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“If you had to name a dish that would sum up the essence of Odisha, what would it be?” This is the question I get asked a lot. To that my first instantaneous answer is always—the humble, unassuming Odia comfort offering—dalma. For me, dalma is to Odisha what undhiyo is to Gujarat or pav bhaji is to Mumbai—that core, essential dish that sums up the palate of its people.

Dalma’s simplicity and ease of preparation, mélange of flavors and the history behind it makes it the contender and winner for the honor of being the Odisha state dish.

Dalma lends itself to all seasons and reasons. Simply described, it is a surprisingly effortless, yet utterly delicious lentil stew with seasonal vegetables that gets the final punch from a delicious tadka (seasoning) of cumin seeds and a pinch of jeera-lanka powder (commonly used in Odia dishes—red chilli-cumin powder).

It is most famously known for being served at the holy deity Jagannath’s abode in Puri. As very aptly put by writer James Osland, “For worshippers at Odisha’s Jagannath Temple, a dish of lentil stew with coconut is itself a form of prayer.” Couldn’t have been said better.

This idea of dalma being a prayer and an offering rings especially true in our house. I remember Sunday lunches with the family when it was almost a ritual to have arua bhata (a special kind of rice), alu bharta (mashed potatoes with a hint of cumin seeds and red chillies), and of course dalma with its various accompaniments for lunch.

There are some distinct, joyous memories of these lunches. To trouble my younger brother, I would often hide his serving of alu bharta (mashed potatoes), which was his favorite side dish, inside his mound of rice. Initially he genuinely got upset and then later, as he caught on, he pretended to be upset, as he frantically searched for his portion of alu bharta. We broke out into fits of laughter when he found his favorite dish hidden inside his rice mound. Now, every time I eat this meal, I always think of those days with nostalgia.

Jagruti Vedamati is a post-doctoral student at Stanford University.

Yield: 4 servings
Cooking Time: 20 minutes

2 potatoes, diced
½ cup pumpkin, diced
½ cup carrots, diced
½ cup green beans, diced
½ cup eggplant/brinjal, diced
½ cup split toor dal
(yellow pigeon peas)
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 cup water
½ tbsp crushed ginger
1 bay leaf
2 whole red chilies
3 tbsp ghee
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp red chilli & cumin powder
(jeera lanka powder)
To taste: salt
1 tsp sugar
½ tsp amchur powder
(dry mango powder)

Soak the toor dal at least 10 mins prior, to get a soft and smooth dal. You will notice the difference, especially if you plan to pressure cook the dal.
Boil all the vegetables (pumpkin, carrots, potatoes, green beans, eggplant) with the toor dal, along with turmeric powder, crushed ginger and bay leaf. You can also pressure cook for one whistle. Note: I usually add seasonal vegetables,  although the very typical dalma that I have grown up with has potatoes, eggplant, pumpkin and carrots.

For the tadka (garnish):
In a pan, add ghee and let it heat up.
Then add cumin seeds and after it splutters, add red chilies and saute. Add in half a cup of water to the ghee and let it boil. Then add in the jeera lanka powder (red chilli and cumin seed powder) and amchur. Boil over low medium heat till the ghee floats to the top.
Add the tadka to the dalma and then add salt and sugar and adjust for taste. Simmer for 10-15 mins. Sprinkle with fresh grated coconut, and chopped cilantro. Serve hot.