What happens when you move far away from home, and crave for what’s familiar? With a focus on Odisha, Sharmila Vaidyanathan examines the close ties between food and migration, and gathers stories of longing and belonging.
When Sneha Senapati answers the phone, it is close to her dinner time. In the background, I hear the slow hum of her Mumbai kitchen in action—a vessel moved, a pot stirring, and the distant melody of ingredients getting chopped. In this perfect setting for a conversation on food, the curator of Odiya Bhoji—pop-ups that highlight the nuances of the food of Odisha—shares her culinary journey with me. But a significant part of our conversation revolves around recreating the flavours of her homeland in a kitchen that is far away from it.
The idea of doing a food pop-up first came to Senapati about five years ago. Frustrated by the lack of representation from her state, she decided that it was time to show the bustling city of Mumbai what Odiya food is all about. For the first edition, her carefully curated menu included a range of options like mutton curry, prawn fry, a traditional jackfruit-based curry, a paneer kofta-like dish that was made with chenna (cheese curds) instead, and the signature street food dahi bara, aloo dum.
“About 120 people turned up for that pop-up, and most of them were from Odisha, longing for a taste of home. The food received a positive response, and I realised that many people don’t have the time or the resources to make all the traditional dishes. This knowledge has helped me curate my menu since then,” says Senapati.
As intense as the cooking process is, so is the planning that goes behind it. When Senapati makes a list of requirements for her menu, a part of it goes to her father, who lives in Bhubaneswar. “There are so many things that I don’t get here—regional masalas, seasonal fruits and greens, urad dal (black gram) dumplings called badi. I send a list of such specific ingredients to my father, who then brings them to me,” she adds.
While Senapati is ensuring that Mumbaikars get a true taste of the eastern province, artist Shweta Mohapatra is cooking up a visual storm online. Her Instagram page, Odia Food Stories, uses art and imagery to educate people about the diversity of food from Odisha. Living in Gurgaon, Mohapatra talks about how migration uproots you from the ecosystem around which your rituals are built, nudging you to seek local options for them.
“My grandmother would say, ‘Barah masa, terah parba!’ It translates to 13 festivals for 12 months, alluding to the fact that there is always something to celebrate,” shares Mohapatra. Prathamastami, she adds, is an example of how these celebrations are simple, and rooted in local produce.”
Performed for the longevity and prosperity of the oldest child, the enduri pitha or haldi patra pitha, is a key dish made for this event using turmeric leaves to steam the pitha of coconut and jaggery with some spices. In the absence of turmeric leaves, Mohapatra makes the dish by steaming the pitha in idli moulds. “You do the best you can with what is around,” she says.
Stories like these remind us of the intricate links between food and migration, and that while these are tales of longing, they are also about belonging. When food is examined under the lens of migration, it sheds new light on our deep-seated need to pursue authenticity. It raises new concerns about climate change and food insecurity, and in the midst of all that, it shows us how local can mean many things.
Connections to our ecosystem
Migration is not a new phenomenon, and history is replete with stories that highlight humanity’s ability to find new land, and forge new opportunities. More recently, we have witnessed heartbreaking tales of migration due to economic crises, war, and the covid-19 pandemic. Added to that, climate change is a significant threat influencing these decisions.
Between 2010 and 2021, Odisha witnessed as many as 16 natural calamities, including cyclones, droughts and floods. Along with other factors, this has also led to an increase in fallow land, disturbing the state’s natural agricultural rhythm. The World Migration Report-2022 states that the number of international migrants has gone up from about 153 million in 1990 to 281 million in 2020. In an increasingly fluid world, the links between food and migration cannot be ignored.
But what happens to these dynamics when migration is not about crossing the pond, but traversing the state lines? Sanjog Sahu, founder of Odisha-based Māti Farms, believes that the only way to answer this question is by unearthing the fragile relationship we have with our ecosystems.
Sahu works with several small-holder farmers across districts with varying geographies, and culinary and cultural profiles, but sees migration as a common thread among them. With a background in anthropology, and having researched the impacts of environmental change on agriculture in the Eastern Ghats, he is all too aware of how migration leads to a loss of essential knowledge on food and seasonality. “Traditional ecological knowledge comes from being based in one place, and having a relationship with the environment. Although the relationship factors differently in different places, the end result impacts the region’s food and ecosystem,” he says.
Providing an example of the traditional fishing communities in Odisha, Sahu explains how they have an intimate understanding of the various fish species, what to fish, and when to eat it. Not only is this lost when community members migrate, it also paves the way for industrial fishing (sometimes this is also the reason for their migration), which alters the aquatic ecosystem, and dictates what fish becomes a common sight in the markets.
Odisha is also home to among the highest number of indigenous communities in the country. Young climate-activist Archana Soreng says that these communities have a similar relationship with the landscape around them, and that climate change is one of the many threats they face, leading to short and long-term migration.
“Considering the forest-dependent communities, their diet varies throughout the year based on what the ecosystem offers. They gain a rich supply of food from the forests in the form of tubers, flowers, mushrooms and more. But that is completely lost when they move away, and the nutritional value of their diet is compromised,” says Soreng.
A member of the Khadia tribe, Soreng emphasises that there are several layers to the issue of migration among the indigenous families, such as historical injustices, imposing the development worldview, and land extraction. “Protecting the community members and preserving their vital knowledge is the need of the hour,” she adds.
Gender and migration
In a 2014 report on migrant workers from Odisha published by the Centre for Migration and Labor Solutions, Aajeevika Bureau stated that ‘migrarian’ livelihoods (migration+agriculture) account for 55-60 per cent of the annual income in the state’s countryside. At the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, Dr Chetan Choithani is exploring the impacts of labour migration on household food security and gender. In high out-migration states like Odisha, single male migration is common, which has both positive and negative outcomes for the women in the family, he says.
As women gain autonomy, they spend a greater share of the household budget on food, but they are also burdened with the household’s productive responsibilities, mainly agriculture. “Women operate under several constraints imposed by patriarchy, and when they take on more responsibilities, it impacts the time they can spend on childcare. This affects the nutritional status of children. Also, migratory labour jobs are often informal and precarious, which means the men face periods of unemployment during which time the women don’t receive remittances, making the migrants and the family members vulnerable to food insecurity,” he explains.
Dr Choithani shares that there are also instances of improved food security and dietary diversity when remittances are stable and sufficient, especially when more than one family member migrates. Sahu points out that the increase in purchasing power also leads to including more ready-made and processed food options in a diet that was largely traditional before.
Learning to adapt
While migration is definitely shaping Odisha’s present, like any other region, it has equally influenced its past. In Culinary Culture in Colonial India, historian Utsa Ray writes about the nineteenth-century migration of ‘Oriya’ Brahmin cooks to the state of West Bengal, “taking over the kitchens with their rice and lentil.” Apart from the obvious exchange of culinary ideas back then, this also spurred a debate on men entering the female-dominated cooking spaces.
Chef Rachit Kirteeman says that the demand for Odiya cooks in West Bengal is commonplace even today. Known for their culinary prowess, they don the chef’s hat with the onset of the wedding season, working other professions during the rest of the year. But if he were to pick a dish that is an exemplar of migration in his state, his choice would be the perplexing combination of dahi bara, aloo dum.
“You will find the influences of various cuisines at play here. The addition of sev, for example, is not an Odiya practice, and was probably derived from the Gujarati and Marwari communities that settled here generations ago for trade. There is also a theory that an Odiya vendor who was selling luchis and aloo dum on the Jagannath Sadak (the main route for pilgrims traveling to the temple) probably ran out of luchi, and mixed these dishes to create an impromptu one. “Even when we questioned the oldest vendor of this unique dish, he said he learnt it from someone else, making it difficult to pinpoint its exact origins,” he shares.
The stories presented here highlight the overarching implications of food and migration, but each one of them deserves a discussion in its entirety. It is important that we explore these nuances as it helps us gain a deeper appreciation for the food on our plates, and our culinary heritage. And if celebrating that heritage means steaming pithas in idli moulds, or shipping masalas from home, then so be it.
Meanwhile, Mohapatra is nurturing a small part of homeland in her balcony in Gurgaon where she has planted the seeds for the Khatta Palak or sorrel leaves used for various dishes. “So in this case, it’s not just me, but the seeds have also migrated with me.”
Sharmila Vaidyanathan is a freelance writer based in Bangalore, India. She explores food entrepreneurship, sustainability, and environmental conservation through her writing. Her work has appeared in Hakai Magazine, Nature inFocus, MOLD, Goya Journal, Whetstone, Inkline, and others.