I usually fight shy of writing anything in the realm of religion except when it's linked with food. Hailing from a Hindu family where religious devotion towards deities is nurtured, I didn't grow up to embrace the dogmas fully. However, what continued to intrigue my restless mind is how food was and continues to be inherently tied in the rituals associated with religion.
I have clear memories from my childhood home(s), an altar was raised in the northeast corner of the house where idols were adorned, bathed, fed and prayed everyday. Over thirty years, I have watched my mother light a lamp at the altar and place an offering of food or bhog in brass ware. On an ordinary day the bhog would be simple like raw and uncut fruits, misri (crystallized sugar lumps) or jaggery while a festival or a special occasion would find her stirring up grains, pulses and even vegetables without any onions and garlic, served along with a batch of sweet treats. The plethora of non onion-garlic preparations for a bhog often included this delicacy, Ram Rochak Tarkari — potatoes and eggplants cooked in earthy and fragrant spices to form a thin gravy, topped with fried dumplings called muga bara made of mung beans — a recipe inspired from a temple kitchen in Odisha.
The Odia word tarkari translates to gravy — mélange of vegetables cooked in a broth which the western world would best describe as a curry. Ram Rochak on the other hand translates to something that is delightful to a person named Ram. Whether the reference of Ram is a subtle hint towards the Hindu god, Lord Ram or to the chef at the temple who was perhaps named Ram is a matter of speculation. I do not have the sources who could resolve the dubiety behind the name. The perfectionist in me isn't happy with this oblivion but I'd give it a shot to best explain what I know.
To write about food and religion and not attract attention is perhaps implausible in the present day world, and writing about Ram Rochak Tarkari behests putting on kid gloves. My association with this bhog from the Haribaldev temple at the small town of Baripada in the state of Odisha in India is rather epicurean.
The initial years of my childhood were spent in the quaint town of Baripada, resonant in the sounds of the babbling Budhabalanga river, winds swaying past the wilderness of Shimlipal hills, harboring the temple architectures of the 15th and 16th centuries. East India Company's Major James Rennell's famous atlas recorded this ancient Odia town as Burpuddah in the 1779 edition.
Typically served with a porridge-like rice and green gram preparation called, Dala Khechudi, Ram Rochak is offered as bhog during the Rath Yatra or chariot festival at the Haribaladev and Gauranga temples, homes to the favourite god of Odisha, Lord Jagannath, an incarnation of Lord Krishna along with his brother Balaram and sister Subhadra. The acclaimed Jagannath temple at Puri, also called Srimandira, is believed to be the prime home of the brothers-sisters trio. While all these temples worship Lord Jagannath, some traditions and practices differ, like the Ram Rochak Tarkari which is unlike any other preparation for Jagannath bhog in most temples of Odisha.
The temple kitchen in Puri, rosaghara, strictly prohibits the use of non-indigenous vegetables such as potatoes and tomatoes, along with many others, in the making of bhog, referred as mahaprasad. The Ram Rochak from the Haribaldev and Gauranga temples was also largely bereft of potatoes, and was offered as Muga Bara Tarkari back in the days.
Ram Rochak, which is rich in protein, due to the green gram dumplings, is served with another preparation Dala Khechudi, which also contains green gram with rice. This inclination towards plant based proteins is mappable to the Bhakti movement that emerged in Baripada with Chaitanaya Mahaprabhu and the Panchasakha, similar to the favoring for dal in Bengal instead of fish through Vaishnavism and Chaitanya Bhakti movement, during the medieval period.
In an elaborate article, Rath Yatra foods: Ramrochak Tarkari and Dala Kechuri by Madhulika Dash, researcher Satwik Mahapatra mentions, with the change in thought process towards religion, eggplants most likely got introduced into Ram Rochak along with the muga bara, an upshot of the Bhakti movement again. The article further mentions,
“Since then,” says Debabrata Praharaj, a fourth generation priest at the Gauranga temple, “Ramrochak Tarkari has been served with eggplant. It later saw the addition of potatoes (evolved around the neo-Vaishnavism phase), a produce that is still banned from most temple kitchens in the state. But for the Chaitanya temple, the tarkari remains a representation of the early teachings of the Vaishnav cult that believed in equality and inclusion, and encouraged people to bond over common shared interests such as views and food. And thus, needed it to be all inclusive.”
Odia cuisine is as much influenced by temple kitchen cooking styles as by the agriculture and local customs and cultures. Home kitchens seem to have borrowed elements from the temple kitchens' modus operandi and added their personal touch to many dishes like dalma, ghanta and even this little known Ram Rochak. In homestyle preparations, you will often find potatoes and eggplants.
The use of the variety of spices is limited in a temple kitchen — seems illusory when you think of the heterogeneity of the spread that is cooked and served to the gods and goddesses and thousands of people. Red chili, ready made or pre-made seasonings and blended curry pastes are not allowed while they are handy in a home kitchen. This push-pull of sorts has yielded dishes in the Odia cuisine that are humble to look at the surface but bursting with flavours in every bite.
My memories of Ram Rochak evoke memories of that home in Baripada where I played made-up games at the veranda as I waited for Singh uncle (our chauffeur) to show up with his jeep, my mother scuttling behind me to put morsels in my mouth and my father tugging my hand to kiss me goodbye as he went to work, promising to get food from the Haribaldev temple at lunch. Memory is a wicked game I feel sometimes, the closer I drift towards it impelling my mind to recall, the hazier it becomes. What a paradox! Thanks to food that I cook from my memories, tugging to pure bliss that's rendered, the stretch between what was and what I remember tends to dilute a bit.
What about this recipe?
This recipe is along the lines of the Ram Rochak Tarkari prepared in the Haribaladev and Gauranga temples in Baripada but not a strict replication of the temple bhog. I have used dry red chili in the tempering which is perhaps not done in the temple-cooking. Many families in Odisha who are aware of the Ram Rochak Tarkari add their personal touch to this preparation, and this recipe thus has some obvious variations.
Eggplants are native to India, and the green coloured eggplants that I have used in this recipe are commonly available in Asia. I was lucky to find them in the supermarket in Whitehorse, labelled as Thailand Eggplants! You can make them with the regular purple coloured eggplants too.
Although potatoes are not used in many temple kitchens in Odisha, Ram Rochak includes it. I do not peel the potatoes for this recipe as that's how my mother made them. I have made the recipe with the potatoes' skin off too, but I like this version more.
Keep the potatoes and eggplants cubes large and chunky and cook them tender but not mushy. Odia cuisine uses a lot of vegetables which cook faster such as eggplants, pumpkins, ash gourds, raw papaya, plantain and more. However, the vegetables retain their shape after cooking as well. You can ensure this if you cover the dish intermittently and not turn the vegetables too much with the spatula.
A key ingredient in Ram Rochak is the mung bean dumpling or bara. Some recipes use one part mung bean (green gram with its skin on) and one part moong dal (green gram with its skin removed). However, I make it with it mung beans alone as I like its texture and taste better. Ensure that you soak the mung beans well and make a thick batter when you grind the beans. A thin batter will not yield the dumplings! Remember we're not making crepes or pancakes, but dumplings that would be fried.
For the dumplings:
1 cup Mung beans soaked for at least 3 hours
2 green chilies
1/2 inch ginger
Salt to taste
For the gravy:
2 medium or 3-4 small eggplants cubed large
3 medium potatoes cubed large
Masala paste: 1/2 tsp cumin, 3-5 peppercorns, 1/2 inch ginger
1 bay leaf
1 dry red chilli
1/4 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp mustard seeds
1/4 tsp asafoetida
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp red chilli powder
2 tbsp oil
1/2 tsp ghee (optional)
Prepare the dumplings:
Wash the soaked mung beans.
Add ginger and green chilies, and make a thick paste or batter in a blender using minimum water. Note: Do not add too much water to make the batter. Start with two teaspoons of water and then add more if needed. The consistency of the batter should not be runny.
Take the paste out of the blender, add salt and mix well.
Heat oil in a wok or kadai, and add spoonfuls of the mung bean paste to make the hot oil.
Let the dumplings turn golden brown on one side and then turn to fry on the other side. Fry until the dumplings are cooked and fried well, and then keep aside.
Make the masala paste for the gravy:
Make a coarse runny paste and keep aside.
Make the gravy
In the same kadai or wok, heat oil and then add bay leaf, dry red chilli, cumin and mustard and let everything crackle.
Add asafoetida and sauté everything for a couple of seconds without burning anything.
Add the ground masala paste and continue sautéing for about a minute. Add the red chilli powder and turmeric and sauté again for a few seconds, and then add few spoons of water.
Cook the masala for about 2-3 minutes or until the water starts to evaporate and the raw smell of the ingredients disappears. At this time, add the potatoes and sauté for another two minutes to let the potatoes get coated well in the masala.
Add some salt, mix well and then add about 2-3 cups of water.Cover and cook for about 3-4 minutes on medium heat.
Open and increase the heat to high. Add the eggplants, mix and then cover again. Cook for about 3 minutes on medium heat.
Open and check the doneness of the vegetables, and if they seem cooked, add the fried mung bean dumplings. Note: Ensure that the vegetables are tender and cooked, and only then add the dumplings.
Mix everything well, and add more water at this stage if required. Adjust salt. Cover and cook for 4-5 minutes on medium heat. Once done, turn off the heat.
(Optional) Open, add ghee and quickly cover the wok/kadai for a few seconds to let the fragrance of the ghee seep into the gravy. Turn off the heat.
The Ram Rochak is ready for serving! Enjoy it with the classic Dala Khechudi or plain hot rice or chapatis.
If you enjoyed making this recipe, don't hesitate to drop in your comments or tag me in Instagram! I love hearing from people how they liked my recipe!