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Ambila and an Array of Sour, Sweet, Tang in Odia Cooking


In spring 2023, I wrote an essay, Sour Things in an Odia Kitchen and My Mother's Machcha Ambila on the Goya Journal, elaborating the culinary techniques and regional contexts behind an entire genre of dishes from Odisha in the sour, sweet-sour and tangy flavour profiles. The essay also includes my family recipe for a delectable fish in sour and sweet sauce, 'machcha ambila', a specialty of the Ganjam district in Odisha. There's also a vegetarian counterpart to this fish recipe, 'phala ambila', which my husband enjoys a lot.


The machcha and phala ambila are apt dishes to share as part of the series Poles Apart, food that I often cook as a pair for myself and my husband who have different choices in terms of eating meat. The broth for both is essentially the same, a tamarind, turmeric and jaggery ensemble that simmers for some time before being tempered with spices.




Ambila, Kanji and Khatta


Ambila is a blanket term in Odia cuisine for soupy dishes that taste tangy, a flavour which is difficult to delineate like umami. It’s a bit sour with a hint of sweetness and a mild saltiness that you cannot quite tell. With the right seasoning, it lingers in your mouth and keeps you coming back for more like South Indian rasams or chaarus, and sometimes even moru curries.


The recipes for ambilas are highly adaptable owing to every family’s modus operandi but the broth is always the fulcrum of the dish. To finish off, a tadka with two or more of these ingredients, mustard seeds or pancha phutana, garlic, curry leaves and dry red chillies is done.



Phala Ambila



My parents belong to Berhampur in Ganjam, and a vegetarian ambila is called phala ambila in Ganjam. It is made with vegetables like eggplant, taro, pumpkin, and radish, simmered in a sour sweet broth.


As spring continues to evade us here, my mind wonders into my childhood...We are getting into the thick of winter. I have been awakened by the sounds emanating from the kitchen, and my mother's pace tells me she is in the midst of heavy prepping for the Thursday Laxmi puja. There will be four iterations of the puja through the month, and a plate of umpteen goodies to eat every time this I know. But that's not the exciting part. I must narrate the backgrounder before I write further.


On Prathamastami, when my elder sisters being the firstborns the cynosure of the ritual — got the better of everything, new clothes, bandapana, pitha, bhoga, I quipped why there wasn't such a tradition for the youngest lot of the family. To appease a 5 year old, mother promised me of a Kanisthapurnami. It will take another 5 years to realize, there's no such thing, and how mother chose one of the iterations of the manabasa gurubar, close enough to Prathamastami, to treat me to something extra for being kanistha, or the youngest!


While the offerings would vary each Thursday from kanika, dahi pakhala, khechudi, dalma, sagaw bhaja, kheeri in the day to kakara, seejha monda, gaintha, bara and chakuli in the evening, one thing was constant, phala ambila. As I grew up, the charm of the make belief Kanisthapurnami faded for me but the joy of relishing a bowl of that rustic 'gurubariya' (related to Thursday) ambila, only grew and became one of my fondest food memories. So, throughout winter on every Thursday, I would rush to the kitchen and find a pot of phala ambila simmering away, smelling of tamarind, curry leaves and pancha phutana, enriched with the profusion of the winter produce. If the day turned out to be a holiday, I would be impatient for the puja to be over, so that a portion could be served. And, if it was a regular school day, I could not wait to get back home!


There's no dearth of ambilas, kanjis and khattas in Odia cuisine but the ambila made specifically on the occasion of manabasa gurubar hit differently. I would ask for extra baras and dip them into the ambila before gulping them up, a practice and pairing I discovered on my own. Unlike my sisters, I cared less for the kakara and monda. What excited me was the subtle roundedness of flavours in the ambila and the faint hint of sweetness in the bara, and the fact that my mother made both of these in excess just for me.


Machcha Ambila




My family's treasured machcha ambila is a slight deviation from the usual recipes. The Purohit household, my maternal home, was teeming with school-going children in the 1950s-60s. My mother and her siblings walked a distance to school which meant lunch at 8 a.m. The staple fish and rice were a no-brainer to keep tummies full for the journey, and machcha ambila omitting elaborate chopping and grinding, easily fit the bill. Garlic and curry leaves were skipped for simplicity although curry leaves were retained in the vegetarian phala ambila. 


“There isn’t much to it,” my mother says when I ask for details. But I am hungry, eager, and most importantly, pregnant, utterly craving machcha ambila. I pester for the deal breaker — exact proportions of tamarind and jaggery which needs some experience to master. “Don’t marinate the fish, and remember julienned onions are necessary for texture” — her repeated instructions. She remembers her grandmother stirring the broth in the kitchen, the heady aroma, and the sight of freshly caught rohu while chewing tooth wood early morning. A dekchi of rice inverted to gather starchy water for a batch of torani kanji. She paints the picture of dried broken red chilies dancing in hot oil until plump, a sputtering of pancha phutana crackling in haste. A light stir, the onions go next. The fish follows, borrowing some of the rusty shades. Not too long, and the tamarind-jaggery broth drowns everything. This humdrum of machcha ambila is unfaded in mother’s recollections. I have eaten it for three decades now — with fingers drenched in thinnish gravy and rice — and still can’t stop at one serving.



 

Recipes


Phala/Pariba Ambila (Vegetarian)


Ingredients

3 cups of chopped vegetables like taro, eggplant, pumpkin, okra, radish and sweet potato


For the broth

  • A ball of tamarind (size of a medium to large lime)

  • ½ tsp turmeric

  • 1-1 ½ tsp jaggery (will depend on the variety of jaggery)


For the tadka

  • 1 tbsp oil (preferably one that does not have a strong flavour or aroma)

  • 2 dry red chilies

  • 1 tsp pancha phutana (mix of equal parts mustard, cumin, fenugreek, fennel and nigella seeds)

  • 5-10 curry leaves

  • Salt to taste 


Method 

  1. Soak the tamarind ball in water and extract the pulp.

  2. In a tall pot, add the chopped taro, pumpkin, radish and sweet potato along with 2-3 cups of water and salt, and bring to boil. Add the extracted tamarind pulp and turmeric and continue boiling the water on medium heat.

  3. In a pan, add some oil and stir fry the okra and eggplant for a couple of minutes, and then add to the other vegetables in the pot. Add 1/2 tsp jaggery and stir to mix. Taste and add more to adjust. It should taste sour with hints of sweetness. Boil for 4-5 minutes or until the vegetables are cooked but hold their shape, take off the heat and keep aside.

  4. To prepare tadka, heat oil in a pan. Add dry red chilies, pancha phutana and curry leaves in the order described, and let them sizzle. Immediately pour the tadka over the vegetables in the broth in the pot. Cover to retain the aroma.

  5. Open the pot after a few seconds and stir gently. Cover and keep aside after taking off the heat until serving.


Serve with hot steamed rice.



 

Machcha Ambila (Fish)

First posted on the Goya Journal


Ingredients

4-5 pieces of freshwater fish like rohu or catla


For the broth

  • A ball of tamarind (size of a medium to large lime)

  • ½ tsp turmeric

  • 1-1 ½ tsp jaggery (will depend on the variety of jaggery)


For the gravy

  • 1 onion (medium size)


For the tadka

  • 1 tbsp oil (preferably one that does not have a strong flavour or aroma)

  • 2 dry red chilies1 tsp pancha phutana (mix of equal parts mustard, cumin, fenugreek, fennel and nigella seeds)

  • Salt to taste 


Method 

  1. Wash and clean the fish. Keep aside.

  2. Julienne the onion. Soak the tamarind ball in water and extract the pulp.

  3. In a tall pot, add 2-3 cups of water and bring to boil. Add the extracted tamarind pulp and turmeric and continue boiling the water for 2-3 minutes. Add 1/2 tsp jaggery and stir to mix. Taste and add more to adjust. It should taste sour with hints of sweetness. Boil for 3-4 minutes more, take off the heat and keep aside.

  4. In a heavy bottom skillet or wok, heat oil. Once hot, add dry red chilies, pancha phutana and onions in the order described. Stir and brown the onion slices.

  5. Add the pieces of fish and fry on one side for 2-3 minutes and then turn around to fry the other side for 2-3 minutes as well. Let the fish get a mild crisp brown colour.

  6. Add the prepared broth and then add salt to taste. Stir gently and give a light shake to the skillet or wok without disturbing the fish too much.

  7. Cover and keep aside after taking off the heat to allow the fish to absorb the flavours.


Serve with hot steamed rice.




 


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