Sunday, November 29, 2015

Dahi Bara Alu Dam

Yes, such a thing exists, and it is exactly what the name suggests: dahī baŗā and ālū dam tossed together. But to explain why I'm writing about it (and more importantly, how is it that people actually eat such a concoction), I'll have to start from Cuttack's reputation as a street-eat Mecca of sorts. Or rather, why I think this reputation is largely bunk. Odisha's culinary heritage is notable by any standards. Its confectionery in particular is justly famous. But much of its junk food is derivative, at best regional variants of stuff whose provenance lies elsewhere. Cuttack's famous rolls are merely a harshly-spiced version of what one gets in Kolkata. Gupchup is only a variation of the pānipūri concept ubiquitous throughout the country. Singra is likewise only a version on the pan-Indian samosā theme, itself a distant progeny of the Persian sambūsak. Ālū Chop? Try the ones in Kolkata to see where the Cuttack variant comes from. And about Chowmien and Chilli Chicken, the less said the better.

Dahi Bara Alu Dam, then, can be considered Cuttack's one true contribution to street-eatery. But oh dear! it's nowhere near so simple. Once yet again, none of its three chief components originates from Odisha. Dahī baŗā (dahī bhallā, thāir vaŗāi), or fried urad dāl doughnuts soaked in a cold yogurt-based sauce, is popular throughout India as a snack or breakfast eat. Ghuguni, chickpea stewed in a thin, spiced gravy, is likewise common to most parts of eastern India. Non-Odiyas spell it with only one 'u'. Bengal boasts several variants, including one containing shredded mutton; the Odiya version is closer to the stock Bengali preparation. Ālū dam, potato slow-braised under steam in a mild gravy, is not even a snack. It is very much a serious eat, and served as a main course in Bengal, Kashmir, Punjab, most other parts of North India, and even Odisha.

So if all three components are prevalent outside too, then how is it that Dahi Bara Alu Dam itself is considered exclusively to Odisha? Perhaps the fact that such a combination is so strange as to be unimaginable has something to do with it. All three components are considered stand-alone preparations in their own right. And the thing about stand-alone preparations is that you usually tend to eat them separately, and not mix them up in one bowl. For good measure, ālū dam and ghuguni are both supposed to be eaten hot, while most Dahi Bara Alu Dam vendors don't even carry any heating equipment with them. Think cold Irish Stew added to pineapple pizza, and then equally cold pasta in marinara sauce poured over it, you'll get some approximate idea just how ghastly it sounds (sounds, mind you - how it actually tastes is another matter). Which is fine, but how did the combine come to exist in the first place? And why Odisha, specifically? Those, alas! are questions to which I don't think anyone has any reliable answers. I am convinced no conscious human thought-process could have come up with something like this. My own speculations tend towards serendipitous origins, maybe some idiot upsetting ālū dam into a basin of dahī baŗā or something.

Some modifications to the basic concepts have been incorporated over the years. Most versions of dahī baŗā use a yogurt sauce the consistency of, say, creamy soup - runny but not excessively so. But here it is thinned down to the consistency of chhāch. Then generally, it's the ālū in ālū dam that is supposed to predominate: the quantity of gravy varies between moderate, to a thick, viscous coating, to near-bone dry. Punjabis prefer to lace it with cream, tomato, even crushed cashew; the Bengali version is more restrained in its flavour, relying principally on aromatic spices like cumin. In Kashmir they tend to make copious use of mild dried chilli, but barring that one exception ālū dam is generally supposed to be mild. The Odiya version in particular is a blameless, innocuous little number that leans towards Bengali traditions. Or at least the ālū dam your next-door Aunty serves up when she invites you for lunch. The one you get with dahī baŗā varies on both counts. It is made up of potato chunks swimming in vast amounts of runny, vilely spiced gravy with great patches of chilli powder-stained oil floating on top.

It is no exaggeration to say the preparation is Cuttack's staple street-eat. People eat it for breakfast, as a snack, at times even as a lunch- or dinner-substitute. The city is full of Dahi Bada Alu Dam vendors. Over time some have risen to such prominence and prosperity as to set up regular shops. There's one in Kanika Chhak that ranks among the best you can get. I've been there once, thoroughly enjoyed the experience too, but that's not what the post is about. Here I talk about the itinerant vendors who ply their wares all over town. A few affect 50cc mopeds, but the overwhelming majority prefers bicycles. In fact the bicycle forms an integral part of their equipment. Two large spherical aluminium pots, containing dahī baŗā and ālū dam respectively, are suspended from either side of the handlebar. A smaller pot of ghuguni hangs down from the crossbar. Slung over the side of the real wheel is a jerrycan of water, useful for rinsing spoons and enabling customers to clean their hands. Other peripherals - canisters of chopped onion, sev, spices; metal spoons; a sheaf of donās or disposable sāl-leaf bowls - are tucked about in various crevices along the frame.

A ten-minute walk from our University lies Naraj Barrage, at the spit where the river Mahanadi and its distributary Kathajodi separate. It is a place of much scenic beauty, and is well-known as a venue for leisurely, low-octane, hanging-out. Several Dahi Bara Alu Dam vendors congregate there, including this surly character who charges from his makeshift shop an exorbitant thirty Rupees for six baŗās. To place this into perspective, my favourite vendor, Sh Rabi Sahoo, charges twenty for a plate of ten baŗās, albeit slightly smaller in size. A most affable man who comes over every morning from a neighbouring village, he prefers the traditional method of dispensing the stuff right from his bicycle. He also follows the classical procedure of assembling the thing together. The first thing he does is take off the pot lids and wedge them between the bicycle's frame and chain-guard. Then he takes a donā and scoops baŗās onto it with a long-handled ladle. Once he's got the right number of baŗās, he presses hard on them with the back of his ladle to squeeze out excess dahī into the pot. Next he spoons out a large helping of ālū dam, then a touch of ghuguni, and then sprinkles chopped onion, sev, some spice mixture, and there you are, that's it.

Now the crucial question, how does it taste? Yes, and this is where the weirdness of the whole thing reaches its pinnacle, it tastes bloody good. Some newcomers don't like it much, or complain it's nowhere near what it's made out to be. I don't know about that, I've always found it most satisfying. As to how that incongruous mishmash of standalone dishes yields something so tasty, don't ask me, I offer no rational explanations here. The baŗā's mild tartness contrasts well with the spice levels of the ālū dam; then chickpea combines well with the mushy potatoes, imparting a nuttiness to the latter; the onion and sev add pungent, crunchy counterpoints, and that's it. That's as far as my powers of analysis go. All I can say is, it makes for a delightful snack, and a fairly nutritious one too. Potato, yogurt, chickpea and all are healthy stuff. And while the Baras are deep-fried, they certainly do not exude oil, perhaps they have oil squeezed out of them too. Spice levels are kept to a minimum, since only small amounts of ālū dam and ghuguni are used. Hygiene is another matter altogether, especially given the copious amounts of (untreated) water used for the yogurt sauce. Then again, I don't ever recall Dahi Bara Alu Dam giving me an upset tummy. And hey, if you don't live life on the edge a little, then what's the point of having street food in the first place?

Oh, and one more thing - a minor announcement, in fact. Adding pictures to blogposts has posed a perennial problem. Lugging my DSLR around every time I encounter interesting street eats is clearly infeasible. On the other hand, the phones I've owned all tended to feature lousy cameras. Recently, and most certainly keeping the blog in mind, I've got myself a new phone, for once a model with a decent camera. It's a Samsung Galaxy J5, a joy to use due to its superlative AMOLED screen and capacity for memory cards of up to 128 GB. And I am happy to say that all pictures on this post were taken with it. The camera is decent, like I said, but could have been better. Especially in low light. Why they cannot improve phonecam low-light performance I have no idea.


At the Shed of Trishna's Corner- Trishna's Shades said...

Even while reading the initial paragraphs my mouth was watering - I was hoping and in-fact almost desirous that Aloo dum and Dahi Bara combo tastes 'Bloody Good' and yaaaay, come almost the penultimate paragraph did !!...trying though, to still helplessly draw on the Odiya pedigree, but who cares as long as it satiates the tongue :)...Would strongly suggest for a larger helpfor myself.... May be a line on serving it in Sal leaf cones and finally...Congrats Abhik on your new combo cam-corder-phone

Abhik Majumdar said...

Many thanks for the comment, Tapatidi. Yes, the thing tastes just as good as it sounds gross. And let's face it, it does sound gross :) When do you come to India next? Drop by at Odisha, I'll get you the best Dahi Bada Alu Dam you can get anywhere.

dustedoff said...

I have to admit the mind boggled at the start of this post - I couldn't get my head around how these three very different dishes could ever fit together into something coherent. But when I read about how it's assembled, what with that sev and chopped onion, etc - I was thinking, "This must actually be pretty good!"

Took a fellow film blogger on a heritage-and-food tour of Chandni Chowk and around yesterday. :-) She's vegetarian, so that cramped my style a bit, but we did enjoy our bedmi-aloo and jalebi - even managed to get Daulat ki chaat!

Rangin said...

Though I am generally fond of your posts, I do not get couple of things in relation to this one. What is so absurd with the idea of mixing up dahi bara and aludam? Its nowhere as outlandish as you are presenting it to be. Certainly less weird than stuffing alu chaps between two pieces of bread (vada pao) and mixing up poha with jalebi. By constantly referring to the idea of it as gross, I think we are not paying proper dues to the creativity of it.

Another thing which I wish you could discuss i.e the difference between the dahi baras available in other parts of the country and the ones which are used in dahibara-aludam. I may be corrected but I guess the standard taste of dahi bara in most parts of India is sweetish with a thicker yogurt sauce.

Abhik Majumdar said...

@ Rangin

I am glad you raised these issues. To start with, 'incongruous' (the word I prefer to 'absurd'). To my mind there are two factors that make a combination incongruous. First, the combined form should not be something one encounters often. And secondly, at a conceptual level too, the individual components should come across as disparate, jarring, or otherwise disharmonious. At least at first sight. Your vada-pao example may fulfil the first criterion (at least to someone from outside India), but certainly there is nothing intrinsic to bread that suggests a clash with alu bonda. Any more than adding a meat patty to a sliced bun would have come across when German immigrants to America started selling their native Hamburger Steak encased in a bun. Your poha-jalebi certainly does meet both criteria. And if I ever encounter such a thing and get to write about it, I shall certainly describe it in similar terms!

So does Dahi Bara Alu Dam meet both criteria? Let's start with the second. I did mention in the post about the three components being considered stand-alone preparations, and in that sense ejusdem generis with stuff like, say, Rajma, or Kadhi, Alu Gobhi, or Dal Makhani. Now try this thought-experiment: imagine eating Dahi Bara with Alu Gobhi, garnished with Rajma. Sounds odd? Precisely.

And now the first criterion, also why the Dahi Bara-Alu Dam pairing does not surprise you. it's fairly simple, a matter of enculturation. The first time you encountered Poha-Jalebi I'm sure it startled you. But try saying this to a resident of Indore? What I am trying to say is that to the vast majority of those who were not weaned on Dahi Bara Alu Dam (i.e. were not brought up in Odisha) the combination does come across as incongruous, in fact as incongruous as our hypothetical Dahi Bara-Alu Gobi pairing does. I don't proffer this as an opinion, I merely state a fact here. And for some limited corroboration, you needn't look further than the comment my friend Madhulika (alias Dustedoff) has posted.

> By constantly referring to the idea of it as gross, I think we are not paying proper dues to the creativity of it.

I beg to differ on both counts. First off, I do not constantly refer to it as gross; I merely highlight that it sounds gross at first sight. You forget I'm a Dahi Bara Alu Dam votary, and a fairly voracious one at that! About creativity, one of the conjectures I suggest is precisely that the preparation's provenance is largely serendipitous. Which somewhat undermines creativity.

> I may be corrected but I guess the standard taste of dahi bara in most parts of India is sweetish with a thicker yogurt sauce.

I did not mention sweetness specifically, but certainly I have touched upon differences as such, and specifically the thinness of the sauce used here. I have also discussed how the Alu Dam used here differs from the regular stuff that you eat with Luchi.

Abhik Majumdar said...


Madhu, this is what differentiates the amateur from the professional. 'Coherent' was precisely the word I should have used. Why, oh why couldn't I have thought of it when I needed to? And then you float this comment oh, so effortlessly, and there it is, right in the middle of it, the word I'd been intuitively looking for. Damn!!

And yes, believe me, the stuff is good. Pretty good in fact. And one reason it comes across as so good is precisely because Dahi Bara, Alu Dam, and Ghuguni do not suggest something coherent. And the sheer surprise of discovering the three things do meld into each other only adds to the experience, that's how I see it.

Yes, I read about your foodie-binge, also that lovely Sari picture you posted. I'm missing Delhi badly. Good thing, then, that hopefully I'll hit town in the next few days!

Sabrina Karim Murshed said...

What seems gross to some people is nothing but heavenly to oylthers when it comes to street food. I know many people who think fuchka from street is 'gross' while to me 'they' are insane. :-D
An enjoyable reading indeed. I loved the minute details of dahi bara alu dam you provided. Sounds a bit " ha ja ba ra la" but being a street food lover I tend to try these types wherever I travel. Will keep this in mind if ever travelling to Orissa.

Abhik Majumdar said...

Agreed, and that's I think the best part of Dahi Bara Alu Dam, in fact the beauty of it. When you first encounter it, it comes across as so strange it makes you think how they could have ever come up with something like this. And once you develop a taste for it, you're still left wondering how so many disparate elements can blend so cohesively. For sure do give it a try if you come this sides. And hey, if you do, don't forget to give me a shout!

Jayanta Panda said...

I came to cuttack post Phyllin and, post 9/11. At first I thought what a drab fare, and people here go gaga over it ? Then came the heydays of the Odia Music Industries. We would slug it out for 18 hours a day at the Sun Music Studio. I couldn't go to home and loose hours, the fare at the affordable restaurant nearby wouldn't settle on my stomach, Dahi Bara and Ghuguni became my luncheon, more than street food it is Soul food and comfort food, and this vendor who used to park befor the old Sun Music office and Studio was extremely hygienic, in summer he would add ice to the Dhai Bara and top it with piping hot Ghuguni, the temperature contrast was interesting. I still miss the days !

Abhik Majumdar said...

I didn't know you were involved in the Odiya music industry! Shows us how little I know about you. I agree wholeheartedly about it being comfort food. In fact I ought to have mentioned that in the post because, now that you reminded me of it, it occurs to me that that's exactly how I perceive Dahi Bara Alu Dam. Especially a plateful after a bad day at work imparts a certain reassurance that things cannot be all that bad.

Ice? This is interesting! I have never ever heard of such a thing, and doubt if most long-term Cuttack denizens have either. I can imagine just how the thing must have tasted. Is the vendor still around? Maybe we could go check him out some time, and I'll write another post exclusively on him. What say?

Wings of Harmony said...

Please write more! Love your posts! :)


Wings of Harmony said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Abhik Majumdar said...

Will, for sure. Thanks so much for the comment :)

Wings of Harmony said...

Pradeeta aka Wings of Harmony :)