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Sorisa Bata, Besara and a Symphony of Dishes



In the previous post, we familiarized ourselves with the concept of the mustard based spice paste in both Odia and Bengali cuisines, and understood how a single masala paste can be coated onto a variety of ingredients, which are then wrapped up in leaves and just roasted or steamed as-is to cook some wholesome dishes.


Through this post, I want to deep dive into the Odia version of the mustard paste and show you how we use it to make sauces of variable consistencies and flavours which become the base layers of so many Odia dishes. This fact comes quite handy when I am cooking a vegetarian and a non-vegetarian dish at the same time.


Mustard, and Anga, Banga, Kalinga


When regions have connected histories and intertwining pasts, there are bound to be elements of commonality. Mustard is one such element in the culinary story of Anga, Banga and Kalinga three bordering regions in the eastern part of ancient India, which roughly map to present day Bihar and Jharkhand, most parts of West Bengal and Bangladesh, and Odisha respectively. Mustard seeds in these parts of the country are used in a number of ways such as a tempering agent, a masala paste, a condiment, a pickling agent, a flavour enhancer, and a source of cooking oil. Mustard seeds are an important spice in this part of the country, and as they between ancient Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and Bengal, their identity took different forms, inculcating variations in the spice paste, changing and attaining a flavour profile unique to the specific region.


There are of course other favourites, like the poppy seeds, which gained popularity as a thickener as well as a spice and condiment owing to its nutty flavour profile, following the surplus generated after extracting opium from the poppy flowers — a byproduct of forced cultivation by the British in colonial Bengal. And, there's the famous five, pancha phutana or paanch phoron or panch phoran, a combination of equal parts of cumin, fenugreek, nigella, fennel and radhuni (in the Bengali version) and mustard (in the Odia version). Rituparna Roy quotes author Chitrita Banerji in this article mentioning that in some Bengali homes, radhuni or wild celery seeds are substituted with mustard seeds in paanch phoron as many Bengali households employed Odia cooks, and mustard in paanch phoron came naturally to these migrant cooks.


Sorisa Bata and Besara


First thing first. Let us get the sound of the words right. So, bata (paste) is pronounced as 'baw-taa', sorisa (mustard) is pronounced as 'so-ree-saw' and besara as 'bae-saw-raw.' The sorisa bata is a cornerstone of a number of dishes in the Odia cuisine, sometimes striking and prominent like its pungency, and at other times, subtle and layered in the depths of accompanying flavours. Odia cooks have an emotional connect with the sorisa bata, a spice paste they rely on quite often to stir things up in the kitchen, and find interesting ways to use it in sagacious ways in a variety of dishes.



When you google sorisa bata, the internet will tell you it's besara although we use the term besara to denote the dishes that strongly and majorly incorporate the sorisa bata, and have gravy in some form, or have a semi-wet in consistency.



The most famous being the maccha (fish) besara, chhatu (mushrooms) besara, chingudi (prawns or shrimps) besara, pariba (vegetables) besara, poee (malabar spinach) besara which uses other vegetables like pumpkin, eggplant, potato, ridge gourd, and often is made with chingudi (prawns or shrimps) or maccha munda (fish head), chhuin aloo (moringa drumsticks and potatoes) besara, and some newer innovations like chicken besara.





The homestyle preparation of the Odia mustard paste usually includes some amount of cumin, red or green chilies and garlic along with mustard. These accompaniments help in getting a smooth consistency of the paste, balance the pungency, and improve the overall flavour.



Apart from the obvious mustard paste or sorisa bata, a besara also needs a good souring agent to balance the flavours. Ambula, or dried green mango, is the unequivocal favourite in this regard. For instance, a thinnish yellowish jholo (gravy) of a macha besara with an ambula or two floating in it is a typical food memory of every Odia. Tart red tomatoes are also favoured as a souring agent, sometimes in addition to ambula. Tamarind is also used in many households to get the much desired sourness and tang in the spicy besara, which especially works quite well in the vegetarian pariba besara. Sour curd can also work wonders in combination with mustard paste, such as this dahi maccha besara.



All of these besara preparations have mustard as their flavour leader, and the gravy in whatsoever consistency isn't dependent on onions as one would think. In fact the Puri temple besara, which is of course vegetarian, doesn't have any onions in the curry nor garlic in the mustard paste. Cumin, fennel, peppercorns and ginger are used along with mustard to make the paste. A tinge of jaggery and a sprinkling of grated coconut imparts a sweet balance to the sharp mustard notes. It is this temple version of besara which is more popular with people outside Odisha, mostly because they aren't well aware of the versions made in Odia homes or local eateries.


Other than Besara


Other than the besara, the raees semi-wet or semi-dry preparations of vegetables use mustard paste as the main flavouring agent. For instance, ambula raee, poee raee, kakharu dunka raee, kadali bhanda raee, lau raee, janhi raee, to name a few. Unlike the besara, a raee has a milder touch of the mustard paste, hence less pungent, and may or may not use a souring agent.


There are myriad of other recipes in the Odia kitchen which call for a hint of the sorisa bata here and there. For example, the bhendi sorisa khatta or the amba sorisa khatta or any other khattas which employ a smidgen of the mustard paste.


Even some bhajas (stir fires or pan fries) use this bata to alleviate the preparation. For instance, the chuin aloo besara bhaja which pan fries mustard paste battered pieces of drumsticks or moringa stems and potatoes until crisp. And, then there are a plethora of jholo dishes or tarkari which use the sorisa bata incognito. They may not have the term besara in their name but incorporate a mustard paste to enhance flavours. For example, this saaru patra tarkari, which also goes by the name saaru magura, has colocasia leaves which are stuffed, rolled, steamed, stir-fried and finally added to a mustard based gravy. A non-mustard version also exists for this tarkari.






The Jagannatha Connection, or not


By now, we understand that sorisa is mustard and besara is the dish that has mustard paste in it. I have been intrigued with these names for a while, and contemplated on how they are connected, or not. An enthusiast of etymology that I am, food names always prod me to know their origins. So, I ended up asking my parents, as I usually do for most things Odia, why are dishes that incorporate the sorisa bata called besara? My mother who finds answers to most questions that come her way somewhere between the pages of the puranas or the Bhagwat Gita, or amidst stories of her favourite lord, Jagannatha, supposed that the term has connections with the culinary traditions of the Puri temple perhaps. I shake my head, unsatisfied with the inadequacy of a literal connection. There must be more, no? I pester.


In the quest to find the divine link between mustard seeds and Jagannatha, my father retells the story of Indradyumna and his chief brahmin minister, Bidyapati. There lived a King Indradyumna, who ruled from his capital in Avantipura. One day a traveler appeared in his court and sang praises of Nila Madhaba, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu whose deity made of nīlamaṇi (sapphire) was being worshipped in the distant land of Puruṣottama Kṣetra (present day Puri), atop the remote mountain Niladri in Odra Desha (present day Odisha). Indradyumna wasted no time to dispatch Bidyapati to find the deity and confirm if the traveler was indeed telling the truth.


For a long time Bidyapati wandered but to no avail, only to be found tired and hungry by a group of sabaras and their chief, Biswabasu. Bidyapati who now lived amidst the sabaras, soon notices Biswabasu's daily trips to the forest but never gets to know of his whereabouts. With time, Bidyapati marries Lalita, Biswabasu's daughter and after many attempts of cajoling, Lalita tells him that her father goes to worship Nila Madhaba in a secret place.


Biswabasu had been worshipping Nila Madhaba clandestinely for years and did not want to disclose it to Bidyapati. There was a prophecy, you see. A prophecy which dictated the disappearance of the deity upon Indradyumna's arrival. Biswabasu could not risk it. After all, he was deeply committed to the wellbeing of his community which rested upon the prayers and offerings to Lord Nila Madhaba.


Bidyapati was disappointed. Lalita felt her husband's sadness and kept pleading her father. At last, Biswabasu agreed to take Bidyapati along with him to see Nila Madhaba under the condition that Bidyapati would be blindfolded for the entire journey. Bidyapati agreed but also managed to tie a handful of mustard seeds in the folds of his dhoti, snug around his waist. My mother exclaims, ବିଦ୍ୟାପତି ରାସ୍ତାରେ ଯିବାବେଳେ ସୋରିଷ ମଞ୍ଜି ବୁଣି-ବୁଣି ଗଲେ As Bidyapati walked the path, the rhythm of his walk kept sowing the mustard seeds — my father repeats.



What happens after Bidyapati sees the deity and how he returns to Avantipura is another stretched tale, a time lapse in which the mustard seeds grow into plants and forge the mustard trail that Indradyumna follows and arrives at Niladri mountain only to find that the deity had disappeared.  It would take several aswamedha jagyans and the passage of an entire yuga before Indradyumna has a celestial vision, finds the log of wood from which the deity of Lord Jagannatha is carved and the original Puri temple is built. Much later in the 10th century, King Anantavarman Chodaganga of the Eastern Ganga dynasty will start rebuilding the temple, and the present day Puri temple periphery would evolve from thereon.


This narration is to elucidate those mustard seeds and their sowing, a spice that wasn't just masala but the linchpin that bridged the path between man and god, changing the course of history. Note the root alphabet ବ in the word ବୁଣିବା meaning sowing, and the middle alphabets ସ and ର in ସୋରିଷ meaning mustard. Upon joining, ବ,ସ and ର, the term ବେସର or besara does not seem so alien after all.


My father's theory on besara's name may be far fetched and my mother's belief is perhaps just that — her faith that every genesis, including besara's denomination, is somehow connected with Jagannatha. But their candid hypothesis on the alphabets ବ, ସ and ର from the words ବୁଣିବା and ସୋରିଷ mysteriously conjoining into ବେସର shows the pull of the Jagannatha veneration.


Poles Apart with Besara



When cooking both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, making a besara saves a lot of time in the kitchen while producing two lip smacking versions of a dish.


The machcha (fish) besara, chingudi (prawns) besara and chattu (mushroom) besara use an onion, tomato and mustard paste based gravy. All these preparations typically also use ambula which renders a unique tanginess and any other substitute will not do justice. If you don't have access to ambula, you can still make this gravy. The taste will be slightly less sour.


When I make a maccha or chingudi besara for myself, I make a chhatu (mushrooms) or pariba (vegetables) or anda (egg) besara for the husband. A besara gravy for eggs is not common in Odia cooking but I find that the Odia mustard paste works rather well with eggs. The pariba and anda besara taste even better with tamarind instead of ambula, and can also be made simply with tomatoes and mustard paste without any onions or extra souring agents. The Puri temple version of besara, which is vegetarian, uses lots of coconut and a hint of jaggery to balance the fieriness of mustard.



The mustard paste remains standard to both preparations, and I vary the souring agents for the vegetarian and non-vegetarian versions according to availability of ingredients but mostly depending on my mood!




 

Recipe


Maccha Besara/Chingudi Besara/Anda Besara/Chattu Besara


Ingredients

  • 250-350 grams fish for maccha besara/small prawns for chingudi besara/2-4 hard boiled eggs for anda besara or 200-300 grams mushrooms of your choice

  • 1 medium sized potato, cut into big chunks, if using for chattu besara then cut into smaller chunks similar to the size of mushrooms

  • 2 medium sized tomatoes, chopped fine (optional for prawns/shrimps)

  • 1 small onion, chopped fine

  • 1-2 green chillies

  • 4-5 tsp mustard oil

  • 1 tsp turmeric powder

  • 1/4 tsp red chilli powder for eggs

  • Salt to taste

  • 1 piece of ambula (dried green mango) for fish and prawns, 1tsp tamarind paste for eggs

  • For the mustard paste: 2 tsp mustard seeds, 1/2 tsp cumin seeds, 5-6 garlic cloves, 1 dry red chilli, soaked in warm water for about an hour, drained and ground to a fine paste


Method

  1. Wash and marinate the fish/prawns/shrimp in salt and 1/4 tsp turmeric. Set aside. For eggs, coat with salt, turmeric and red chili powder, and set aside. Wash and clean the mushrooms.

  2. In an iron wok or any other kadhai, heat about 3 tsp mustard oil, let it smoke, and then add the fish slowly one by one or all the shrimps/prawns/eggs. Fry until light brown on both sides in case of fish, for prawns/shrimps until they turn a perfect C, slightly scorched for eggs and slightly roasted and lose all water for mushrooms. Remove and keep aside.

  3. Add the remaining oil, fry the potatoes until slightly browned on the sides. Remove and keep aside.

  4. Add the chopped onions and green chilies, and sauté till onions are translucent or pinkish. Add turmeric and the chopped tomatoes, sauté and mix. Cover and cook till tomatoes are soft and incorporated with onions to form a masala.

  5. Dilute the mustard paste in about 1/2 cup water, and slowly add to the wok, gently mixing everything. Add salt and give it a good mix. Add about 1 and 1/2 cups of water and bring to a boil.

  6. Add the potatoes and cook covered until potatoes are mostly done. At this stage, add the fish/prawns/shrimps/mushrooms and the dried mango or eggs and tamarind paste and let the gravy simmer. Mash some of the potato to help thicken the gravy. Taste and adjust salt if needed.

  7. Drizzle about 1/2 tsp mustard oil if you like the taste and smell of raw mustard oil. This is optional. Turn off the heat and it rest for a couple of minutes.


Garnish with fresh green coriander leaves and serve with pipping hot rice.





 

Home Style Pariba (Vegetable) Besara


Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup each of vegetables like pumpkin, eggplant and potato, chopped into small chunks

  • 1/4 cup pointed or spine gourd, chopped

  • 1/4 cup okra or long/flat beans, chopped

  • 2 medium sized tomatoes, chopped

  • 4 slit green chillies,

  • 1/2 tsp mustard seeds

  • 4 tsp oil

  • Salt to taste,

  • 1/2 tsp turmeric

  • 1 or 2 ambula (dried mangoes slices) soaked in 1/2 cup water or 1 tsp tamarind pulp/paste diluted in 1/2 cup water

  • A handful of badis (urad dal dumplings) - optional

  • For the mustard paste - 2 tsp mustard seeds, 1/2 tsp cumin seeds, 5-7 garlic cloves, 1 dry red chilli, soaked in warm water for about an hour, drained and ground to a fine paste


Method


  1. Heat 3 tsp of oil in a kadhai or deep pan. Add the chopped okra/beans and sauté on high heat for 2-3 mins. Reduce heat to medium, add pumpkin, potato, eggplant and pointed/spine gourd and sauté for 3 minutes. Remove and keep aside.

  2. Add 1 tsp of oil, and as the oil heats up, add the mustard seeds and green chilies, and then add the tomatoes. Sauté, cover and cook until tomatoes are soft.

  3. Open the kadhai and add the mustard paste, and lightly sauté for a few seconds. Add salt and turmeric and mix. Next, add 4-5 cups of water and bring it to a boil.

  4. Add the sautéed vegetables and continue boiling for 10-12 minutes or until vegetables are cooked.

  5. Add the ambula/tamarind and boil for 3-4 minutes. If using badis, lightly fry and add on top now. Turn off the heat and let the ensemble settle. Serve hot with white rice.



 

Puri Temple Style Besara


This version of the mixed vegetable besara is inspired from the Puri temple cooking where only seasonal indigenous vegetables are permitted, and there is no use of chilies, garlic or onions. Additionally, the temple cooking practices don't allow much stirring of the pots, neither extensive tempering nor tasting of ingredients. This recipe is a nod to this exceptional cooking style, which is almost meditative and demands a certain level of mindfulness which we may not always cater to in our usual kitchens.


Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup each of vegetables like diced pumpkin, spine gourd, pointed gourd, long or flat beans and 1/4 cup each of vegetables like raw banana or plantain, taro, white radish, yam, sweet potato: About 3 cups of vegetables in total

  • 1/3 cup overnight soaked kala chana

  • For bata masala or spice paste: 4 tsp mustard seeds, 4 tsp fennel seeds, 2 tsp cumin seeds, 2 tsp peppercorns, 1 inch ginger soaked for 1-2 hours, drained and made into a fine paste Ratio of mustard, fennel, cumin and peppercorns is 2:2:1:1

  • 3/4 cup grated coconut

  • 1/2 tsp turmeric

  • 1 tsp salt or based on your estimation

  • 1 pinch asafoetida dissolved in water

  • 1 tbsp jaggery

  • 1/3 cup fried nadi badi

  • 2 tbsp ghee

  • 1/2 tsp cumin seeds

  • 1/2 tsp mustard seeds


Method

  1. In a tall deep pot, add the vegetables, kala chana, bata masala, 1/2 cup coconut, turmeric and salt, and then add about 1 to 1 1/2 cups of water. Mix well and then cover and cook on low heat for about 15 minutes or until the vegetables are half cooked.

  2. Next add the asafoetida dissolved in water, jaggery and nadi badi, and continue cooking till vegetables are mushy. At this point turn off the heat.

  3. Heat the ghee in a tadka pan, add the mustard and cumin seeds and pour this over the cooked vegetables. Cover and let it rest.

  4. Upon opening, mix, add the remaining grated coconut and serve with ghee rice.


 






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