Having lunch in a new city could be trying, especially when you a vegetarian and have no idea about the kind of cuisine you will find.
Should I go with South Indian cuisine to play safe or try local cuisine? If I’m trying local cuisine is it possible to get good vegetarian dishes? What should I even expect? These doubts go on and on.
You can of course go by Zomato recommendations. But it is not always easy to find a good restaurant without locals’ help. So that is why this particular lunch I had in Odisha the day I was leaving is memorable.
It was ‘Abhada Bhog’ or Mahaprasad at Anand Basudev Temple in Old town Bhubaneswar. Distribution of bhog (food) to people is a thriving business and sustenance for the 200 families that depend on the temple for their livelihood.
It was by pure chance that I discovered this place when I was on Ekamra Heritage walk covering old temples and heritage sites around quaint little streets of old Bhubaneswar. Anand Basudev temple was on fourth on the list.
The temple is unique. For one, in a city dedicated to Lord Shiva it is one of the rare Vishnu temples in Bhubaneswar built in 13th Century. Unlike other temples, it was commissioned by Queen Chandrika of Eastern Ganga dynasty. It probably has one of long standing tradition of having kitchen in those times.
The temple has 12 temple kitchens and has the credibility of operating uninterruptedly since its inception. This is unique because while temples like Puri Jagannath too had kitchens they had to be shut down for a short while during invasions and wars. However the Basudev temple could still function as it served as an army base during those.
The kitchen structure built of stone has pretty much remained the same since then. The routine probably remained the same too.
When we visited the kitchen at 8 am it was buzzing. Vegetables were cut and placed neatly in clay pots. You could see cooked rice arranged neatly at the entrance of kitchen. Aroma from kitchen, where they were probably making varieties of side dishes such dalama, dhal and salads, made my mouth water. It was probably there that I decided to have lunch there. It was too tempting not to.
The process of chopping and cooking continues probably till noon. After batch is sent off for neivedhyam, the bulk of mahaprasad goes to the adjacent mandap where it is distributed.
I have eaten in lot of temples. But the business here took me by surprise at how organised it was. Soon after you enter the building you will be taken inside by one of the kitchen helpers, who usually lure the customers in. Then you will be directed to buy banana leaf that is served along with salt, lemon and green chilli. It will cost you Rs 5.
You go the stone mandap and sit on the floor with, where your food will be served. As I settled down, I decided to take a look around before the food was served. It was more like small food bazaar with many small shops that sell food items, here in clay pots . The guy who took us inside belongs to one such shop.
There is no set menu but you do have different categories of food that you can choose from. The cheapest one is obviously normal bhog. It consists of Anna (white boiled rice), Dal, Saga(Green Leafy Vegetables), Besara(Mix Veg with mustard paste) and Katha (Fresh Tomato Chutney seasoned with dates). That will probably cost you anywhere between Rs 50 to Rs 80. Then you have Special Bhog that consists of Kanika (sweet rice with pure ghee), Dal, Saga(Green Leafy Vegetables), Besara(Mix Veg with mustard paste) , Chole (Channa Masala), Katha (Fresh Tomato Chutney seasoned with dates)/Dahi Pachedi and Kheer. It costs Rs 150.
Finally the raja bhog, a king’s feast, consists of Kanika (sweet rice with pure ghee)/ Oria Anna, Dal, Saga(Green Leafy Vegetables), Besara(Mix Veg with mustard paste) , Mahura(Mix Veg Curry) , Chole (Channa Masala), Potala Alu Khurma, Katha (Fresh Tomato Chutney seasoned with dates)/Dahi Pachedi and Kheer. It costs Rs 225.
In all these you are free to choose some items and drop the rest. The cost will vary depending on the food you had chosen.
So we, two more people I befriended and I, happened to choose was Raja Bhog without the Aloo Khurma and Besara. In its place we got traditional Odisha sweet rasabali. It costs Rs 190.
But what a feast it was. I could not help but savour every mouthful. It was tasty, sure, but it also has got something to do food from temples. I could not help but compare it to thayir sadam and puliyodari from Vishnu temples that I love. Each item in the menu was delicious be it the Kanika, Sage, dal or dahi pachedi. Kheeri and rasabali were on whole different level. You cannot help but want more. At the end of this unusually heavy lunch rather than feeling heavy I felt a sense of contentment.
A feeling of having eaten a feast worthy for a king!