Come Makar Sankranti and freshly harvested produce is celebrated across the country in myriad forms—from boras and pithas to meethe chawal and khichuri. Communities in Odisha are no different, each having its unique repertoire of dishes made with fresh rice, pulses and sugar cane.
Shweta Mohapatra, who started the Odia Food Stories page on Instagram last year to document the state’s food through illustrations, recipes and stories, feels there is a tendency to generalise regional food and not look at the granular details. Odisha’s food, particularly, is viewed mostly through the lens of temple cuisine and the more popular street food such as aloo dum. “What about Odia Muslim food, or tribal food and foragers? You need to include all. Odisha is a region that is incredibly diverse: Its food is not just a set of recipes made using local ingredients. It is a network of customs, habits and styles of living,” she says.
The coast, for instance, is abundant in vegetables, and being close to both the river and the sea, has ready access to freshwater fish alongside seafood. According to Bhubaneswar-based photographer and blogger Alka Jena, the western side is influenced by its neighbouring states, and focuses on foraged foods. The north and south are dominated by 60-plus tribal communities, each with remarkably rich food traditions. “We have not even touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to gleaning knowledge about their food. The west focuses on sour foods, while the south, with its proximity to Andhra Pradesh, presents a sour and spicy flavour profile. You will find posto incorporated in a lot of dishes in the north, as it is close to West Bengal,” she notes.
These influences can be seen in the harvest dishes as well. During her research, Jena came across an unusual recipe by Mayurbhanj’s Santal community. They make a pitha with the local rice, pimpudi basa, which is a small-grained, fragrant variety. This pitha has no stuffing. A dough is made with rice powder and sugar-cane juice or jaggery, and a thin layer is then applied to the insides of raw sal leaves. This is sealed and kept in the fire. This is very different from the enduri pitha typically made in coastal Odisha, with rice and urad dal, stuffed with coconut, jaggery and cardamom, and steamed in turmeric leaves.
According to Bhubaneswar-based blogger and writer Sweta Biswal, there are fewer restrictions on the consumption of non-vegetarian food during festivals in Mayurbhanj, a contrast to the areas near temples. In fact, during Makar Sankranti, it is tradition to have chunna roti, made with rice flour, and mutton curry.
“During Makar Sankranti, some people also make saru chakuli, or soft crepes, with urad dal and rice batter, which is eaten with liquid jaggery,” says Ahmedabad-based Sujata Dehury, who is from western Odisha. In that part, people also make the letha bora, or urad dal fritters dunked in caramelised jaggery syrup. Makar Sankranti is followed closely by Pousha Purnima, and in the west and some parts of southern Odisha, khichuri with freshly harvested pulses such as urad and horse gram is cooked with rice, sesame seed and jaggery. According to Biswal, makara manda, or pus manda, is also made during Makar Sankranti and Pousha Purnima. Rice dough is stuffed with a mixture of sesame and khai (popped paddy) and then steamed. The stuffing varies slightly from region to region. According to Dehury, Pousha purnima is a big festival in western Odisha. “In rural areas, contracts of domestic workers are renewed on this day. It is celebrated over deep-fried pithas like kakara manda and mutton curry, and more,” she says.
The one harvest dish that is common to most parts of Odisha is the makara chaula made on Sankranti day, featuring the new rice with sugar- cane bits, sesame, jaggery, cottage cheese, cut fruits, honey, milk and yogurt. Dehury says this is a staple made in most households at this time of the year. “Everything is fresh in this season. So, we use dhuli hui moong and new rice. It is like a naivedyam and is offered as bhog,” says Dehury, whose Instagram page is dedicated to the foods of Odisha. Often, popped rice is added to this mix.
The months of December-February are marked by a profusion of seasonal greens. The preparations, while not marked for a special festival, are made through winter, including at the time of harvest. According to Dehury, winter marks the badi season in Odisha; it’s traditionally made with fresh urad dal. These are cooked with seasonal vegetables and served with steaming hot rice. Onion stalks and amaranth are very popular around this time as well. “Some of the most loved winter greens are radish greens. These are cooked with peanut paste. Green onions, along with the onion flower buds, are also favourites, either as simple stir-fries with vegetables or cooked with mustard paste. Spinach too is a popular winter green cooked with eggplants, with badis added for crunch,” says Mohapatra.
Kanji too is prepared in diverse forms across the state. In some parts, it is made throughout the year, the only difference being in the seasonal veggies that go into it. “In coastal Odisha, it is made with torani, or fermented rice water, with winter produce such as radish and pumpkin added to it. Some also add rice powder to make it thick, and this is eaten with hot rice,” says Jena. “We truly celebrate nature’s bounty in every season.”