Odisha Tech Entrepreneur’s Cookbook ‘Beyond Dalma’ Delves Into Sustainable Eating

Bhubaneswar: Not every day do we come across a ‘cookbook’ that revels in the mundane! Odisha-born tech entrepreneur, Sweta Biswal’s book ‘Beyond Dalma’ has no indulgent recipes carried forth by erstwhile royalties or those that originated in the temple kitchens. It neither seeks to exploit the state’s exotic tribal cuisines. The unique selling proposition of the book is that it has simple yet unique everyday recipes cooked in Odia households.

The author has navigated beyond the known recipes– rasagola, chhenapoda, dahibara alu dum, and rasabali directing her focus on the kind of food that binds families together and connects people to their roots. The book is a natural extension of the dishes showcased on her Instagram handle ‘Odisha On My Plate’ celebrating Odia food in its purest form.

Many small and big occasions and recipes that dot the agricultural year are mentioned in the book, which has been divided into 12 sections coinciding with the 12 months of the Odia calendar.

In a freewheeling conversation with Odisha Bytes, the author spoke about how the idiom ‘Bara Masa Tera Parba’ has been brought forth insightfully in the book making it relatable and relevant for Odias.

Why did the name ‘Beyond Dalma’ appeal to you?

While many readers have assumed that the name signifies greater inclusion and aims to highlight the diversity of the state’s cuisine, not many are aware of my connection with this wholesome dish prepared in most coastal homes of Odisha on an everyday basis. Hailing from western Odisha and having spent a major part of my life there, this dish brought a paradigm shift in my life after marriage. It was the first thing I learned to cook in my marital home. Marriage served as the catalyst leading me to embrace Odisha’s culinary diversity and also galvanised my journey towards documenting it.

Also, dalma is one of the few Odia dishes recognised by people outside the state. While living in Hyderabad, I had a barter system with my neighbour. Every bowl of food that came from their home had to be reciprocated with a bowl of piping hot freshly made dalma right on time for dinner. So, I did have a fair share of memories binding me with dalma and hence the name.

Tell us more about the recipes in the book and the seasonality aspect

As the name suggests, the book showcases the culinary diversity of various regions of the state. Most of the recipes in the book are from western Odisha as I was exposed to those dishes during my childhood and I can relate to them more organically. With the introduction of modern farming and migration of people to other cities, many of these dishes are slowly phasing out leading to a disconnect between current generation and traditional recipes that were popular even a few decades ago.

So, along with the recipes, I have also tried to include the context or stories that revolve around the dishes. For example, jhiliya, a rice noodle cooked in sugarcane juice, was generally made during the sugarcane harvest season but has almost disappeared from most homes. The usage of chara manji or charoli seeds for making muan, laddoo, etc. has also gone down drastically. Similarly, the practice of making niya sukhua, a kind of smoked and preserved fish, is slowly fading away as the traditional paddy-fish ecosystems make way for heavy usage of fertilisers and pesticides to boost yields.

The seasonality aspect comes from the usage of ingredients that are primarily found around that time of the year. Beyond Dalma focuses minutely on sticking to the agricultural calendar and curating the dishes for a given month. One of the biggest fallouts of commercial-scale agriculture is the loss of diversity in our everyday menu. The over-dependence on a few vegetables is edging out the ones that show up only for a few weeks in a year. What we have chosen to overlook is the fact that the human body undergoes many transitions along with seasons, and certain essential nutrients are required to keep it earthed. Seasonal ingredients provide the much-needed macro-nutrients in the desired quantity when one sticks to the recipes or concoctions perfected by generations of women.

Are the recipes specific to a month or season or they can be consumed at any other time of the year?

The recipes revolve around stories, festivals, and local produce of the region during a specific month with a buffer of a month or two on either side. They are sustainable and align with the body’s ‘nutraceutical’ requirements during that time of the year.

One may choose to cook any recipe at any time of the year but then it will more be in line with the supermarket shelves and not with Mother Nature’s basket of offers. It also means that one tends to lose out on capitalising on the benefits associated with eating seasonal foods.

What does one gain by sticking to these traditional ways of eating? 

The cuisine of a region is shaped by centuries of intrinsic knowledge of local flora and fauna, and the various influences sweeping through the region. Local dishes are usually cooked from locally sourced ingredients. That reduces their carbon footprint. Additionally, the ingredients are ‘in-season’, which makes them more nutritious when compared to off-season vegetables produced using artificial fertilisers and insecticides.

Also, the wisdom behind traditional dishes is much more nuanced than general perception. It is not just primary ingredients but the ones added in minute quantities that affect the overall ‘guna’ (quality) of the preparation. For example, in the earlier days, aromatic agents like ginger, black pepper, and fennel seeds were added to various kinds of pitha and other sweet dishes to aid the digestion of these foods. Our ancestors clearly understood that certain root vegetables like Taro need to be paired with warming spices like black pepper or ginger to balance their kapha-inducing properties. They meticulously calculated various such combinations. Even today, we can discern these patterns in our recipes. But sadly, we have failed to leverage those to uplift our well-being.

What makes Beyond Dalma different from other cookbooks?

Beyond Dalma is more than a cookbook. It is a guide to nudge one on a journey of greater awareness. It has been curated in a manner that one embraces sustainability and keeps coming back to it month after month to understand and align one’s eating habits with changing seasons.

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