Dalma, undeniably Odisha’s first cuisine branded food enterprise, is trailblazing. Megadiverse but grossly understated, Odisha’s cuisine suffered perennial anonymity. Dalma chain promoted by Deboo Patnaik, took up the cudgel and catered to Odia finedining almost with a missionary zeal.
This food business was not based only on DPR & balance sheet but a deep-running sense of advocating the Odia ‘exoticism’.
I know him since long and relate to his restlessness in getting Odia sensibilities out of the closet. Quite in a hurry to unfold world’s ‘best kept secret’, the ubiquitous Dalma’s Odia Thali dished out at Bhubaneswar, Bangalore, Delhi has snowballed into a rallying point for the Odia diaspora, the NROs. I would hope, with more patronage, it changes colour and temperament soon, to be a rendezvous — adding fun food to the menu, besides the sumptuous and the true-blue main course spread.
Two decades of gutsy food enterprise, debuting on home ground, wading through the cynicism of low-stock Odia cuisine, has been racy and risky adventure I am sure. In 20 years, sensitising hordes of regulators, patrons and concurrently building a brand which carries the responsibility of co-travelling with a state’s visibility must have left the populariser wiser, but expectedly a tad exhausted.
Quite a zealot, this first-generation entrepreneur (businessman in Odia parlance). Yet, he is raring to take Odia machcha (fish), potala bhaja (parval fry), chingudi (prawns), chhena mitha (cottage cheese desserts) in their unique, resplendent glory across India and overseas.
The fruit of labour dollops on a busy afternoon, Dalma serving au khata with machcha bhaja, Odias (both resident and non-resident) licking on to the last drop of spice quite in disbelief that they are actually getting to eat an ‘Odia’ lunch.
Traditional Odia cooking is fast disappearing and Dalma chain of restaurants is the repository of Odia romance, which begins with food. In all these 20 years, Odia music is still playing at the Dalma dining. The bulging middle-class and the ever-increasing number of Odia youths and young professionals have this niche Odia restaurant to flaunt. I would not know whether it’s soon added to the list of being an attractive watering hole with Odia starters (chakhana). It should, if it has not yet.
Odia cuisine, though seacoast influenced but not wholly, is so much different from the rest of coastal preparations in India. It stands singularly unique, healthy, and yet not bland. In Odisha, the diversity of food habits, norms and preferences is mind-boggling. Every district has its specialities.
Odia food habit’s journey is a bit special. We know and experience that humans’ relationships to food are continuing to change as societies change and develop new technologies, take on new social and environmental shifts, and ensample evolving tastes and trends. Looking for typical Odisha food outside Odia home was a space discovered, studied and modelled sustainably by Dalma.
I have heard many sceptics miffed and bewildered – “why on earth is Dalma restaurant giving Odia food to Odias in Odisha? Who will eat all of that?” This is exactly how Dalma brought in the newness of Odia finedining. Taking culture for granted and paying for cultural experience, albeit one’s own, are two different worlds altogether. Odia food was and is still available in shacks in Bhubaneswar, Kolkata, Bangalore (Nana hotels) and they are authentic and widely affordable. But Odia food was not Udupi, Maharashtra Bhawan, Sarvana Bhawan, Oh Calcutta, Andhra canteen or Rajasthali. Dalma has become the signpost of Odia food, served in Odia ambience amidst constant benchmarking (read comparisons) against the Odia mother’s culinary standards.
This brought out Odia food to cities, exposed non-Odia foodies to Odia spreads and I am sure got unconverging marriage liaisons between states and cultures bonded more positively. Food is a great leveller and the greatest non-political negotiator. Dalma was an idea whose time had come, about a couple of decades ago. The idea has geared up archetypical Odia reticence to flourish the great Odia cuisine which is one among the nouvelle cuisines of the world, but always downplayed and kept in the shadows.
Dalma is the Odia club ushering non-Odia friends of Odia diaspora, with Odia pride. Over the years, the subtle Odia style has gathered strength and a definition. It’s still subtle but acknowledged as ‘uniquely’ subtle.
Dalma chain’s contribution to Odia ‘culture footprint’ is visible not only in Odisha but elsewhere. Palpable is the way the centrality of Odia food for Odias has been extroverted. Many of my friends from the culturati rave about Odia food, courtesy Dalma, which was their initiation to the cuisine. We invite them for home-cooked food and that has been on for years, but Odia finedining is a different socio-cultural affair. Milling around Odia food certainly helps create an Odia-phile commune, place agnostic.
Now I would like to see bars in Dalma restaurants, at a few select locations (as resto-pubs) maybe. In Odisha alcohol serving comes with extremely creative concoctions, city-wise. Every city drinks its liquor (hard liquor) in a specific way. This is more retro than current.
Dalma bars should have retro drinks menu of Odisha. For example, in Cuttack the strongest of whiskeys was mellowed down, those days, with delicious mixes consisting of nimbu pani or sugarcane juice or even narangi juice (orange). Strange, but with Chicken loose (I bet you have never heard of this if you haven’t been to Noni’s at Manglabag in the swaying 80s-90s), an almost 70-80 ml peg (almost, because while serving it is intended to make the measure overflow a little) can be drowned with chivalry.
Dalma has the character to capture and sustain the antiquity of Odisha along with dynamic trending. They are not antediluvian or idiosyncratic if we know how to celebrate them in present times and Dalma has been the spot for celebration – of Odia cordon bleu.
As a start-up, much before the term’s birth, Dalma has been a venture which has carried on, expanded, and is engaging more local youths in its family. A great opportunity lies ahead. So far it has served its way to bring people together, to share in others’ cultures, experience a taste of familiarity and comfort, and try something known and yet afresh. Sometimes unknown too.
I am sure Odia food or culture never aims at cultural appropriation and, hence, going forward Dalma could make regional or climate themed food its metier. For example, cuisine of the indigenous communities in east India or Odia Chinese (Chinese preparations in Berhampur would blow you away and even our Chinese friends) style or Tibetian fusion with Odia (influence of Tibetians settled in Odisha/AP).
Till 90s, change had not hit Odisha so big. Now Odisha is one of the fastest-changing landscapes and culturescapes in India. With youth majority, we have to keep innovating our methods of alerting them through apt curation of culture. Food is the dearest of modes. It can be both private and communal and has un-denying mass pull.
Dalma, in the next 20 years, should spread Odia-ness in different corners of the globe, further mainstream Odia cuisine (along with Mexican, Vietnamese, French, Punjabi) and provide an Odia joint.
You and I, ardent Jagannath worshippers, would like to believe that the Dalma promoter has hypothesized Anna Brahma in his business model. In Odisha, food is an unbelievably emotional mainstay of day-to-day life. That explains the Lord of the Cosmos, Jagannath, being referred to as the Anna Brahma (Lord of Food). Dalma is the marquee delicacy of the Lord, and the Dalma recipe of Puri is exclusive. It is an assortment of vegetables and is integral in Chappan Bhog (56 variety’s menu of the Lord) served in Puri temple. Dalma, the savoury, is the miscellany of nutrients, ingredients, cuisines, traditions.
Dalma chain of finedining eateries of Odisha is the melting pot – an eclectic mix, widely based on regional produce, traditions, and peculiarities.
Let Dalma’s pot grow and flow.