Living in India, the only thing I wonder is, what kinds of food do people eat at home here?

If I happen to be invited to someone’s house during meal time, I am offered to eat with them. Or when I impose upon them on some small business, I am offered a light snack with some tea or coffee. Or even when by chance I ask about them about their food, and am told to come over or stay for a meal.

I am very thankful for this and keep hoping that it will keep happening.

In addition to India’s regions each having their respective strong characteristics, mixing things like religion, the class system called caste, and economic circumstances into it, seems to turn into a colourful marble cake.

Depending on where you cut the cake, what you eat and the world you see are also different.

Ordinarily, when I’m having the food I’m eating explained to me, it’s like getting a small peek into the background of that person.

In “Indian mom, please teach me your recipe!”, I intend to write the recipes as they were taught by mothers, because I want to conveying the atmosphere of the Indian kitchen as much as possible.

There are some ingredients that are hard to prepare in Japan, but I hope I can get you to smell the fragrance rising from the kitchen in India using the power of your imagination on the recipe.

Odisha, located in East India, is next to West Bengal (where Kolkata is) and Andhra Pradesh which is part of South India.

It is interposed between states of two distinct factions – Bengali cuisine which uses a lot of mustard oil and mustard seed, and Andhra cuisine which is characterised by the spiciness of its chilli and large quantities of oil.

So Odisha’s cuisine, caught between brothers with strong personalities, seems to exhibit the mildness of a gentle second son.

Blessed by the Bay of Bengal, the food of the lush green state of Odisha, making the best use of the original flavours of the ingredients, wouldn’t seem very out of place on a Japanese dining table.

This time, the lady who taught me was the mother-in-law of the Mrs. Masako Ono, who is a world-famous Japanese Odissi dancer as well as an official of the Indian government.

In their home in the capital city of bhubaneshwar that also hosts their dance studio, the people from different countries who keep passing through must be eating the delicious food that her mother makes with relish. I am so jealous!

The nimble, light way her mother uses her hands, honed from cooking for everyone, is beautiful, completing one dish after the other.

A variety of vegetables are stir-fried, using a spice mix called Panch Phutana, the same as Panch Phoron often used in Bengali cuisine, and adding turmeric and salt to an ample amount of fresh vegetables. Sometimes ginger and garlic paste or yoghurt is added.

A simple fry or fish curry made using fresh fish, everything is seasoned making the best use of the flavours of the ingredients.

I shall introduce three dishes taught through the eyes and tongue, by her mother in pleasant and comfortable-sounding Odia, the local language.

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Dahi Baigan – stir-fried eggplant with yoghurt dressing
Karela Alu Bhaja – bitter gourd and potato stir-fry
Machha Bhaja – a simple fish fry

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Recipes

፠ (here, 1 cup = 200 ml, 1 tsp = 5 ml, 1 tbsp = 15 ml)

Dahi Baigan

Ingredients

3 green eggplants (regular eggplants are also OK)
½ tsp turmeric
½ tsp salt

2 cups Dahi (yoghurt)
½ cup curry leaves (leaves only)
1 tbsp Panch Phutana ፠
2 tbsp oil (sunflower oil used here)
½ tsp chilli powder
½ tsp cumin powder
1 tsp salt

Method

① Slice the eggplants into wedges, season with turmeric and salt and set aside for around 30 minutes.

② Transfer the yoghurt to a bowl.

③ Heating the oil in a frying pan and, add the Panch Phutan, bring to medium flame and add the curry leaves.

④ Leaving the oil in the frying pan, mix the chilli powder and cumin powder as well as the Panch Phutan and curry leaves from ③ into the yoghurt and set aside.

Ⓢ Grill the eggplants in the oil left in the pan. After covering with the lid, bake till the heat works its way through completely. Remove the lid and press the eggplant to the pan with a spatula, making sure that both surfaces have been charred properly.

⑥ Remove from heat, transfer the eggplant to a plate, wait for it to cool and add it to the yoghurt from earlier and stir in thoroughly. Add salt (additional) to taste.

Panch Phutana

A spice mix identical to Panch Phoron which is often used in Bengali cuisine, mainly in Kolkata.
Basically, it is made by mixing equal portions of cumin, fennel, brown mustard, nigella and fenugreek.
Because it contains fenugreek which doesn’t let heat pass easily, it draws out the flavour as the heat passes through it in a controlled way.

፠ Making Panch Phutana
Mix equal portions of cumin, fennel, brown mustard, nigella and fenugreek (all whole spices) and store in a cool, dark place.

Karela Alu Bhaja

2 bitter gourds
1 onion
3 potatoes
1 tbsp Panch Phutana
2 tbsp oil (sunflower oil used here)
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp salt

Method

① Cut the gourds into thin slices leaving the seeds attached. Peel the potatoes and cut them into semicircular slices. Cut the onion into thin slices.

② Heating the oil in a frying pan, add the Panch Phutana and roast thoroughly.

③ Add all the vegetables and stir-fry over medium heat.

④ Add the turmeric and salt to ③

Ⓢ After stirring well, cover with lid.

⑥ After around 10 minutes, remove the lid and top with oil, and adding oil to taste, finish by charring.

The gourd is cooked leaving the seeds attached. They are bitter, but because the seeds add a crunchy accent, I would very much like you to try it!

Machha Bhaja

Ingredients

8 thick slices Rohu/Katla (fishes of the carp family)
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp salt (or to taste)
3 tbsp oil
1 tsp cumin
lemon (to taste)

Method

① Coat the fish with turmeric and salt and set aside for about 30 minutes.

② Heating the oil in a frying pan over medium heat, add the cumin and brown till fragrant, then add the fish. Cover with the lid and bake.

③ When the heat has passed through, remove the lid, turn over and bake thoroughly till a delicious char has been achieved on both sides. Add lemon to taste.

This fish fry is often eaten with Pakhala.

Pakhala – cold rice with water – is also a traditional food in Odisha, something like an Odia version of Ochadzuke (rice in tea or hot water).

However, there is the type that is eaten as cold rice with water added and lime or chilli and raw onion as garnishing, or the type that is eaten adding curd, and the type that is eaten after being fermented overnight.

The Odia mother, after having taught me while wiping her seat in the heat, ate adding water to the rice and eating it with fried fish and other accompaniments, biting on green chillies.

Watching her, I remembered that my parents in Akita (a prefecture in Northern Japan) ate cold rice having added iced water with grilled salmon or fermented beans and pickles on hot summer days when they had no appetite.

This is called Mizukakemeshi (rice with water) in Akita and Yamagata (the next prefecture). The scene with the Odia mother overlapped with that of my own family.

The Pokhala I ate at a restaurant that served traditional Odia cuisine was made of cooled rice with water and a little curd (yoghurt) added, with fried cumin and curry leaves, and chilli.

It was easier to eat than I had thought, and perhaps even good for refreshing oneself on a hot day.

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The impression of the people I met in Odisha seems to overlap Odia cuisine in some parts.

There was even an innocent simplicity that I had never felt in the “older brother” capital of Kolkata or the “younger brother” capital of Hyderabad. (Of course, it depends on the person!)

Although travellers from Japan may certainly be drawn towards Varanasi or Agra due to their strong attraction, they may end up passing through Odisha on their way to the many sightseeing spots of South India without realising what they missed.

That is such a shame!

I think that would be interesting if they could travel in such a way that enter through Kolkata and continue on to Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, and exit from Chennai, and experience the change in the food culture for themselves first-hand.

I hope you get the chance to eat home-cooked local food in Odisha!

Author : Nobuko Yamashita (spice+arts) (translated by Aumurto Chaudhury)