One's heritage often imparts certain tools that equip one for a particular path in life. It could be business acumen or strong legs. It could be predisposition to the arts or a keen sense of adventure. For me, I think, it's taste for mustard. I love mustard, especially mustard oil. The sharp, heavy smell of mustard oil is what I can battle armies for.
If my childhood could be bottled as perfume, I'm pretty sure the scent would be mustard. (I understand it wouldn't have many takers. That's perfectly fine with me. Like I said, when it comes to mustard, I don't like competition.)
As kids, we used to be massaged with mustard oil - our bodies, hair, armpits, cuticles, etc. A thick coat of that oil, with its distinct scent, would get soaked into our pores. My brother and cousins hated it. I couldn't get enough.
After a vigorous massage, we had to rest or play on the floor for a half-hour and then, go for a cold water bath. Without being boastful, my brother, my cousins, I - whoever had this mustard oil treatment - grew up having gleaming skin and shiny hair. This was the case until we learnt to resist wisdom or just got lazy or had 'better' things to do. Then, of course, the regime stopped and urban life took over. But my cousins, two very beautiful girls, continued this treatment well into their adult years. Both of them have skin tone that has the sheen of ground pearls mixed with milk and moonlight. And their waist-length hair is strong, rich, black and smooth. I'm not one for a whole lot of beauty treatments - but I swear by mustard oil. If I ever got conscious of looking young, that is what I would go for. It guarantees unlined skin.
But beauty aside, mustard oil is fantastic in food - which is where my interests lie, in any case. A lot of people can't stand the smell. In fact, it is quite hard to digest too. But that smell will get me out of the grave; and the taste - I think the taste has nestled somewhere cosily in my DNA and should I have babies, this love will get transmitted to them.
There is an Oriya dish called 'Pithuo' that combines mustard oil and mustard paste. It takes an iron stomach to digest it but it makes any meal memorable. It is such a distinctive, beautiful tasty treat and I can have a heap of it with steaming hot rice! (Rice - now, that's another poetic fixation.)
Now, before I write about 'Pithuo', I must say that this is how it is made in my home. I don't know if it is an authentic Oriya recipe or not. Since my absolute love for mustard is known to mum, she could very well be tweaking it to suit my palate. But overall, the highlight of this dish is mustard, sweet mustard.
Pithuo is a kind of vegetable cutlet that is rolled in rice flour and fried. You grate some veggies or chop them up really fine after par boiling them. Usually, nothing leafy because it is hard to bind those - but carrots, onions, peas, and beans are the staple. You could add baby corn, zucchini, etc. but don't ruin it by getting HyperCity pretentious. It is best to stick to simple vegetables that give you a crunch. On the side, you mash up some potatoes with salt, pepper, chilli powder, mustard paste (the more pungent the better) and mustard oil. After the potatoes are mashed properly - they needn't be very smooth (a few lumps spell character) - add the vegetables and mix them up really nice.
Then you take a little bit and roll it into cutlets. Coat them in the rice four and shallow fry them in mustard oil.
I generally eat them with hot rice. Only rice, though. No dal or sabzi or anything else. These cutlets are so flavorful and rich with taste and texture that their perfect accompaniment can only be something that is bland. You cannot have any other item that masks the taste of mustard here. It's philistine. Seriously, to have it along with daal or a curry is like getting the finest oysters and dousing them in ketchup. If the taste is something you can't handle, just stay away. Because unless you are getting a scalp-searing heaty kick, the pithuo is just another vegetable cutlet with a variation.
So, here's what I do. I take some really hot rice (the vapours from the dish should be clouding up mirrors) and create a clearing in the centre of the plate. I put a couple of pithuos on that. Then I cover that up with some more rice. Finally, on top the mound, I drizzle a little mustard oil to which a pinch of salt has been added. That golden yellow mixing with the snowy whiteness looks so gentle and quiet. It totally camouflages the scandalous pungency of what is to follow.
But for me, food has got to be wicked. I can't help it. I'm bound by heritage.