Dahi Machcha: Poetry on Plate

The rich, velvety fish curry is as remarkable in its delicate flavours as it is in its marriage of bold, contrasting ingredients. No wonder it is one of the iconic masterpieces of Odia weddings.

By Madhulika Dash

Pictures and Recipe Courtesy: Raj Sampad

If there is one thing that has been sacred to weddings in Odisha, it is fish. The role of coastal gem, which since ancient time stands for fertility and prosperity, is extensive in Odia weddings, and often is used to convey a sense of happiness and prosperity. Such is the reverence for this seafood that it is part of the ‘bahu pedi’ that is send along with the bride to her new home.

But the one place that fish (not mutton) enjoys absolute supremacy is the wedding feast, right from the day of the Nirbandh (engagement) that starts with a fish offering from the groom’s side and ends with the lavish bhoji (feast).

The number of fish dishes served in fact was often seen as the benchmark of a good wedding feast – and was instrumental in choosing the right pujari (specialised wedding cooks) who would curate the spread. Such was the significance of fish that, says culinary custodian Manju Dash, “over the years the pujaris, who were cooks at the Shakti temples, curated a list of must-haves that were a given today of a traditional wedding menu and included masterpieces like the fascinating chadchadi, the rustic muri ghanta, machcha kalia and even a chuda santula made with fish.”

The ranking of these dishes was so high that pujaris often would go buy the fish themselves, chop it and then decide upon the vegetable or lentil that would be used to create the fish.

Given that fish would usually be the most expensive ingredient in the wedding feast, adds Dash, “pujaris had to develop a new technique of cutting the fish so every single part of the fish including the fin could be transformed into something stunningly delicious.”

In fact, the fish would often decide what kind of paste would be created, vegetables would be paired.

The idea was to flourish the fish.

But the one dish that ruled all was Dahi Machcha – a unique, velvety fish curry that was as bold in its culinary pairing as it was exotic in its subtle yet addictive flavours. It was a dish, says culinary specialist Minati Parhi, “that was both the highlight of the wedding feast as well as the nirbanda, where the fish would come from the groom’s place along with a hand-written note from the mother-in-law describing the family recipe of how to make thClick here for the recipee dish.”

This little ritual was significant also because it marked the process of a girl becoming a bride and a daughter-in-law, who was bestowed with the family recipe,” says Parhi. During the wedding of course, it would be among the first dish that the barajatri (groom family and friends) will be treated to as part of the Madhuparka (honouring feast).

Interestingly, when it comes to the origin of this captivating piece of culinary artistry, little or almost nothing of it is known except for the fact that curd and fish/meat was considered a part of the cooking ingredient since the Gupta empire. In fact, curd, especially the one that had a good amount of whey was recommended for the use for cooking/marinating meat and fish for two reasons: one, it was good for marinating and kept the meat/fish moist; two, the taste – especially the sweet, rich mouthfeel that curd contributes with that savoury after notes that makes the dish as luscious as a korma with the mustard paste providing the necessary contrast.

In fact, add the experts, “long before kurma made its debut into the state’s culinary odyssey, the dahi machcha was the ideal dish that used simple, readily- available ingredients to create something that was extravagant.

The simplicity of ingredients and the process of making where every ingredient is minimalistically treated to get the best flavour and texture and the brilliant layering of each ingredient played a crucial role in lending Dahi Machcha its unprecedented popularity – and the slight connect with the Shakti temples where fish was offered as part of the prasad.

After all, where else would you be able to lightly grill the fish, add it to a whisked bowl of curd, flavour it with mustard paste and lightly temper it with kalonji seeds and create such blockbuster taste blooms. A mouthfeel that only enhances with the newer additions like onion and tomatoes.

Click here for the recipe