“Will you please make Ambila?”, a request often made to my mother. Nieces, nephews, co-sisters, pregnant women, almost everyone irrespective of gender and age, has the same craving for Ambila. In fact, if your travel distance is within four to six hours, she will wake up early morning, cook it and pack it for people. Pronounced with a tongue twister ଳ (Laa, found in Odia and Malayalam language), it is made throughout the year, not as common as a weekly mutton curry but at the same time not as rare as a seasonal jackfruit curry.
While I am amazed by the variety of cooking across our country, am also totally bowled over by dishes that are made using ingredients that are older, little late from being fresh but not to be thrown away. Like the ladoos from leftover chapati, stuffed paratha from old curries and the ubiquitous mixed vegetable curries.
Ambila accommodates many vegetables in small quantity, curd that is older and sour. It’s also interesting that one of its signature ingredients is bamboo shoot, which can also be optional.
Those who know Odisha, will agree with me that Western Odisha cuisine is simple. It never required a lot of oil or spice. And is largely made with what’s available around you. The taste of the vegetable stays predominant in the curry. You can taste its distinct texture and flavour. That’s one of the reasons why I never liked raw banana curry. It tasted like mud. Until I started living in south India and discovered many delicious ways of cooking raw banana.
While the coast had its fish, the inland communities depended more on agriculture. Every family grew few vegetables in the kitchen garden. And when they travelled to nearby cities in search of jobs, they tilled the land around them. My fondest memory of growing up in Rourkela was eating many varieties of fruits that came from neighbour’s gardens. We kids will take a consensus, “today we should get guavas from this house” and proceed to climb the tree. Yes, the same Rourkela which many were not aware it existed, till the steel plant started supplying oxygen to other States in India to help bridge the supply crisis.
Ma, otherwise a purist about how things are done, no short-cuts, in poojas and customs, will candidly admit that cooking has always been influenced. Under the larger umbrella of recipe, everyone has a different touch. Few pieces of garlic, a little asafoetida, sprig of curry leaf, many such small tweaks give a completely different aroma and taste.
In a deep wok, take two big cups of water, about 500 ml. Bring it to boil. Add turmeric powder and salt. Add the small brinjal cut in length to the boiling water. Let it cook for two minutes. Then add the cut yellow pumpkin. Followed by the sautéed ladiesfinger. Cover to cook.
In another deep pan, add two tea spoon oil. Add the big chunks of tomato cut into four pieces and cover. Here is what I do since I do not like to eat big chunks of tomato. Leaving behind only two pieces in the pan, I take out most of them after cooking it till soft, let it cool, and then puree them along with the curd and wheat flour using a mixer.
To the two pieces of tomato on the pan, add the bamboo shoot. Let it cook together on low flame for few minutes. Add two table spoon water if it’s too dry. Increase the flame to high. With a spatula, stirring in quick circles, slowly pour the whisked curd and keep stirring. This is very important to keep the texture of the curd intact in the heated process of cooking. The other vegetables would have cooked by now. Slowly pour them into this mixture and combine them together by folding in. Cover and switch off. In a separate seasoning pan, take one teaspoon oil, add panchphutana, let it splutter, add curry leaves, one each of green and red chilli, pour this into the liquid and put the cover back on top.
Served with rice, though this is not a replacement for daal, often times, when there is Ambila, many of us skip the daal and other curries, and begin the meal by drinking one bowl full of this heavenly broth. You can take a fragrant green chili and crush it in for added flavour and spice.
Two big ladiesfinger, cut into 2-inch pieces, sautéed with tiny drop of oil to remove gooeyness
Two small brinjal with stem, cut into fourpieces in length
Yellow pumpkin, peeled, 2-inch pieces
One radish (if you like the pungent smell, cut in length, totally optional)
Two big red sour tomatoes
One big cup, about 200 grams of three or more days old curd, whisked to flowing consistency
And lastly, optional but one ingredient that changes the flavour dramatically, one big table spoon bamboo shoots
One tea spoon turmeric powder
Salt to taste (about three teaspoons for this quantity)
One table spoon of wheat flour
Panchphutana (an equal mix of black mustard, cumin, fennel, black cumin and fenugreek seeds, pre-mixed also available in grocery stores)
One dry red chilli, one green chilli
One table spoon mustard oil (vegetable oil also works)