Travellers visit Cuttack for two reasons – its silver filigree and the famed Durga Puja. In the Millennium City, the spirit of Durga Puja thrives in pandals where the essence of celebration is not just about the camaraderie but also the festive flavours. Each of the 160 pandals dish out ritualistic ‘bhog’ – be it ‘Kanika’, fish in rich gravies, ‘Dahi Pakhala’ or ‘Kheer’ – that are specially prepared for Goddess Durga, who visits Her parental abode from Kailash for five days in a year. Her homecoming is a joyous celebration of food at these pandals.
While those who follow the Shakti tradition of worship offer Her fish as ‘bhog’, the community pandals following Vaishnav traditions have a strict vegetarian fare for the deity, says Manoj Panda, the chief priest of Chandi Mandir. It is believed that one needs to be fortunate enough to taste the delicious ‘bhog’ at community pandals. Such are the flavours!
‘Khichudi’, a simple savoury combination of rice, dal and seasonal vegetables, is the highlight of almost all the puja pandals. Creamy in texture and flavoured with ghee and spices like cumin and bay leaf, members of puja committees vouch that even the simplest of Khichudi tastes the best during the autumn festival.
Similar is the case with Kanika Bhog, which is also a part of the Chappan Bhog (Mahaprasad) of Lord Jagannath. At Balu Bazaar Puja Committee, the oldest in Cuttack, the aromatic sweet rice dish is offered to the deity on ‘Saptami’, ‘Astami’ and ‘Maha Nabami’. “We have a traditional cook who has been preparing it for the last 15 years and prior to that, his family members were making the dish. Almost three quintals of Kanika is made on all the three auspicious days and distributed among all families and shopkeepers residing in Balu Bazaar,” says SK Sangneria, president of the puja committee. At Darga Bazaar Puja Committee too, a special Kanika ‘bhog’ along with ‘Chanka Tarkari’ is offered to the Goddess on ‘Maha Nabami’.
The delightful aroma of freshly prepared Govind Bhog ‘kheer’ fills up the Khan Nagar puja pandal on the day of ‘Astami’. Here, more than 50 litres of ‘kheer’ flavoured with cardamom, khoya and dry fruits are prepared on the occasion. After offering it as ‘bhog’ to the Goddess, the rice delicacy is distributed among women devotees, who fast on the day.
Unlike the modern method of quickly making the ‘kheer’ with cooked rice, thick milk and sugar, here the cook follows the traditional recipe. Preparations begin early on ‘Astami’ morning when the rice is slightly fried with ghee. It is then simmered in milk throughout the morning till the rice is well cooked and the ‘kheer’ gets a pinkish hue with a rich aroma and texture. “We use thick milk and Govind Bhog variety of rice to cook the kheer as thousands of women consume it to break fast,” says secretary of the committee Prafulla Sahoo. At Malgodown puja pandal, the Goddess is offered a special variety of ‘laddu’ along with fruits as there is no tradition of Anna Bhog here.
At Chandni Chowk and Alisha Bazaar pandals, the uniqueness lies in ‘Macha Ghanta’ and ‘Macha Tarkari’ that are offered to the deity on ‘Maha Nabami’. While at Chandni Chowk, Pohala Machha is offered as ‘bhog’ to the Goddess, the puja committee procures five quintals of Bhakura and Rohi varieties of fishes that are fried and cooked with a medley of vegetables to make ‘Macha Ghanta’. Even the fish head is a part of the delicacy. The dish is offered to the deity and then distributed among at least 5,000 people in the area.
At Alisha Bazaar, a delectable fish curry is prepared on the day. Fish being considered auspicious, both the dishes are cooked without onion and garlic.
The last festive day, ‘Dashami’ is incomplete without Dahi Pakhala (fermented rice served with curd and flavoured with spices, curry leaves, ginger and lemon). In fact, every pandal has its own technique of flavouring the Dahi Pakhala. Like in Odia marriages where the bride is fed Dahi Pakhala before she begins her journey to her husband’s house as a sign of auspicious beginning, Devi Durga is offered the dish on Dashami as she prepares to leave for Her heavenly abode, says Niranjan Sahoo, secretary of Chauliaganj puja committee. Here, the dish is flavoured with lemon, ginger and cumin and served to 5,000 people. Like Chauliaganj, Dahi Pakhala is offered to the Goddess at Sheikh Bazaar, Choudhury Bazaar, Ranihaat, Bajrakabati and other puja pandals on the day. At Choudhury Bazaar, a unique dish prepared along with Dahi Pakhala is a curry made of vegetable peels.
Apparently, Dahi Pakhala is also the ceremonial dish that is eaten by community members together when they return home after immersing the idol of the Goddess.