People who have watched me, bent over books and bent over, slicing, chopping, dicing a mound of vegetables tell me they can’t tell what I love more. Cooking as well as serious academic research is about the practice of knowing, of understanding elements deeply, of evaluating and the studied appreciation of the syntax of things. Both are also deeply personal. Both involve the act of putting together, of assembling things in a manner that “makes sense”. Bricolage, as Levi Strauss would say. In both instances there are elements that I know more intimately than I do others. Like people perhaps. Some you know like you know yourself, some that are eternally a “work in progress”, and some you just cannot seem decipher. Somewhat like artichoke -too foreign still but intriguing enough for you to persist in knowing. Some that you fall in love with almost instantly, and the fact of never having known anything like them stops to matter. There is just delight that reminds you of your first taste of oysters, its briny water and unknown textures bringing joy and pleasure in equal parts.
When one lives in an uncertain time like the current moment, in a country one didn’t want to be in the first place, amongst people whose “you are so lovely” doesn’t make sense to you, even though they speak the language you speak, remembrance sometimes becomes an act of homage. In the act of remembering and longing for places and people one tends to erase things that were less than. The inherent violence of everyday life, for instance. Or even the cuts to the hand as one wielded the spiked metal scraper-more miniature weapon than a kitchen gadget-as white, soft coconut shavings rained on the newspaper, collecting it in small white mounds.
But there are differences too, and analogies therefore can be tricky intellectual tools. You don’t judge a bitter melon for being bitter-you try to understand its essence and try to work with it, cooking it with things stronger than itself or letting it shine alone, serve it steamed with a dash of lime, a splash of mustard oil- a union that perhaps shouldn’t work, but does. But with people, even as you understand the nature of their very individual suffering, excavating their pain in layers, you sometimes have to remind them of things they don’t want to acknowledge, the privilege they don’t see-privilege of being born the way they were, where they were, privilege they take for granted as they destroy things and people around them. Things that should have been sacred.
Sometimes what was once an act of everyday becomes foreign. You get used to new routines, new ways of life. You realise you have become the shortened name people now call you by. You just don’t respond to it, you identify with it, without realising how this came to be-this transformation you don’t quite remember choosing for yourself. Remembrance then becomes less of an homage but more an act of renewed knowing of the self. Of making sense. You revisit to know. Old books. Old friends. Old loves. Food that was part of your everyday. Not special, not spectacular. Food you ate with your fingers like people you shared a history, a language, a way of living did. You remember the times you scooped a mish mash of rice, vegetables and fish into your mouth after a long day at school, without knowing that one day it would stop being part of your everyday life, that one day you will stop speaking the language you spoke as a child.
I doubt anyone who grew up in Odisha like I did would remember their first taste of dalma. It is not an event like the act of feeding the first morsel of rice is-a celebration of new beginnings. But it is ubiquitous enough to be called khanti Odiya-fully, “100%” Odiya. Some would say that for the more modest pakhala, rice steeped overnight in water, mildly sour because of the fermentation, served in middle class homes like mine with its own unique assortments, or in more humbler settings with just salt and slices of onion-more a food of survival on meagre means-one I have never known or experienced.
There are different versions of the dalma. The abhada, or temple dalma, shorn of onions, garlic and potatoes-the former because they supposedly instigate tamasic urges, urges that need to be contained, domesticated or entirely annihilated based on locations, peoples, or contexts, and the latter because it is bidesi, foreign. The everyday, basic dalma made with potatoes and aubergine, sprinkled with a coarse powder of roasted cumin and red chillies. The Habisa dalma, made every Monday in the month Kartika with roasted yellow lentils, starchy vegetables and crushed ginger, announcing the beginning of winter, austere like the widows clad in white who adhere to punishing rituals throughout the month, rituals you don’t understand.
The first day of Kartika saw many steel containers of dalma from neighbours and extended family spread out on our dining table, waiting to be sampled. My sister however stuck loyally to the one made by my mother. Ama ghara badhiya-our house’s is the best, her retort for any situation that involved having to make a choice of any kind. Why seek out what is unknown when you have the assured comfort of the known, her little self perhaps thought. The first day of Kartika however was also celebration of the exploration of distant lands-lands that were once unknown. One got up early in the morning to float small, colourful paper boats, and boats fashioned out of banana trunks, their skins pierced with thin, glowing sticks of incense, holding tiny earthen lamps floating through the mists in rivers, lakes or temple ponds to mark trade and sea links with Indonesia, a ritual in remembrance one has known only through the telling of stories of a past that has ceased to exist.
Then there is the dalma that sustains through the ten days of mourning when one eats only one meal in a day at dusk, the dalma bereft of the tempering of ghee, cumin and dried red chillies to imply the cessation of everything that is indulgent perhaps. True, dalma is a “medley of lentils and vegetables”, but only certain lentils and certain vegetables. Yellow lentils and essentially starchy vegetables, squash, green plantains, and drumstick. Sometimes all of them together, but mostly two or three. Salt, turmeric, and that very Odiya spice mix of roasted cumin and red chillies. A simple or complex tempering according to one’s taste and a sprinkling of freshly grated coconut. One wouldn’t include broccoli in a dalma for instance, like one wouldn’t add drumstick to a bowl of Bolognese- it disrupts the internal coherence of the dish-like people who don’t belong together or ideas that clash, but would make sense and sparkle in other locations, different settings.
To make dalma you will need
Toor dal-1 cup, rinsed and soaked in water for 2-3 hours
Cubed pumpkin, green plantain, aubergine, drumstick-2-3 cups
Fresh ginger root-1 inch, crushed (not chopped, not paste and certainly not powdered)
Green chilli-1, crushed (just give it a nice little bash with the back of the knife or pestle)
Salt-according to taste
Panch phoron (mix of cumin, nigella, fenugreek, mustard and fennel seeds)-1 teaspoon (optional)
Dried red chilli-3
Cumin seeds-1 teaspoon + 1 for tempering
Freshly grated coconut-a small handful
Ghee-1 tablespoon (don’t substitute it with oil)
First cook the dal with salt, turmeric, ginger, green chilli, asafoetida and panch phoron. Do not add too much water. Just enough to cook the dal. Then add the vegetables, cover and cook till soft. Meanwhile roast the cumin with two dried chillies until fragrant. The cumin should have puffed up and become dark brown by this time. Remove the mix onto a plate, let it cool and then make a coarse powder in a mortar and pestle. Next, heat the ghee in a pan, add the cumin, break the red chilli into two and drop it into the pan. Once the spices splutter and change colour, add to the pan with cooked lentils, cover and let it sit for a few minutes. Sprinkle half a teaspoon of the red chilli-cumin mixture and adjust according to your taste. Add the grated coconut and serve hot with rice, with a side of lime, green chillies and a bit of coarse salt. You can spoon a bit of ghee on top as well.