is a crisp deep-fried snack made of ground rice batter and sugar. Manda pitha or modak, made of semolina stuffed with a sweet filling of grated coconut or chhena (cottage cheese), is often made during festivals. Enduri pitha is made of rice flour with a sweet filling steamed in turmeric leaves. It is usually prepared during Prathamashtami – a festival to celebrate and pray for the long life of a first born in the family. Chitau pitha, made of rice flour and coconut slices, is made during Chitalagi or Chitou Amavasya. Chhena poda pitha is a tedious yet delicious baked pitha made traditionally during the annual Raja (Swing) Festival. The caramelised top, a hint of cardamom and the crunch of nuts makes the dish stand out. It is particularly popular in Dashapalla and Nayagarh areas. Kakara pitha, a small pancake made from semolina with a sweet coconut filling, is notably made in Choudwar and Tangi, Cuttack district.
Odiyas have a sweet tooth and it is not uncommon to start the day with sweets! Most sweets are based on chhena. Yet, the talented cooks and halwais churn out a dazzling array of sweets. Sweet shops and mistan bhandars (snacks and savoury stalls) across the state are filled with trays of assorted sweets and cauldrons with rasgullas and gulab jamuns.
A few key dishes of Odisha
Arisa – Sweet pancake made from ground rice and sugar; Anandapur in Keonjhar district is famous for it.
Badi Chura – Fried badis (spiced black gram dumplings) crushed and mixed with chopped chilli, onion and garlic to make a nice accompaniment, mostly with pakhala. The badis of Keonjhar are all the rage.
Bara – There are baras and there’s the Dhenkanal bara, a small crispy snack made of urad dal (black gram) and rice, served with ghughuni (yellow peas curry) and green chutney.
Basadahi – Creamy hung curd served in an earthen pot; typical of Manikapatna and Brahmagiri in Puri district.
Chhenajhili – A delicacy of fried cheese balls dunked in sugar syrup from Nimapada in Puri district.
Chhenamuduki – Cottage cheese cubes with a thick sugary crust. Keonjhar and Bhadrak district specialise in this.
Chhena Poda – Literally ‘burnt cottage cheese’, this classic Odiya delicacy from Nayagarh is made of soft chhena with dry fruits dipped in sugar syrup and baked till it’s brown.
Dalma – A nutritious wholesome dish of dal and fruits and vegetables like raw papaya, unripe banana, brinjal, pumpkin and gourd, with a spicy seasoning, usually eaten with steamed rice.
Ghanta – Literally ‘mixture’; assorted vegetables are cooked together to create this classic Odiya dish, which can be eaten with rice or rotis.
Kalakand – Milk cake of sweetened reduced milk that’s made to solidify though retaining a soft grainy texture; Shakti Mistanna Bhandar in Sambalpur is legendary for its kalakand.
Kanika – Sweet rice dish garnished with raisins and nuts.
Kassa – Easily the most widely available Odiya dish; chicken or mutton kassa is a thick non-vegetarian gravy.
Khasta Gaja – A type of rasgulla, which is made of sugar and semolina, allowed to dry before being deep-fried and dunked in sugar syrup.
Kheersagar – Balls of chhena dunked in sweet, thickened milk and seasoned with cardamom and saffron. Best served cold.
Kora Khai – Served as prasad at the Lingaraj Mandir, the puffed rice is spiced with cinnamon and cardamom, caramel-ised with jaggery and topped with cashew and coconut.
Labangi – Star-shaped sweet pinned with a clove.
Pakhala – Odisha’s signature dish of cooked rice mixed with water, often allowed to ferment overnight.
Rasabali – Similar to rasmalai and believed to have originated in the Baladevjew Temple in Kendrapara, the deep-fried chhena balls are inundated in sweet, thickened milk flavoured with cardamom.
Rasgulla – The classic sweet has a slight orange tinge in Odisha and is best enjoyed at Pahala – there is a stretch of 40–50 shops between Cuttack and Bhubaneswar, which can be visited.
Rasmalai – A spongy chhena cake dunked in saffron-infused sweetened milk, with a topping of almonds; best enjoyed at Brahmapur in Ganjam district, Baleshwar and Baripada in Mayurbhanj district.
Saaga Moonga – Green gram dal cooked with green leafy vegetables.
Santula – Finely-chopped vegetables sau-téed with garlic, chilli, mustard and spices.