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Thursday, November 11, 2021

The Winter Vegetables of Odisha : A Recce of the local Haat







I walked into the crowds. The hiatus had been longer than anticipated. The feeling of venturing into alien territory gripped me at first. I stumbled blindly for the first few meters before I started picking out the shapes. Just as the eyes get accustomed to the darkness when one enters a dark room. I found myself seeking out familiar faces in the crowd. Perhaps it mirrored my own need to be recognized. By the old lady who stocked my favorite greens and tried to offload her entire stash on me. Or the man who was sometimes accompanied by his son who happened to be a little older than my own. I failed to spot either of them. Did she find someone as gullible as me ? How is the boy coping up with the online classes ? Questions flocked to me. The answers were nowhere in sight.


Getting back to the local 'haat' after all these weeks felt nothing to like a homecoming. The crowd was thinner than usual. The shops fewer in number. The only thing that had not changed was the freshness of the vegetables. Mostly sourced from the local farmers, the 'haat' had the most glorious winter produce on display. Greens dominated the scene with generous pools of white. Reds, pinks and purples stood out rather conspicuously . The browns were sadly stashed behind or occupied the fringes reflecting our general apathy of these vegetables that are lumped under the category of 'alu', 'kanda' or 'saru'. These fall into the unenviable category of the 'character actors' who prop up the screenplay but remain unsung. Odia cuisine makes ample use of these 'underground' vegetables but at the same time it is not entirely difficult to conjure up an Odia meal without them. Hence they remain unseen. Just like they have been for the most of their lives. 

There is no Odia equivalent of 'Arbi ki subzi' or 'Yam Kulambu'. Neither a 'shakkarkandi halwa' for that matter. For these vegetables add body, texture and even sweetness to numerous dishes like Ghanta, Santula, Dalma and Besara but lose either own identity in the ensuing medley. A rare Khatta or Bhaja is just not enough to redeem their stature. But isn't this unassuming characteristic the very hallmark of Odia cuisine ? This coming together of elements to assume a collective identity that is more than the sum of its individual components is what sets us apart. Don't you agree ?

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