PURBA: FEASTS FROM THE EAST by Laxmi Parida. Oriya cuisine from Eastern India. Writer’s showcase, an imprint of iUniverse, Inc. 207 pages. $16.95.
My experience with Oriya cuisine dates back to many years ago when I visited the temples of Puri in Orissa and was offered the Maha Parshad. Every day 56 varieties of prasada are offered to Lord Jagannath, the presiding deity and as much as the food is delicious, it is also interesting to watch the way it is cooked. The smoke-filled kitchens have woodfire sigdis that cook the bhog in earthen vessels that are topped one over the other. These earthen vessels, known as kuduas, hold rice, vegetable curry, and dalma (lentils) that are pure vegetarian and simply delicious.
To sample this fare, it is believed, is to be blessed. The memories therefore came flooding back when I browsed through Laxmi Parida’s book, Purba: Feasts from the East. Currently employed at the IBM T.J. Watson research center, Parida offers the most unusual introduction to her book when she writes, “The fundamental equation of cooking is: Techniques + Ingredients = Recipes. If there were 30 distinct recipes and 500 ingredients out here and if each requires about two techniques and four ingredients, there are about a whopping 62,500,000,000 recipes in all.” She then admits tongue-in-cheek that this looks harder to her than the Human Genome Project.
Parida uses a good dose of humor in describing some of her recipes and they make for fascinating reading. The author includes more than 200 recipes gathered from the memories of her own family, especially her grandmother and friends, encompassing the full gamut of local materials such as bhrusanga patra (curry leaves), guda (molasses), sorisa (mustard), and torani (fermented liquid). There is a lengthy and informative discussion of Indian flat bread, the rooti, the secret of rolling one, and what to do if it is soft, hard, or puffed. There is also a section on rasagollas with an interesting format of Rasagolla FAQs and the gentle art of steaming.
The cookery of Orissa is as interesting as the language and cultural history. The author uses Oriya words in the terminology of recipes and ingredients, and although it is a bit disconcerting to the global reader, it is not at all intimidating. A chapter on the Oriya pantry provides an introduction to most of the ingredients.
Parida’s years of training and research in mathematics and computer science have imparted in her the systematic approach of scientific methodology, which she uses in her book. “A recipe is like an algorithm,” Parida writes in the preface, “and therefore needs care, attention and practice.” Purba is a fine attempt to bring a hard-to-find culinary art to print!
Here is Parida’s recipe of dalma.
– An incredible mélange of lentils and vegetables. The trick is in the technique of using the spices.
– 1 cup channa dali (chickpeas)
– ¼ cup kala channa (whole chickpeas), soaked in water for 1 hour
– 1 medium-sized potato, diced
– 3 arvi (starchy root vegetable), peeled and diced
– 1 green plantain peeled and diced
– 1 eggplant, diced
– 1 recipe rasuna-pancha phutana baghara (recipe below)
– 1 recipe gunda sprinkle (recipe below)
– a pinch of turmeric powder
– salt to taste
Boil the channa dali, kala channa in plenty of water with the turmeric and salt, till it is well cooked and each grain is totally disintegrated. Cook the vegetables separately in water with turmeric and salt till done. Start with the potatoes and arvi, and add the plantains and the eggplants in the end so that they are done at the same time. Next add the vegetables to the cooked lentils. If it is too thick, also add the liquid medium of the vegetables and heat till well blended. Another option is to cook the lentils and the vegetables in a pressure cooker for about 10 minutes. Season with the rasun baghara and sprinkle the gunda.
This recipe can be adapted to other lentils and vegetables also.
RASUNA-PANCHA PHUTANA BAGHARA
Garlic-Five Spice Seasoning
– 1 or 2 pods of garlic
– 1 teaspoon pancha phutana (cumin seeds, black mustard seeds, fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, and seeds of dried red chillies in a 4:4:2:2:1 ratio)
– 2 tablespoons ghia or oil
Using a pestle and mortar, crush (don’t chop) the garlic. Or, use the flat end of a Chinese cleaver to crush it, Martin Yan-style. Heat the oil or ghia in a thick ladle or a small, thick-bottomed saucepan. Add the garlic followed by the pancha phutana. When the mustard seeds begin to pop, take it off the fire and pour the seasoned hot fat carefully into your main dish. This harmless step could become potentially dangerous if you dunk the seasoned oil too quickly. Step back and pour the hot oil slowly into the main dish. Do not cool the oil before adding, otherwise you will find the oil floating on top without blending well.
Dry Roasted and Ground Cumin
Spread whole cumin seeds on a baking tray and roast for three to four minutes at 250 Fahrenheit or until fragrant. Make sure you don’t burn it, so watch it closely. Pulse to a fine powder while still warm in a spice grinder or coffee grinder. Since gunda is best made fresh, try not to make in large quantities. I usually use the toaster oven to toast about two tablespoons of cumin seeds for a single recipe whenever I need it.
Nirmala Garimella writes from Lexington, MA.