Habisa Dalma: Food For The Soul

I was nicknamed bilayee (Odia for cat) when I was little. Going two days without meat was almost agonising. I disliked most vegetarian dishes with a passion unless they were served with a helping of non vegetarian food. My worst nightmare was dalma, – a lentil dish, which is a cross between its more popular cousin daal and a stew. But one November, sniffing around the kitchen as was my wont, I saw my mother arrange a lunch platter for my grandmother – a mound of long grained rice at the centre surrounded by a panoply of sides perfumed with clarified butter.

I followed my mother as she made her way out of the kitchen and served it to my grandmother. My grandmother dipped a lump of rice into a bowl and shoved a morsel into my mouth. I still associate the smell of ghee-soaked white rice with the excitement I felt every time my grandparents were over. “Eat it!” she said with an emphatic tone.

“It’s habisa dalma, for the soul.” My six year old self was surprised to notice how different the lentil soup tasted from the one I had grown to dread. It was obvious that this one did not have turmeric. But that could not have made such a difference in taste. And so I listened to my grandmother as she detailed the difference and relished her bites, taking small pauses in between. I took note of the ingredients and nodded on.

Habisa is the meal consumed by Odia Hindus during the holy month of Kartika. While most Odias prepare it every so often, it is a customary meal for Habisyalis – elderly widows who consume such food only once every day through the fasting month. The latter also embark on a journey to Puri’s Jagannath Temple to taste the sanctified mahaprasada and observe religious rituals in the land of the Lord. Habisa dalma is a key component of their diet. It is a concoction of yellow mung beans and root vegetables forming a delicious balance of sweet and savoury flavours. Onions and garlic are proscribed, and the list of vegetables that can go into a dish may seem too prescriptive. But for habisyalis, it is a means to connect with the holy. The food is also surprisingly enjoyable – not in a way that leaves a thrilling sensation in the mouth, but like the satisfaction that lingers long after you have finished your meal. The combination of ingredients is simply genius. The lentil is toasted before being pressure cooked with the vegetables. A smattering of ginger gives it a slightly piquant aroma. The mixture is then tempered with whole spices fluttering about in ghee.

My grandmother usually dabs her habisa dalma with small balls of rice and follows it up with a chutney made with elephant apples. On other days she fancies eating mahura, a speciality prepared for Lord Jagannath and his devotees. Mahura is a stew made from pumpkin, yam, and green beans. It is served with a generous topping of grated coconut, which gives it its distinctive creamy texture, and bari (crunchy sun-dried dumplings made with black grams). That day, looking over my grandmother’s plate with fascination as she rambled on and fed me portions of her food from time to time, I tried something new regardless of my negative presuppositions. It was food for the soul indeed. Ascetic, but pleasing to the senses nonetheless.

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