“Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for DESSERT.”
Life in Odisha is bliss at times. No traffic jams, not much pollution, no long distance commuting, but the Puja season transforms your opinion about everything. Life comes to a standstill, people throng nearest shops, the roads glimmer due to the lights. The decked up idols only add to the festivities! And what is the common ingredient amongst all this?
“Sweets” would be the unanimous answer.
Having said that, the one sweet that is quintessential to every Odia household is the famous “Chhena Poda”
Literally meaning burnt cheese, it is Orissa’s signature dessert – a baked cottage cheese cake. Wrapped in the leaves of the Sal tree and baked in a charcoal oven for many hours, the outer crust caramelizes and turns a delicious brown, while on the inside it remains soft and delicate.
Chhena Poda originated in the town of Nayagarh in the first half of the twentieth century, quite accidentally. The owner of a confectionery, a certain Sudarshana Sahoo decided to add sugar and seasonings to his leftover cottage cheese one night, and leave it in an oven that was still warm from earlier use. The next day, he was pleasantly surprised to find out what a scrumptious dessert he had created.
Today, it is the most sought after sweet during traditional festivals in Odisha like Durga Puja and Diwali. It is also offered to Lord Jagannath in Puri. One can also find it being served in small traditional roadside stalls and confectionaries throughout the state.
Since the 1980s, it has gradually found its place in restaurant menus across Odisha. Today, the Odisha milk federation is investing heavily in mass-producing and popularising the delicacy, throughout the country.
The Recipe :
The traditional method of preparation would take up nearly four-five hours to cook. Today, one can bake it in an oven or even a pressure cooker. However, what’s more important is to get the proportions right – this desi cheesecake does require some precision.
Made by kneading chhena (cottage cheese) and semolina (just enough to bind the dough) together with sugar, and flavoring with cardamom powder, raisins and slightly roasted cashews, the first step to preparing Chhena Poda is to get fresh chhena, which is done by curdling the milk, and then sieving it through a fine muslin cloth.
Fortunately, most Indian households that rely on cottage cheese for various recipes are experts in getting the chhena right. And then there’s the dark caramelized sugar top on the ‘cake’. For that one needs to melt ghee in a tin on a low flame, and then add the sugar and start twirling the pan around to make sure that the mix spreads evenly, or else it would simply collect in a corner.
The chhena mix (add the semolina and sugar to the mashed chhena, mix it again so that it’s soft and crumbly, add in the cardamom powder, raisins and the nuts, and mix it gently again) is then patted down over the caramel, and baked.
The final result ought to be this soft cake – sweet and moist. Serve it warm or cold, both ways it tastes heavenly!!
You can’t quite store Chhena Poda for too long (not more than 2-3 days) – in fact, we would recommend to finish it in a day or two.
A fairly rustic creation made mostly at homes during festivals, chhena poda slowly made its way into all street side sweet shops! You cannot imagine a sweet shop in Odisha not offering this heavenly delicacy.
In the ever-growing repertoire of desserts in India, NDTV in a previous article crowned it the “showstopper Dessert of Odisha Cuisine” and we couldn’t agree more.
[Contributed by: Kartik Dora]