Rath Yatra foods: Ramrochak Tarkari and Dala Kechuri

From being the key highlights of the temple cuisine in Baripada to the celebratory meal of Rath Yatra, here is a look at the enigmatic Dala Kechuri and Ramrochak Tarkari—among the finest examples of slow food.

There are many things that make Baripada in Odisha such a fascinating destination to visit. Since its inception, the city has served as the model capital to many a royal dynasty, including the progressive Mayurbhanj family. It is also the place where the Bhakti movement took shape under the aegis of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu — the Gauranga temple still stands testimony to the era and its ethos, the place that spearheaded a modern education system with kings donating their palaces to the cause of a society of learned men and women.

Most importantly, it’s a town that made history: be it with the Jagannath temple built by Shri Baidyanath Bhanj in 1575 CE, often referred to as the Haribaldev temple, the second largest in the state; or the 1975 law that granted women the exclusive right to pull the chariot of the goddess Subhadra during Rath Yatra, with eminent women leaders such as Indumati Pati, Chandrika Mohapatra and Kalpana Sarangi breaking a long-held tradition.

Rath yatra
The famous Rath Yatra in Odisha is a festival attended by lakhs of devotees every year.
Illustration by Kamal Kant Rath

Fascinatingly, this streak is found in the city’s culinary fabric too. Baripada has been the founding ground for some of the most amazing dishes that are today mainstays of the alluring culinary waft and weave of this once progressive capital. During Rath Yatra, that crown belongs to the delicious pair of Ramrochak Tarkari and Dala Kechuri—two amazing dishes that are a masterclass in the innovative ways to use local ingredients. In this case, it is a special variety of muga dali or black gram, an exclusive product of this region, along with another regional specialty—the fragrant pimpribas rice.

Dishes with medieval ancestry

Thanks to their medieval era ancestry, both dishes are a part of the culinary arsenal of every home in Baripada, even those of families that migrated during the later years. And while today, the dishes have as many interpretations as there are families here (culinary custodian Manju Dash refers to them as delightful chapters in the “cultural and culinary evolution of her birthplace”), it is during the 13-day Rath Yatra when one gets to experience the original.

These are versions that not only made it to the temple in the 16th century, but also have echoes, according to food lore, of the dishes that were served to Chaitanya during his brief stay in the town, an event that infused Baripada with a more liberal outlook when it comes to community and religion. They are served as a mahaprasad at both the Haribaldev and Gauranga temples.

Rath yatra food
The Ramrochak Tarkari and Dala Kechuri are iconic dishes that have been reinterpreted by various households according to their own recipes. Image by Alka Jena

It is during this time that both the temples make their own versions of the Ramrochak Tarkari and the Dala Kechuri. The kechudi recipe follows the time-honoured tradition of creating a flavour profile by hand-massaging the rice and lentils with ghee before it is subtly flavoured and cooked in a kudwa (earthen pots designed for temple cooking), using a lot of gua ghia (a high-quality ghee made with the milk of a cow that has a 21-day old calf), bay leaf, cinnamon, clove, and seasoned with raisins and cashew nuts.

Enhancing the flavour profile

It is the Ramrochak Tarkari though, the queen of bara tarkari in the Odia food ledger, that holds centre-stage. “The reason for this unquenchable fascination doesn’t lie just in the cooking method,” says Manju Dash, “that was followed between the 13th and 16th centuries, when the Bhakti movement was at its peak and led to the establishment of the golden chapter of Niramish Khana. It also gave us techniques that enhance the many flavours of muga dali and bring its wholesomeness to the fore. In fact, the tarkari, as per temple documents, was served in the ancient Radha Krushna temple that was standing there before King Nilakanha Bhanja rebuilt it as the Gauranga temple, where Chaitanaya Mahaprabhu and the Panchshakha were later worshipped alongside with the deity.”

Composed on the lines of Vedic Rasayana, the Haribaldev Temple version uses no onions or garlic or, for that matter, any kind of vegetables. Instead, the focus is to make the lentil shine. Despite being native to the region, lentils remained a precious yield. People grew it only during certain months, it needed a lot of care, and yet was so versatile that even a little of it could go a long way in turning a dish into a delicious masterpiece. A fact that made the muga dali worthy of the gods who followed a Rajasi diet, which was all about having food made of high-quality produce.

Rath yatra food 2
The temple versions of the Ramrochak Tarkari and Dala Kechuri still reflect the culinary styles followed nearly six centuries ago. Rath Yatra is a time when these versions are enjoyed widely. Image by thekitchendelights

Interestingly, much of the flavours in the dish came from these mildly spiced, freshly made, deep fried badas (lentil dumplings) that were soaked in a rich, warm, velvety gravy made using a fragrant spice blend of whole dalchini (cinnamon), javitri (mace) and jaiphal (nutmeg) or cumin and black pepper as tempering. “Introduced at different times into the ghee, these spices created a curry base that was flavoursome and had the necessary nourishment for the body to fight the vagaries of the rainy season, especially balancing the agni that slows down thanks to the monsoon leaving the body with a delicate digestive (and respiratory) system.”

Fascinatingly, while the bada only version is still a privy of the temple and is the one that is offered to the lord, researcher Satwik Mahapatra contends that as the thought process towards religion changed, eggplant was introduced into the curry. This, many believe, was the doing of Chaitanaya Mahaprabhu and the Panchshakha who had the chance to sample the dish during their stay here, and made it a part of their celebrations after offering both the dishes as prasad on dwadasi.

“Since then,” says Debabrata Praharaj, a fourth generation priest at the Gauranga temple, “Ramrochak Tarkari has been served with eggplant. It later saw the addition of potatoes (evolved around the neo-Vaishnavism phase), a produce that is still banned from most temple kitchens in the state. But for the Chaitanya temple, the tarkari remains a representation of the early teachings of the Vaishnav cult that believed in equality and inclusion, and encouraged people to bond over common shared interests such as views and food. And thus, needed it to be all inclusive.”

That perhaps explains why, unlike other temples, in Gauranga, you can eat food alongside others in the foyer that faces the inner sanctorum. It also explains why the potato-eggplant tarkari gained such popularity. Although it has a well-known recipe, it is best enjoyed when the sevayats of the Haribaldev temple make it. “Another reason for its popularity is, of course, the ingredients,” add Mahapatra and Dash, “that were found in every household kitchen, no matter how poor. The spectrum of spices showcased the different cultural tribes that the town played home to.”

Simple ingredients hold the key

Despite the simple ingredients and the copious amounts of ghee used, the dishes have not just this rich, celebratory palate feel but an aroma and taste that is soulful—it takes just a bite for the mind, body and spirit to go into a zen-like state. “The answer,” says nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, “lies in the clever composition of the dish as each ingredient is used to impact not just the taste of the dish but also serves a purpose. While the rice and dal complement each other on nutritional wholesomeness and aid in digestion without an immediate spike in acid levels in the body, the fried lentil dumplings break an otherwise long duration of digestion down into one that can release energy in a short period of time. Then there is the spice blend. Aside from adding that mind-calming, aromatic property to the dish, also bolsters the agni (fire) for better gut strength and cleanses the respiratory system to remain uninfected during weather change.”  

The two dishes form the complete gamut of a balanced meal with the ghee helping the brain to relax as it refuels the system—a reaction that we often recognise as one of being at peace, says Sveta.

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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