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Odia Khaja: The divine delicacy

From the knowledge corridors of Nalanda University to becoming the 'Mahaprasad' of Jagannath temple; the journey of khaja continues.

Published: 14th September 2019 09:20 PM  |   Last Updated: 14th September 2019 09:20 PM   |  A+A-

Khaja

Khaja (Photo | Chef Ajay Sahoo)

Express News Service

To the quintessential Odia, Khaja is representative of the divine. No visit to Lord Jagannath in Puri is considered complete without having a bite of the dry flaky sweet, on offer at Ananda Bazaar on the temple premises or buying a wicker basketful from the shops lining the Bada Danda (Grand Road)
to carry home and share with relatives, neighbours and other faithful.

An integral part of the ‘Mahaprasad’ of the holy Trinity, the Khaja, also known as Feni, is emblematic of Jagannath culture.

The hand of every Odia involuntarily rises to brush the head in reverence at the first bite, even
if it is bought from outside and not divined as Prasad of Jagannath.

The savoury sweet crackling offering, though, doesn’t have its origin in the state. An import, that has been assimilated to the culture and given a position of elevated spiritualism.

One section believes that the layered sweet originated during the Maurya dynasty in Silao, a nondescript village sandwiched between Mithila and Nalanda in Bihar.

There are mentions of this wheat-based treat, both in Rigveda and Arthashastra, especially the latter
where Chankaya called it the food for “power sustenance’.

Wheat was one of the prized produces of the Maurya period, which saw the origin of wheat-based sweet and savouries. Famous Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang compared it to Baklava, a Middle Eastern layered pastry, in one of his culinary explorations in Mithila, whereas archaeologist JD Beglar, on whose
research Silao Khaja gets the GI tag, in his thesis written between 1872-73 has dated it as popular street food during emperor Vikramaditya’s era.

There is, of course, the other congress of food historians who believe that the Khaja journey began in Andhra Pradesh with the Kakinada Kaja and its two variations: 'madathakhajas' and 'gottamkhajas'.

While the former is dry and made of cylinders of pastry, the latter is made of ribbons of pastry
and has a sweet gooey centre.

Yet, fascinatingly, each of these three khajas are bound by a common thread- all are wheat (later maida-based) layered sweets, each paying ode to the art of frying, which India had mastered before the world.

Each of these date to the very early phase of dynastic rule in India (Maurya and Cholas to be precise) and most importantly, each of the iteration could be the muse for the famous Odia Khaja – the only version to become a ‘Mahaprasad’.

That, however, is only half the reason that makes  Odia Khaja so popular. The other, of course, is the very way this ancient sweet pastry was restructured and adopted and eventually spun an industry which does an easy business of 10 lakhs a day!

So, how did the Odia favourite ‘Mahaprasad’ or ‘Mahabhog’ really come to life? In all sense, the iteration that became the muse for the Odia version came from Silao. Unlike the Kakinada variety, the Silao Khaja was dry, sweet and had distinct layers – most importantly, could travel well.

And travel it did from Nalanda to become a popular treat for scholars and monks and eventually make its place in the temple courtyards of Kalinga.

The variety was more like a phyllo pastry in texture and appearance – extremely delicate, sugary sweet and crisp.

It was a version of a sweet cereal that could be crushed, added to milk and become instant food. This could explain why it turned to be Gautam Buddha’s favourite – and a treat that would be distributed by the monks while propagating his teaching.

Not monks or ascetics, the royalty too had a liking for Khaja. Manasollasa, the 13th-century cookbook, mentions the sophisticated treat Khajjaka that could be had both plain and sweet – and was perfect as a royal gift.

While the royal cooks added aromatic spices like cardamom, the temple cooks gave it a more philosophical shape.

The earliest style of making the Khaja is lost and by the time it was adopted as part of the ‘Chhappan Bhog’ in Jagannath Temple in the 12th century, the pastry had changed considerably.

To begin with, there were more layers and the use of flour was part wheat and part maida. 

The mixture of ghee and maida were also refined. “The addition of maida,” says food expert Minati Parhi, “gave that elasticity which could be worked to trap extra moisture and create well-defined
layers. It also enabled the easy absorption of the syrup, which initially was made with turning palm jaggery into a maple syrup-like consistency.”

The other difference was in the appearance, says Chef Gautam Kumar of Country Inn Suites By Radisson. “Khaja’s beautiful, rich, yet distinct cream brownish bearing came from the way it is fried over medium flame with patience, after which it is hand-rolled in a sugary liquid and allowed to
rest to attain that crisp-sweet mouthfeel.”

Adds Chef Ajay Sahoo of The Leela Ambience Gurugram, who has been working to perfect the original ‘Mahabhog’, “the secret of a great tasting Khaja is not only in its measured flour mix, but the paga (the art of making the dough), which creates these moisture pockets to trap air and allows the sweet syrup to travel deep.

Odisha’s unique ghee making process works beautifully as it comes with the right kind of fat content to create the air pockets. And, then the temperature. Another thing which adds to the khaja’s distinct flavour and aroma is how long it rests and what it is resting on.”

Traditionally most khaja makers used the sal patta (sal leaves) as the base for resting, where the sugar penetrates and crystalises giving the pastry its flakiness. The sal patta adds its aroma, giving it that “rich
comforting” feel – and the divine deliciousness.

Admirably, it was these little additions made by Odia cooks that not only transformed a street treat into one of the most recognised ‘Mahabhog’ of India, but also one of the finest examples of the country’s edible history.

The proof of which is in its taste – which has remained as one of the foremost legacies of Odia culture.

(The writer is a senior food columnist, who has been on the panel of Masterchef India and curated chefs retreat)



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