No main meal in the Odia food is complete without the presence of these sundried lentil/gourd-based dumplings known as much for the taste as it is for the nutritive goodness – and a dish worth elevating to the gourmet table.

By Madhulika Dash; Images: Alka Jena

Badi Chura, or as the legendary Odia music legend Shantanu Mahapatra had said the symphony created with lentil, spices, and the magic of the sun, is perhaps the single dish that can add not just the crunch texture but also the taste to any Odia meal – even something as elementary as Pakhala.

Often the third dish on the thali, badi or bori as Bengalis and Assamese would fondly refer to it as, is an ode not just to the ancient practice of preservation through spice and sun drying but also a tribute to the ingenuity of the earlier cooks who saw the multiple ways in which these flavourful dumplings can be used to elevate a simple meal.

This perhaps could explain how a culinary practice that began to store excess lentil production transformed into a segment where not just dal but produce and seeds too were used creatively to create badis or wadis that were more than just instant munchies that could add a texture to a simple meal of dal-bhaat – the varieties could play hero to an interesting dish. Two such amazing examples are the Amritsar Alu Wadi, which is a showcase of how the art of badi making aided in creating food that could be used as an ingredient rather than just a tastemaker, and the Odia Badi Chura, which according to nutritional anthropologist “was a more preferred way to harvest the goodness of dal, especially urad dal that grew in abundance, through different delicious ways.”

The fried badi, as a matter of fact, remains one of the oldest chakanas (accompaniment) that traversed from the meal table to those of community engagements. In fact, residues of what is believed to be the first few iterations of badis are found across all civilization, especially that of Kalinga – a state that once ruled as much of fertile land and trade in it as it owned the sea. Badis back then were made more as a sustainable food for both the gentry as well for sailors and warriors who had to constantly travel the borders to ensure enemies remained outside the gate. The fact, badis making was built as a food solution initiative where two kinds of badis were made: the majority that were made by simply drying the lentil batter shaped as little dumplings or had minimal spice use of a bit of salt and pepper was meant for instant use and was delivered to dharmsalas across the state with the fried variety making it to the ration of the marching soldiers and sailors, who would use it to add taste to the insipid meal on the road or on the sea.

For city dwellers these badis played the role of a tasty accompaniment much like the pickle and papad that made meals interesting. For royalty and the ilk, the badi was made more elaborate and used different flavouring, blend of dals and even the use of artistry – the phula badi or Gehna Badi of Bengal are fine examples of the same – along with innovative use of precious ingredients either from the trade routes like the sesame seeds. Despite the elaborate batter preparation and extra garnish the role of the badis in the Eastern Culinary history, especially of Kalinga and thereafter, remained much as an accompaniment, albeit with ones that were created by the homemakers – it is at home, says historians, where the badi making took its baby steps.  For homemakers, badi making was more of a way to ensure their resources last especially during the winters, which thanks to the geographic location of the state was susceptible to all kinds of cyclones and floods making any form of garden farming and foraging redundant for a few weeks every year.

Badi came to the rescue as badi chura. While there is little known of how and when the art of pounding badi with onions, rock salt, green chillies into a sand that is delicious as it is crunchy originated, common consensus points the plausible arrow to the homemakers who knew a thing or two about creating multiple delicious, good for the health versions of the same ingredient/dish – the pakhala and kanji are the finest examples. Chances are that Badi Chura was created mostly for the woman of the house, given that it could be made using less badis and à la minute. The other reason that lends credence to the fact that Badi Chura was made for the women in the house to enjoy is that it could be made with leftover fried badis and tasted better too. What gave it that extra inch of taste was because of the resting period that allowed the badis to take on my flavour from the oil that was on the surface.

Of course, for old timers, badi chura was also the solution for badis that had gone a little soggy thanks to the moisture. A couple of freshly fried badis thrown in and it could perhaps be the only dish one would need the dal/dalma aside to make a meal, gourmet. Fascinatingly, the way badi chura reached the main meal table was through the Pakhala route. Playing contrast to the mushy fermented rice water, the badi chura was often all that one needed to make the meal tastier. Such was the magic of badi chura that it is often added to the bhartas, chakatas and even bhaja for that addictive crunch. In fact, the Odia culinary landscape have dishes where pounded/handbroken badis are the hero tastemaker of the dish – be it the santula (Odia version of the ratatouille, though far ancient in origin) where it is the unflavoured badi chura with bigger chunks are added for crunch and texture or khira-lau (bottle gourd in milk) where the bottle gourd bold flavours come from the interesting, aromatic marriage of the panch phutan (five spice mix) and the badi, broken into pieces.

The brilliance is the badis used in these creation are the ones that were initially designed as munching rather than cooking.