Explore Odisha through delectable platters

From subtle home preparations to elaborate temple dishes, an ongoing pop-up at Novotel New Delhi Aerocity presents a delicious primer to Odia cuisine.

One of the oft underappreciated gems of India, Odisha – and by extension, its food – is one of the ‘emerging’ stars from India’s seemingly endless repertoire of cuisines from its disparate regions. A visit to an Odisha cuisine pop-up at Novotel New Delhi Aerocity (on until March 21), was more of an insight into the region’s culinary culture rather than simply a pleasant outing to sample the state’s cuisine.

Odia cuisine, unsurprisingly, draws influences from various cultures. As recently as in Colonial times, the present-day state was part of both the Bengal and Madras presidencies! As chef Alka Jena explains, the cuisine of the state can be divided into four sub-categories, each with its distinct flavours. The festival is organised by Kalinga Stories, which Jena started with fellow food enthusiast, columnist and curator Madhulika Dash, with the aim of presenting home-made, tradition-based menus.

The menu differs from day to day, available as vegetarian and non-vegetarian thalis (Rs 995 and Rs 1,195, respectively) for lunch and a buffet at dinner (Rs 1,695). A notable aspect of the dishes is their lightness. “We have only used whole spices and created the masalas,” reveals Dash. This becomes evident as the starters and the thali arrive.

While the overall layout of the thali might be familiar to Indians – rice, a form of flatbread, fritters, lentils, curries, salad – the distinction lies in the tastes and textures. These are wonderfully flavoured by local ingredients, with the extensive use of garlic, a trend for the region, evident.

Starters include fascinating options such as Chingudi Bara (prawn fritters – Odisha’s long coastline ensures a surfeit of seafood), Panasa Katha Pithau Bhaja (deep-fried jackfruit chunks), Kancha Kadali Bara (plantain fritter) and Kakharu Patra Potli (batter fried pumpkin leaf stuffed with shrimp), among others.

Novel indeed, not just for the north Indian palate, but also for Bengal, neighbour and a heavy influence on Odia cuisine. For anyone under the impression that it’s the same as Bengali cuisine, Jena points out the multiple points of departure.

“In our mustard paste, cumin is added. The posto fritter in Bengal is made with poppy seed and green chili, while we make it with garlic. The radhuni in the Bengali panch phoron is replaced with jeera – which finds wider application in Odisha. We use more freshly-ground spices instead of roasted spices. The ingredients might be similar, but with spices used differently, the outcomes are very different. For fish, instead of steaming it in banana leaves, in Odisha, Sal leaves are used to wrap the fish and then roasted. A big contrast on a touchy subject – rosogollas in Odisha are consumed hot.” The list goes on.

Entrees are, of course, a highlight. Again, options change by the day. For meat and seafood lovers, try the Bhoga Mansa, a lamb curry prepared during Durga Puja, Dahi Macha (braised fish in mustard and curd curry), the famous Dalma (vegetables cooked with lentils, tempered with traditional spices) and Kancha Lanka Desi Kukuda (chicken in smoked chili curry, mildly hot and extremely flavoursome). Of course, there are many lesser-known dishes to explore too – Potola Rasa (fried spine gourd in coconut curry), Gota Baingan Tarkari (stuffed baby eggplant in peanut-based curry – the influence of southern neighbour Telangana clearly visible here) or Nadia Bara Tarkari (grated coconut and rice flour in an onion-based gravy).

Of course, each meal is accompanied by singular rice variants and even more interestingly, rice crepes. Definitely try the Saru Chakuli Pitha (rice flour crepe) or the Muga Manda Pitha (stuffed rice flour crepe with spiced green gram filling).

For those interested, Jena is happy to provide the detailing for the dishes – ingredients, how they were used traditionally, the influences, the regions they’re from… “I have put something from each region,” she says. “We have nine types of khichdi alone,” indicating the culinary diversity of the region.

Dash points to the absence of the much-debated rosogolla – but an abundance of other desserts indicates the depth of preparations. The Chhena Payas or Chhena Jhili (fennel flavoured deep fried cottage cheese) are sure to tingle taste buds you hardly knew existed!

One of the best-known aspects of the cuisine is the temple food from the region. “We have collaborated with five priests, so we have something or the other from the temples,” points out Dash.

I get to savour Ekabarni, a variant of the khichdi, one of the chappan bhog dishes offered to Puri’s Lord Jagannath and Rasabali, cottage cheese soaked in thickened and sweetened milk, which is from the Baladevjew Temple situated in Kendrapara. “It is said to be the place where chhena was discovered,” says Dash.

“Our cuisine was documented in temples, and was not available for regular people,” points out Jena. “Our cuisine is not even easily available, so people do not know our flavour profile. We want to bring back our grandmas’ recipes. It’s also ayurvedic, a very healthy way of cooking”.

“It’s our endeavour to continue Food Exchange’s Home Chef series with interesting gastronomy experiences and partner with passionate chefs/individuals associated with such cuisine,” says chef Neeraj Tyagi, director of culinary, Pullman & Novotel New Delhi Aerocity. “We wanted to endorse and encourage hidden gems from India and hence we invited Kalinga Stories to curate and promote Odia cuisine and culture. We also ensure authenticity by sourcing local ingredients and genuine supplies from Odisha, for example pumpkin flowers and leaves.”

Gourmands, can you really resist?

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