Santula: Goodness in a Pot

And the few reasons that this Odia staple should be a part of your healthier food makeup – and more. 

By Madhulika Dash 


Santula or as the legendary music director (also my uncle), Shantanu Mohapatra had once zestfully gibed, “the Odia version of Hum Saath-Saath Hain” is a curiously fascinating dish. In appearance, it can be mistaken for any other mixed vegetable delicacy found in India and abroad ranging from the  earthy Umbadiyu to the famous Ratatouille and in some cases, even Kootu. 

In making, it does follow one of the oldest methods of preparing food – slow cooking vegetables in water. And is often defined by many as a one pot meal created by one of the enterprising homemakers. Yet, when it comes to the taste and mouthfeel, the only thing common between Santula and its peers is the rich, homey taste that can get you your Anton Ego's nostalgic moment, even if it is the first time trying. 

But what makes Santula, a dish that suffers from a Peter Pan syndrome at its home turf – we hate it as a kid, crave for it as adults - such a fascinating dish? For starters, it is an old classic with an extremely adaptable recipe. Much like its peers Undhiyu or Umbadiyu, which often needs a certain set of vegetables to produce the kind of taste, texture and mouthfeel, Santula is all about throwing whatever vegetables are there in a pot of salted turmeric water and brew it like a stew or till the vegetables are cooked enough to eat. 

This not only gives Santula its year-long presence on our tables but also the famous story of how this one pot dish originated.

Story has it that during the 13th year agyatvas (to live undetectable) of the Pandavas in the kingdom of Virata, Bheem, who chose to spend it in the kitchen as a cook, was asked to cook a dish not heard of at the time. To which our very own masterchef began walking around a large cauldron and throwing any vegetables in sight into it by roughly chopping each into quarters or half, and left it to simmer. 

The stew was lightly tempered in ghee and minimal spices and served an hour later. When asked what the delightful stew was called, Bheem announced it as Santula – or the stirring of vegetables. Thus, the name. 

While this old grandma’s tale does have its merit in the sense that historically by the fifth century AD when the Mahabharata is said to have occurred, mixing vegetables for taste and for a wholesome meal was common, culinary anthropologists believe that the origin of the dish could have predated Bheem too as a bonafide dish served in regions that had a bigger bounty of produce. 

Santula in its composition could date to the early years of tribal living when foraged produce would be cooked along with produced grains or pulses to create a stew that was edible, delicious and wholesome. The practice of roll boiling produce, including meat, in turmeric water, back in the day, was a sureshot way of weeding out any kind of impurities, worms included, and to lend it that pleasing colour and taste. 

Fascinatingly, this old technique of preparing food is an essential part of the insect menu that is part of the dietary habits across tribes in India, and is the best way to work with not just silkworms and carpenters worm but also snails, scampis and mud crabs too. 

However, this form of stew making through slow cooking vegetables earned its stripes for not only its economics in the past – it allowed scope for multitask – but gained the approval of vaids and samhita's experts for its nutrient preserving capabilities, and the all pleasing taste. 

Santula depending on how the vegetables are paired, which is often seasonal first along with starch and lentils at times, and the tempering is capable of playing the dual role of a recuperative meal much like khichdi or as an indulgence and a feast balancer and palate cleanser much like its peer Shukto – which many believe was inspired by the dish that according to Samhitas date back to the first century. 

This ability to get tailormade for needs makes Santula one of the most innovative dishes even with its frugal canvas. To begin with Santula can be made with four vegetables from each category to even 15; it can be made in a stew called Pani Santula to stir fry that is called Bhaja Santula to one that is made with dal, which is yet another popular format. Of course, there are options where you can add dried shrimps to even use fish head to create a dish that once was popular among the denizens of Kalinga, and is said to have been a variant to the Mundho Ghanta or Muri Ghanto that the coastal people and traders enjoyed as this balmy one pot meal served atop a mound of rice. 

But perhaps the single reason to trying the dish, especially in winters during which time Santula flourishes in its queen avatar thanks to the bounty of greens and starch like sweet potatoes and yams is its ability to create a one pot stew that is overflowing with the goodness of fresh vegetables that not only get accentuated thanks to the process of stewing but also the broth that is rich with goodness of water soluble nutrients. 

Naturally aromatic, the stew tempered with panch phoran bloomed in ghee with topping of roasted cumin is just the dish that rejuvenates the palate with a healthy dose of every nutrient needed by the body and especially the liver and gallbladder – the two hardworking gladiators during winters – to repair and detox and for the mind to calm down. In fact, if lifestyle specialist Dr Vishakha Shivadasani is to be believed, santula, which is a carefully engineered concept of getting one's daily dose of vegetables in the right format and amount amongst all the heavy winter eating is the perfect way to eat while you heal. 

Little wonder, Santula in the books of many doctors has earned the spot of the dish that nurses you back to a healthy, happy you. 

Image: Alka Jena and Purvi Vyas