It’s always an absolute joy to visit Aish at The Park, Hyderabad. The resplendent decor of Aish enthrals you with its shimmering Swarovski encrusted ceiling, intricately designed pearl embedded floor, and glittering buffet counter. The regal decor of the restaurant was conceptualised by Tarun Tahiliani to be in sync with the royal Nizami cuisine offered by Executive Chef Mandaar Sukhtankar. However, Aish is also well known for its intriguing food festivals that explore regional Indian cuisines. Their latest endeavour is an Odia Feast.
Even though Odisha shares its border with Telangana and the community has a sizeable presence in Hyderabad, Odia food is surprisingly difficult to find in the city. My introduction to Odia cuisine was through the Odia Food Festival organised earlier this year. Although the Kanika and Dalma impressed, the food reminded me of the kind served by small-town, caterers in Bengal – tasty, but extremely commercial, and not authentic. My subsequent tryst with Odia dishes have been through the small dhaba in Madhapur. I’ve come to love Odia preparations like Dahi Pakhala, Dalma, and Fish Besara. So, I was thrilled to learn that The Park was hosting an ‘Odia Bhoji’ at Aish. With Chef Bibhu Bhatta from IIHM Bhubaneswar curating the festival, this seemed to be a rare opportunity to experience the best of Odia food culture in Hyderabad.
The Odia Bhoji is available as a lunch thali or a dinner buffet. I was invited by Eatopean Chronicles’ Swati Sucharita, who helped curate the festival, to experience the inaugural dinner buffet on Friday. The buffet featured four starters, eight main courses, three staples, a couple of sides, and four desserts. Our expedition into Odia food began with Dahi Bara Aloo Dom – the most iconic street food from Odisha. Aish tweaked the presentation of the dish to add a bit of flair, but the flavours were bang on. The Aloo Dom (boiled potatoes in a spiced tomato gravy) was amazing, and the Vadas were appropriately light and fluffy to soak in the gravy and the curd. The dish was so good that everyone on the table requested a second helping. Now, that’s something that doesn’t happen often! Next up – Sijha Manda. An Odia Pitha (rice dumplings) that reminded me of Modak. A Pitha is typically a dessert, but the Sijha Manda can also be a savoury. We were served the savoury version with a Cheena and Moong Dal stuffing. The non-vegetarian appetisers on offer were Mangsha Chop and Chungudi Bara. Both the snacks were decent but were in need of some fine-tuning to truly shine. Simply increasing the proportion of meat and prawn should go a long way.
Like most Indian cuisines, Odia food also doesn’t have any soups. However, Chef Bibhu served us Patala Ghanta Ambil – a little-known preparation from Sambalpur region of Odisha that can be consumed separately as well as with rice. The chief ingredients of this concoction were tomatoes, coconut milk, and mustard. Bits of Radish and fried Okra were mixed in to lend a crunch. The Ambil was a revelation. The pairing of pungent mustard with sweet coconut milk is unusual but it really worked! The soup was one of the highlights of the night.
I dived into the main course with some oversized puris called Thunka Puri. I paired it with Chenna Tarkari (chhenna dumpling cooked in a light tomato gravy without onion or garlic), Ghanta Tarkari (a mixed vegetable preparation), and Mangsha Kassa (stir-fried Mutton with onions). There were two rice dishes on offer – Oriya (a unique Asafoetida and Moong Dal rice) and Gia Arna (Ghee rice with peppercorns). I found that the rice dishes went well with the Mangsha Kassa, Chatu Rai (indigenous Mushrooms in tangy mustard gravy), Potola Rassa (Pointed Gourd in a coconut gravy), Mandira Dali (thick, pigeon pea lentil), and Dahi Machha (Rohu fish in a mustard and curd gravy). What was remarkable about the main course was that I loved absolutely each and everything. Sure there a few dishes that towered above the rest, but everything on offer was good. The Mangsha Kassa was fabulous. The Mushrooms surprised me with the intensity of their flavour. The Dahi Machha was different from the Bengali version with a much more subdued mustard flavour but was absolutely delicious owing to the wonderful balance of the sweetness, tang, and pungency. The humble Ghanta was low on grease, low on masala, yet bursting with flavours. The sides – Oau Khatta (Elephant Apple Relish) and Badi Chura (fried, crushed, and spiced Urad Dal Dumplings), were both spectacular.
To finish off our grand meal we were offered a dessert platter comprised of Chenna Poda (Baked Chenna), Kheera Gaja (Khova Fritter), Kakara Pitha (Semolina Patties with a sweetened Chenna filing), and Khirsagar (tiny Rasgolla dipped in sweetened condensed milk). Along with Rasgolla, Chenna Poda is one of the most famous desserts of Odisha. It’s almost impossible to not fall in love with the tender, juicy baked Chenna with a browned crust. The Chenna Poda served to us had become a tad too dry, but was still delicious.
Odia cuisine owes a lot to the religion and religious customs of the state. Many of the specialities of the cuisine are drawn from temple food or are delicacies closely associated with festivals. The Sijha Pitha is offered to goddess Lakshmi during Sudasha Brat.The Thunka Puris are prepared during Cuttack’s Bali Yatra festival. The Mandira Dali is served at Puri’s Jagannath temple. As a Bengali, I’ve always been fascinated by Odia cuisine. From my basic readings, I knew that the cuisine bore many similarities with Bengali food. However, what I was always interested in was exploring the differences. The Park’s Odia Bhoji succeeds in celebrating the distinctiveness of the Odia cuisine by going beyond the generic fish and crab thalis. The festival will be continuing till 19th September. The lunch thali is priced at Rs. 799 (plus taxes), while the dinner buffet is Rs. 1099 (plus taxes). The lunch thali includes one fewer dessert and a misses a couple of vegetarian main courses, but otherwise the menu is very similar. Both the options are quite well priced, considering where you are dining and what you’ll be getting. Giving the Odia Bhojia a thumbs-up is a no-brainer.