By Madhulika Dash
Well, congratulation to us! It is a moment of jubilation for any proud Odia to see Odisha finally getting recognised for the culinary ingenuity of creating a sweet that is world renowned. But with rasagola war settled, where does it leave the state that till date obsessively rallied to get the recognition home? Contrary to imagination, this leaves us, at best, in the same situation as Emperor Ashoka after the Kalinga War: with a temporary sense of joy and an overpowering feeling of void.
What now? Is there another dish that can lead on the proverbial intellectual fight between the bhadralok and bhadramanisa? Or, can we talk about a dish that we invented and inspired variations – much like the rasagula or arisa pitha, which has a cousin in Andhra Pradesh called ariselu?
Turns out, there aren’t much choices we have – not at least the ones with the prowess of the syrupy globes of chenna. Of course, we can argue that we have chenna jhilli and chennapodao, which is up for the next GI tag, but in the real world, neither of them holds the fascination let alone the connect of the rasagola.
Clearly, with the war over, we have little to peg the next campaign which would have the same mysticism and passion as rasagola. Now put that against a cuisine that assure Odisha a similar time in the limelight. Now put that thought against the fact that Odia cuisine is one of the oldest food cultures of the Indian culinary matrix and this win almost seems like a wounded victory – one that comes with more hurt than joy. After all, the GI tagging did recognise Odisha as the innovator but extends some of the creative liberty to West Bengal as well, which had the GI tag two years ago for their own version. In all likelihood, the average diner would be rightful in assuming that the rasagulla served piping hot or deliciously cold is from West Bengal.
Then, did Odisha really win this round? In food circle and in academic credibility, yes; but in larger picture, sadly nothing. And for good reason. To begin with not many really know the finer difference between the Odisha and the West Bengal version, and with traditional practices given the boot in favour of the more conducive modern technology, there is a good chance that the favourite sweet will be losing its essence before Odisha can even make a dent in the popular belief. A simple instance to this is that no many of us know what agent is really used in making of the chenna that is served in our temples – is it lemon, whey or fitkari – or the traditional Portuguese vinegar.
Sadly, this ignorance is not only with rasagola but spreads to the rest of the cuisine as well. This when little has changed over the years when it comes to Odiya cuisine, except for the adaption to a few techniques – our mutton dishes are said to be Mughal inspired – and ingredients like tomatoes and potatoes.
So why is it that a culinary brilliance that designed the food culture of Bali and then created the modern-day Calcutta food, including the durga puja bhoj is in such oblivion? Reason us. For most denizens, a proper dalma-bhato may be the meal that defines a good day, but when it comes to showcasing our own food, we shy, even ignore the culinary brilliance. Case in point, our pokhalo.
Yes, we have slotted a day where the picture weaves and wafts the social fabric of instagram and social media, but when it comes to offering the deal, we shyly present the fresh variant of the same, which does little by the way of offering the real taste of Odisha. This under-confidence isn’t limited to Pokhalo but extends to stunning creations like pani santula, besara macho, patrapoda chungri, chuda bhaja and even manja patua.
A telling manifestation of this embarrassment is that in a country where every lesser known cuisine today is setting shop of popularity and recognition, Odisha remains blissfully absent. Result, even the few dishes that make headway through this sheet of shame are attributed to some other state like chakatas to Assam and pitha to Bihar, and arisa pitha to Andhra Pradesh. And the rest to Calcutta of course.
Undoubtedly, the case is now to promote Oriya cuisine – and in all earnest. Else, we may just lose everything to the larger success of Bengali cuisine, and more recently Assamese.