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The aroma of Orissa

This week RAHUL VERMA experiences how a closed door can lead to an open heart!

I had just been thrown out of Karnataka Bhawan (the canteen is only for VIPs, I was told) - and I was wondering what to do for lunch. I was driving around that arc where state guesthouses are located, and my stomach was sending me strong signals. So I stopped in front of Orissa Niwas. I was wondering if I'd meet a similar fate there when I saw a welcoming board just outside: everybody is welcome, it said. Orissa Niwas is on Gopinath Bordoloi Marg, behind the Chankyapuri police station. We used to go there often many years ago when my friend's father was the governor of Orissa. I think the last time I was there was when a huge consignment of fresh-water prawns had respectfully been escorted from Orissa to Delhi. But that's another story. The canteen at Orissa Niwas is quite impressive. The name is pretty imposing too. It's called Maurya Garden.

I have had all kinds of cuisine, but I have to admit that my forays into Orissa's food have been limited. I never gave much thought to it, but one thali later, I have been thinking about nothing but that.

The options

First, let me tell you what my special thali consisted of. I had rice, arhar dal, baingan bharta, bodi chura, karela masala, saag, mixed vegetables, aloo-lauki, raita and kheer. I had also asked for fishbesar - or fish curry. The entire thing, with all the add-ons, came for Rs.80. Now let me tell you something about the food. Oriya food is superb. It's not heavy, nor full of spices and oil. Cooked lightly, every dish had its own subtle taste, and I, for one, didn't miss the overwhelming flavour of onion-garlic-tomato that drowns the taste of every vegetable. In Oriya food, even turmeric is used sparingly. And red chilli was hardly used at all, though there were sharp green chillies in some of the dishes.

The bodi chura is a crispy side dish of ground and fried dal. You can mix your rice with dal and sprinkle this on top - and you'll not ask for anything else. The baingan bharta was, again, vastly different from the kind you get in the North. The eggplant had been roasted, and then lightly mixed with onion, green chillies and mustard oil. The saag, cooked again with bodi, was tasty, and I just loved the mixed vegetables - consisting of broad beans, potatoes and some other greens.

The fish was so lightly cooked that it left me feeling good. I had two fair-sized pieces of rahu, cooked in a coriander-garnished gravy.

The kheer at the end of the meal was not the thick creamy kind you generally get to eat, but light and even somewhat watery. But I found it delightful. I left Orissa Niwas thinking good things about the people of Orissa. And when I went past Karnataka Bhawan, I quietly thanked them: one closed door, I told myself, led me to an open door and an open heart.

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