Lunch in Assam, dinner in Orissa

Will travel for food. That’s the motto of the partner-in-dine and me who are otherwise suburb-shy. We plan holidays around shopping and eating. She was using up some paid leave last week, making it a good time to head to Vashi. To eat.

Vashi is where land is relatively more easily available, so it’s where many Indian state governments have set up bhawans for officials and state guests to cheaply stay when they visit for medical treatment, education or official work. More importantly, each bhawan typically has a canteen or simple restaurant serving that state’s cuisine, and will typically serve non-residents as well. It’s a great way to sample the cooking of a neighbouring or faraway state, considering that so few of them are represented among commercial restaurants.

Five state bhawans operate out of Navi Mumbai: UP, Assam, Meghalaya, Kerala and Orissa. Work has begun on Rajasthan Bhawan and we saw a plot marked out for Manipur Bhawan as well. Except for UP, the restaurants at all the bhawans are open to the public and of these, only Meghalaya Bhawan doesn’t serve food from the home state.

We tried Assam Bhawan for lunch and Odisha Bhavan for dinner, though we were told Kerala house, which is only open for lunch, has very good food as well.

Assam Bhawan 
It’s about half a kilometre away from Vashi station, bang opposite Centre One Mall. The restaurant, Bhogdoi, on the first floor is quite basic and seems like an Udipi until you see the menu. There’s Assamese, South Indian, Mughlai and Chinese, which the owner explained is because the clientele is largely long-staying guests who get tired of eating Assamese food daily.

We ordered two thalis: the chicken jeera zaluk (chicken in a cumin-pepper gravy), and the katla sarson (Indian carp in a mustard sauce). The jeera zaluk gravy was dark, slightly sweet with a deep flavour of roasted jeera at the back of the palate and the chicken was surprisingly perfectly cooked; juicy and moist, not dry and hard. The katla sarson had a fierce mustard sharpness that reminded me of a Bengali shorshe mach, which is not surprising since these are neighbouring states and many Bengalis have settled in Assam. The fish had been fried before being added to the gravy and I enjoyed the crispy skin more than the flesh.

Baingan Fry, Assam Bhavan, Vashi
Baingan Fry (fried brinjal)

The thalis come with two vegetables, I didn’t particularly care for them, but then I don’t like soft vegetables and gourds. I was however surprised by the combination of potato and sweet potato. The chilli pickle is dangerously pungent and should be tasted with caution. The dal was rather bland. I’d stick with the main courses instead of a thali the next time.

Rohu Fish Fry, Assam Bhavan, Vashi
Rohu Fish Fry

But I’d order the freshly fried brinjal again, just like we did this time. It came hot and crisp, fried in batter that tasted similar to the punchy koliwada spice-mix. We also ordered a portion of fried rohu which was very lightly spiced and plain fried; it complemented the thali quite well.

Assam Bhawan, First Floor, opposite Centre One Mall, Sector 30A, near Vashi Railway Station, Vashi
Tel: 99305 03714

Odisha Bhavan
Odisha Bhavan Canteen is just that – a typical, Spartan hostel canteen. A big dining room with laminate-topped tables, plastic chairs, white walls, tubelights, a TV in one corner and the manager’s desk at the entrance to make sure you pay before you leave.

We ordered two of the thalis from the Odisha Thali selection – with chinguri (prawn)  and macha (fish) rohu (carp). Apart from the dal and the sewain kheer, we loved everything on the thali: it’s simple, home-style food.

Kheer Khaja, Odisha Bhavan, Vashi
Kheer Khaja

The soft shell prawns were in a tangy and sour gravy that had just a hint of mustard and fresh coriander pungency. The rohu was also in a mustard sauce, but unlike the Assamese this had a gentler mustardy taste. Chitrita Banerjee, author of several Bengali cookbooks and Eating India, who I spoke to the next day, explained that the difference in pungency was a result of the Vaishnav influence on Odisha cooking. Both gravies had a lone potato chip and both vegetable accompaniments were quite delightful. One was a stir fry of potatoes, carrots, bhendi and tendli with a mustard tadka; the other was mixed vegetables with fried potatoes in a thick, sweetish sauce.

Khasta Khaja, Odisha Bhavan, Vashi
Khasta Khaja

Near the entrance, a table is laid out with a handful of Odisha sweets and a box of fried puris. I packed a piece each of three sweets, which I had never seen before, to try out at home.

Both the log-shaped kheer khaja and khasta khaja are made with mawa. The khasta which has a crunchy, hard exterior I suspect is baked while the kheer khaja is deep-fried. In texture, the kheer khaja is very similar to a gulab jamun; the shape, the bundi garnish and the hint of badishep (fennel seeds) are the big difference.

Cheena Pooni or Chhena Poda, Odisha Bhavan, Vashi
Chhena Poda or Cheena Pooni

The chhena poda (they pronounced it chhena pooni) was a revelation. The waiter wasn’t able to explain what it was expcep that it was made from chhena. With the first bite my impression (quickly confirmed by an online search) was that it was a baked chhena sweet: it’s quite similar to a baked cheesecake but with a rosgolla-like squeakiness.

I’m quite surprised that Indian pastry chefs have not thought of including this confection in their repertoire – it’s the perfect crossover dessert, a very traditional Indian cheesecake.

I’d happily return to Vashi for another meal at Odisha Bhavan Canteen; it’s worth the trek.

Odisha Bhavan Canteen
Odisha Bhavan, Plot No-5, Sector 30A, Behind Raghu Leela Mall, Vashi
Tel: 022- 27813372/ 73/ 74
Odisha Bhavan is little less than a kilometre away from the station, straight down the road running left of Raghu Leela Mall, or the first right after Mahesh Lunch Home

Invited by PR company  No
Guest of the chef/ restaurant  No
Restaurant knew I’m a food writer  No
Meal comped by the restaurant  No

One reply to “Lunch in Assam, dinner in Orissa

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