Let me make this clear. I’m not exactly a foodie. Certainly not one when it comes to cooking. But I do have a keen palate and appreciation for flavours in good food. And, no one knows that better than my mother who had to bear the brunt of my fussy eating habits for a long time. I began to value her cooking, during my post graduation years, which I spent in Bangalore and Pune. The big realization happened only after I almost starved myself to death while battling it out with the canteen food in college.
Besides the occasional treats at Udipi restaurants in Bangalore and the weekend indulgences at popular hangout places in Pune, most of the time it was the boring and mindless eating that took a toll on the taste buds. Thankfully it didn’t last too long!
I am an Oriya (or should I say Odia) by birth. My father is from the southern part of Orissa called Brahmapur and mother from the northwestern part, Sambalpur. And from high school till end of college years I lived in the heart of the state- one of the twin cities, Cuttack. The reason for this description of origin is to offer you an insight into the food fusion I have experienced in early years of my life, which made me, well, ‘chintzy’.
My father’s job took us to a new place in the state every few years, so my palate never got used to any particular kind of food. I most certainly got confused. The food in every part of Orissa is so different from one another that my young mind couldn’t cope with my mother’s tryouts in the kitchen.
Just when I was beginning to appreciate the Andhra inspired ‘Charu Paani (spicy rasam), sambhar, Idli, dosa, suji upma served with a gravy’ kind of cooking in Brahmapur (a city in Ganjam district which is close to Andhra Pradesh), we moved to a town near my maternal grand mother (Naani)’s home in Sambalpur district. Next 6 years, which comprised of a major part of my growing up years, was spent in the comfort of my Naani’s house specially holidays and summer vacations. Somehow, her food habits influenced mine too.
I don’t have much memory of the first 5-6 years of my existence, which was in Brahmapur, except that of the ‘daal’ cooked by one of my chaachis (aunt). The smell of the turmeric laden ‘daal’, was pretty much all I can remember of the food that she cooked. Where as being close to my Nanni’s home kind of structured the taste buds.
To understand Oriya cuisine better, you have to understand its geography. In my context, all three cities that I spent 20 years of my life have some influence from the neighbouring states. Andhra Pradesh influences southern Orissa; Chhattisgarh has significant influence on several dishes prepared in a Sambulpur household or vice versa and the food from Cuttack certainly has similarities with Bengali cuisine. After all, until 1936, Bihar, Orissa and West Bengal were one state.
Coming back to my ‘Naani’, we weren’t quite fond of each other back in those days, obviously, because she took me as the sole troublemaker in her daughter’s (my mother’s) otherwise peaceful life. While all my sisters were her favourites, I was the notorious one, throwing a fit every time we sat down for a meal. But my frequent visits to her house and my mother’s proximity to her own family even shaped her cooking skills. ‘Naani’ may not agree but I think I get that fussiness from her. Why? Because I remember how she liked her ‘aambil’ (a kind of kadhi prepared with vegetables and loaded with pure ghee with garnish of green chili and coriander). So much so that she would actually carry some green chilies to the village feasts at times so that she could adjust the taste of her favourite ‘aambil’ herself if needed. That was the time when the food at the family functions was served on Khali patra (plates made of the dried banyan leaves often hand stitched, somewhat round). That made the whole eating experience extraordinary. And, so was eating from copper plates and bowls at home. My Naani is around 85 yrs. old right now, hale and hearty and I wonder if she still carries her own stash of green chilies to the banquets.
By the time we moved to Cuttack, my mother had become an expert on all sorts of cooking. Except that she could never perfect the art of making ‘roti’ (chapattis). Odias are not exactly ‘roti’ eaters, you see. In fact, just the other day, I had an argument with my husband about the states in India that are considered as the ‘Rice Bowl’ of the country owing primarily to the quantity of rice production. While I argued that it is mostly, Chhattisgarh (the state that he comes from), Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal, he maintained that it is just Chhattisgarh. He might have been right. But by practice I believe I wasn’t wrong.
I began to like the food at home when my mother started making Tomato khatta, (kind of chutney made of tomato, dates and paanch phodan), Kaasa Mansa (Mutton Kosha) and Baigan Bhaja (Baigon Bhaja in Bengali which is round cut Brinjal coated with masalas and rice flour and fried in mustard oil) and also Dahi Baigan (Brinjal and curd preparation). A lot of that transition in the kitchen took place because of my father. Though he was from southern Orissa; years of travel had inured his taste buds to enjoy all sorts of culinary adventures. And, one thing he never stopped doing was getting bag full of vegetables to the house, which occurred almost every alternative day. That made me develop taste for every vegetable available in the market. By the time I was ready to leave home for further studies, I had deeply fallen in love with my mother’s cooking and every food item that she made at home.
Anyway, Cuttack was the place that pretty much summarized my Oriya food sojourn. The street foods of Cuttack could give any other city street food in the country a run for its money.
I only get to eat the authentic Oriya food occasionally, mostly when I visit my hometown, when I over indulge myself with my mother’s cooked food and the street food (the famous Cuttack mutton chop, dahi baara aloo dum, ghoogni, gup chup) and sweets such as Rasogola from Pahala, Chena Jhilli and Chena Poda. Where I relive my teenage years, Cuttack, the city where I actually fell in love with Oriya Cuisine.
Trivia: Did you know that the age-old fight, ‘Whose Rosogola is it’, has been resolved? It has been proved that the delicious mouth watering sweet dish actually originated in Orissa and not Bengal.