Of the many forms of Khichdi made in Odisha, the Dala Kechudi has a special place not just in the culinary fabric of Baripada but in its rituals too. But what really makes this Rath Yatra speial so unique? Here’s the skinny

By Madhulika Dash; Picture: Alka Jena & thekitchendelights

If there is a single “comfort food” that has earned it wellness stripes well through the history – it is Khichdi. The soul-satiating melange of rice and lentils has been a favourite not only of cooks and royals alike; vaids, hakims and unani experts too have used this vintage pairing to effect health benefits that are lasting and efficient. One of the many reasons that khichdis were not just made a part of the daily meals of kings and commoners to be had at least once a week or more, but also a platform where the most work has happened in creating combinations that work as a delicious antidote in every seasons.

In fact, food history mentions the dish as one of the few culinary gems that most emperors have taken a liking to. Whether it was ChandraGupt Maurya, founder of the Maurya Empire, who had this one bowl dish as part of his work meal when in court; King Vikramaditya Raya whose own ledger had close to a few dozen preparation that was served as part of his daily meal, especially during seasonal changes, to guests and dignitaries and was also one of the dishes when he was on the move; and the most relatable Mughal Emperors where from Akbar to Aurangzeb, each of them took a liking to the simple meal of khichdi made with lentil and rice and tempered with good quality ghee.

Fascinatingly, it was that zen like feeling that kept Khichdi relevant in the later era of our history when most royal dynasties took on a more British/ European style of food habits which was in keeping with the power at the time. Royal estates of Rampur, Lucknow and Hyderabad would commission special grants to their head khansamas to prepare khichdi that wasn’t just unique in its composition but also in its presentation. The result was the pilaf like presentation of Khichdi that was now served with a raita or a salan aside the standard accompaniment of pickle, papad and bharta.

The exception to this rule was a version made in Rampur, which was made with almonds and pistachios shaped as rice kernels and dal. The dish, as per the khansamas stories, was so rich and laborious that it took five days for prep and only the head cook could make it. The richness of this dish ensured that the dish was not only portioned but a second helping of the same was will-fully refused by the cook – a rule applicable for the Nawab as well.

But for the rest of the country, Khichdi remained mostly the same – a delicious bowl of mildly spiced, delicious, easy to digest meal made with rice and lentil. The state of Odisha was no different. Here thanks to the good production of high quality Black Gram and Urad Dal, often the khichdis here replaced moong dal with these making the khichdi slightly heavier but equally scrumptious and effective health-wise. The other difference of khichdi in Odisha to its peers is the presentation and the appearance of the dish. Unlike the porridge style Khichdi made in North, Gujarat and elsewhere, the Odia versions made with black or green gram is mostly pulao and is often accompanied with a curry.

A fine example of this is the Dala Kechuri and Ramrochak Tarkari. A soulful meal that is perfect not only in its composition and use of lentils – the native black gram that grows in Mayurbhanj region – but also in its taste play. The slightly warm Ramrochak Trakari thanks to the use of cumin, peppercorns and clove is the perfect marriage to the sweet Dala Kechudi that gets most of its flavours from the fragrant pimpribas rice, locally produced black gram and the gua ghia or clarified butter made from the milk of cow with a 12-day old calf. This ensures that the fat content in the milk is between 3-4% making it ideal to make ghee that has this balmy, sweet note and fat that not only cranks up the taste of the dish but also aids in the quick digestion of the kechudi as well.

It is the only kechudi version in Odisha culinary ledger that uses ghee not just to cook but to prep as well, and yet, when it comes to the palate, it is as light and balmy as its other peers from across India. The prep work for Dala Kechudi begins with the choosing of rice. While Dala Kechuri traditionally and in temples is often made with the native pimpdibaas – a rice so fragrant that is attracts little ants to its aroma and thus the name – any short grain rice that is older than a year seems to be a fine choice.  The reason for older rice is the structure of the kernels are toughened to take not just the initial massaging with ghee, but the slow cooking as well without losing their shape and taste. Both the rice and lentil are soaked for a few hours before the lentils skin is removed by hand, and they are broken into easy to cook pieces. Once strained and dried, the rice and lentil are then massaged with ghee till they are warm to touch and take on a shining glaze.

The cooking warrants the use of more ghee along with bay leaf, cinnamon and clove that are there as character artist to help build on the taste by enhancing the flavours and helping them bind. A significant part of the aroma and balminess of Dala Kechudi comes from the pot it is cooked in, which is called Kudwa and is made from the soft, clay mud that comes from the farmlands closed to the beaches of Puri and is made in Kumarpada – a community that is engaged in making these pots since the 2 century AD. The dish which is cooked with a generous helping of ghee and gets part of its flavour from the sweet, well water of Baripada is finished with locally grown cashew nuts from Kanika town, the largest producer of these kidney shaped delicious nuts.

While it is the taste that makes  Dala Kechudi a gourmand’s absolute delight, the composition of lentil, rice and ghee is what gives it that wellness edge. According to vaids and priests who recommend Dala Kechudi as one of the must-have dishes during Rath Yatra that often falls during monsoons and continues much through the first half when the weather changes drastically, it is this unique combination that not only keeps the stomach and mind cool, but also strengthens the system with required protein, amino acids and repairing agent glutamine that works to keep the circadian rhythm of the body in balance.  Or in traditional wisdom, gives the sluggish agni a boost to help balance the doshas so that the body’s immunity is strong enough to fight against any inflammation or vagaries of monsoon.