Thursday, March 3, 2016


Friends and fellow travellers in a lazy mood in second AC compartments of long distance trains would occasionally ask me a “time pass” question: is there some food item that is typically Odia? Nothing odd about this question; after all, food is a good subject for lazy talk, and in a relaxed mood talking about food can be as appetizing as the food itself.  That apart, because of a certain history, which need not concern us here, Odias often tend to view it as a rather loaded question, meaning whether there is some food item that Odias eat but their neighbour Bengalis don’t, and more generally, whether Odia culture is not just an extension of Bengali culture. This of course is not to say that every person who asked me this question had the above in mind. However the fact remains that most of us, urban educated Odias, have, more often than not, tended to take this question far more seriously than it deserves. In fact, it is often taken as almost a challenge thrown to the Odias; it is seen as a prestige issue. It is hardly ever realized that this question is based on a fundamentally flawed notion that political and cultural boundaries are sharp and clear. The fact is that political, linguistic and cultural boundaries do not often converge. And as for the specific case of Odisha and Bengal, for hundreds of years, people have migrated from one state to the other. As a result, there has been close interaction between them at many levels. Under the circumstances it would be a futile exercise to look for cultural uniqueness of any one community at the level of day-to-day life, say, at the level of food or dress. However, since culture, like language, is not a homogeneous entity, having subcultures, and even sub-subcultures - like a language has social and geographical dialects - attempt to answer such a question may not really be all that pointless.

   In any case, I have always named three food items – in the secular context - which I believe are typically Odia: pakhala (pronounced as pakhaala), dalma (pronounced as daalmaa), and a sweet called khira (pronounced as khiraa). Pakhala is rice-in-water, and is called panta bhat (pronounced paantaa bhaat) in Bengali, and has been condemned as a worthless, unhealthy food. It is said in both Odisha and Bengal that pakhala is a tamasik food, which causes dullness and stupidity; “eater of pakhala” is an abuse in both places.  Some fifty years ago, I knew of people, mainly social climbers, who would not say in front of others that they had eaten pakhala at home that day. Things have changed now. The status of pakhala is high these days. In star hotels these days one can get it - the posh variety, with curd, small pieces of green chillies, ginger, coconut, among others, and elegantly cut coriander leaves, etc. added to it. It is now recognized as a great summer food.

   Pakhala is basically a poor man’s food. It is this, more than anything else that explains its negative image. It can be eaten with just some salt, one or two green or red chillies, and an onion, if there is one at home. In the villages during the monsoon, people take simple homemade achar with pakhala. A little chutney of roasted dry fish goes well with it, but many educated people dismiss it with a sneer as a poor man’s taste, often quite pretentiously, I think.   In Odia rural literature, a farmer’s wife carrying pakhala to her husband working in the field is a symbol of Odia peasant life. For decades at least, no food item has been the target of so much indignity as pakhala, and with the exception of dry fish, no food has been associated with so much hypocrisy as pakhala. I like it, in its simple, unsophisticated form, not just for its taste, but also for the richness of meanings it has come to be associated with down the years.