Between 2004 and 2007, my father was on the verge of retirement after forty years of banking service in the Indian government. His job during this time kept him and my mother relocating between small towns around Indore. So once in very two or three months, I would pack my bags at my hostel in Bombay and catch an early morning flight to Indore. They would always come together, my mother and father, to pick me up from the airport. We would load the trunk of our modest Maruti 800 and set off on a six hour drive to reach home in Burhanpur.
I love watching a city in the early hours of the day when everything is slow and the smithereens of life seem to float in the fresh morning air. While my father drove and my mother asked a million questions about how life was back at college, I would eagerly wait for our breakfast halt. Somewhere near Krishnapura Chattri, my father would slow down and ask where we wanted to have poha jalebi, a quintessential Indore breakfast and snack.
After a much momentous discussion, (by then my father would have turned around a number of shops) we would stop at one of the poha joints at Rajwada or head off to Anand Bazaar. In a matter of minutes warm yellow flattened rice would be ladled onto our plates from a fervid poha kadai and garnished with chopped onions, pomegranate, jeravan sev and loads of green coriander.
Two servings of piping hot chai glasses at the least and mother would bring out a half eaten packet of biscuits from her bag, Parle G or Marie usually. Father would often vouch for extra jalebi and mother would refute quite easily. "Only one more, I promise", my father would nudge, and mother would let him have it if I agreed to share. We would get poha usal at times in the final round and all three of us would bite off a single jalebi one after another. With bellies full and hearts happy, we would proceed home, meandering the gullies and markets of Indore — father pointing at some old building or fort and talking about its history, mother sparing no effort to change the channel on the radio with me half asleep in the backseat.
The drive got shorter, three hours, when my parents moved to Anjad in 2006. But our halts at poha joints never changed. Sometimes we discovered new shops and sometimes we stuck to our favourites. My parents moved to Bhubaneswar in 2007, and I have never been back to Indore since then. The nostalgia of those journeys and the sunshine coloured poha adorned with ruby like pomegranate often lingers in my mind. That's the thing about food, it's a mnemonic. More than a decade later, I heave euphoria whenever I remember Indori poha and recreate it in my kitchen.
This inevitable breakfast, brunch and snack staple of India goes long back in the food history of the country. A possible reference to poha occurs in the epic, Mahabharata where Sudama, Krishna's childhood friend reluctantly offers him chivda on meeting after many years. Krishna is a wealthy king and Sudama is daunted by his royalty and wonders if Krishna would appreciate the humble poha. Far from disdaining, Krishna relishes every bit of the chivda.
Although many dismiss this as fable, the veteran food historian and nutritionist K T Achaya remarks in The Illustrated Foods of India that beaten and parched rice is called chipita or chidva in Sanskrit, also pronounced chivda or chevda. This mention is confirmatory that poha has been around for a long time in India. Even the British could not keep off its popularity and effortless cooking; just add hot water over the dry flakes and they fluff up in minutes. Add milk or yogurt, top it up with bananas, jaggery, honey or sugar and you have an instant porridge ready. Food writer, Vikram Doctor mentions in an Economic Times article:
In 1846, The Times of India reported an order from the Bombay garrison that whenever native troops were to be transported by ship, “the commissariat department will supply only grain parched, and ‘powa’, for their use on the voyage.” In 1878, the paper reported that a troop of sepoys was detained at Cyprus for want of ‘powa’ for their journey back home.
I favour poha or flattened rice to the usual rice for its low glycemic index and high iron and carbohydrates content. It's much lighter than rice and so straightforward to cook. I still like rice, and perhaps love poha because it's a less-processed unpolished version of rice. Paddy is cooked partly and then dried in the sun for hours until it turns slightly hard. This semi-cooked sundried paddy is then pounded and flattened to form poha in different textures —thick, thin, medium, extra thin. Being bland, these flat rice flakes can absorb a variety of flavours, creating a plethora of dishes along the length and breadth of India.
Growing up, poha appeared in two avatars at home. As instant breakfast with bananas mashed into chuda (as poha is called in Odia) in milk or curd, and some sugar sprinkled on top. This is a common breakfast in many Odia households although I was fond of it as a savoury breakfast or snack called chuda santula or chuda upma, tempered with curry leaves and mustard seeds and sautéed with onions and sometimes vegetables like peas, carrots or beans, topped with cashews and raisins. Seemingly close but largely different from the Maharashtrian poha I grew fond of later in Bombay, and a far cry from the Indori poha we got to know in Madhya Pradesh. There are greater varieties in the southern states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Though they all may look similar, different ingredients and their assimilation with poha create a multitude of layers in the dish's taste and appearance.
While poha is the signature dish of both Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, and prominent in the neighbouring state of Gujarat as well, the origin of poha is still under conjecture, though within India. Food critic and historian, Pushpesh Pant elicits the theory that poha travelled to Madhya Pradesh from Maharashtra. In an interview with The Hindu, he says:
The Holkars and Scindias came to Madhya Pradesh from Maharashtra where the dish is popular. In Madhya Pradesh, wherever Maratha rulers went you can find common dishes like shrikhand and poha. So, it is logical to assume Maratha warriors brought it to North India and the Malwa region.
What sets the Indori poha apart from any other poha is the addition of fennel seeds that impart a sweet fragrance and sev or bhujiya — a dough of gram flour and spices, and potatoes at times, is pressed through a sieve and deep fried in oil to form a crispy snack.
While Maharashtrian poha is usually topped with freshly shredded coconut and chopped coriander leaves with a distinct flavouring of potatoes and onions, the poha in Nimar-Malwa region always has either crushed kachori or bhujia sev or a couple of jalebis on top. The famous Jeerawan masala of Indore is a careful spice mix of some 20 spices, and the same spice blend is also used to make the popular Jeerawan sev. While chilies, peanuts and pomegranates may take turns seasonally, the bhujia sev and jalebi are the constant flavour manipulators in the poha served in this region. The crunch and tang provide a characteristic taste and bite to the poha, rendering a memory that makes it stand out amidst its hundreds of cousins.
The Indore Mithai Aur Namkeen-Vikreta Vyapari Sangh (IMANVVS), an association of sweets and snacks manufacturers, started documenting four popular food items of the Malwa region in 2019, which includes Indori poha, in an attempt to get Geographical Indicators (GI) tag for these food items. The efforts of the association are understandable as a GI tag defines the origin of a food or agricultural produce, and impacts the profitability and reputation of local sellers and manufacturers. Though poha has travelled everywhere in India and has found diverse identities across home kitchens, commercial restaurants and confectionary and snack shops, it's important to remember that the base ingredient of any dish alone does not make up its individuality.
Think about biryani. Although quintessentially it's a combination of rice and meat or rice and vegetables, would it be appropriate to think an Awadhi biryani, hailed as the pioneer of the dumpukht style of cooking, same as a Kolkata biryani which significantly tastes different owing to the use of potatoes? In a country like India where food is largely regional and has been influenced by climate, agriculture, culture and ethnicity, understanding the subtle nuances of similar food across places in geographical proximity is vital to understand Indian food holistically.
This brings me to an interesting and often unintelligible concept of food appropriation. As Coral Lee, Associate Editor at Food52 says in an article, "After all, it’s a fine line between appreciation and appropriation, respect and fetishization, celebration and profit." Having understood this, it's fair to say that one culture creating the food of another culture does not always mean food appropriation. If that was true, then diaspora food such as the Indo-Chinese chili chicken, gobi manchurian, fried rice and Hakka noodles would stand no chance to be authentic.
While the Scindias and Holkars may have brought poha to Indore and were instrumental in making its use and consumption rife in the Malwa plateau and the surrounding areas, the indigenous people of these parts of now Madhya Pradesh lent their own style and charm to the poha preparation, deeming it as authentic as any other poha dish. This is how food travels and gets assimilated in new cultures and homes, and finds new dimensions in the process. The underlying point to consider is how much are we willing to question the origins of what we eat and learn about culinary cross-cultural exchange. What we learn is not an end but a precursor to sensitive, respectful and compassionate adoption of culture, history and cuisine.
How can I recreate Indori poha at home?
Indori poha is a typical street food in Indore as well as made in almost every household in the city. The process to make this poha is as simple as any other poha. What makes this preparation unique is the addition of Indori sev and a spice blend, Jerawan poha masala. Peas or pomegranate and onions are added on top along with a good heaping of the sev.
While it was easier for me to find these two unique ingredients in India, not to mention the many packs of the sev and poha masala my parents took with them when moving from Madhya Pradesh, it's almost impossible to get these in Whitehorse, Canada.
How can I make Jeerawan masala at home?
When nostalgia hit hard, I started making the Jerawan poha masala at home — thanks to a rough scribbling of the ingredients from a store bought pack in the past. Out of the 20 spices mentioned on the pack, three ingredients were again difficult to find, black stone flower, cobra saffron and long pepper.
After looking at a few homemade Jeerawan masala recipes and experimenting on my own, I have understood that this spice blend uses many ingredients that we use in garam masala. Black stone flower is not a mandatory ingredient, cobra saffron can be replaced by any other saffron or turmeric and long pepper can be replaced with peppercorns.
To make it the way I make it at home, you can follow a simple and easy process in the recipe below. I make a good batch as this spice blend is quite versatile. You can sprinkle it on salads or chaat, add it to make bhutte ka kees and even add to the batter for making pakodas.
Like garam masala, this spice mix has a combination of fragrant and earthy ingredients, and a slightly hot and piquant character. So use it in moderation and as per your spice tolerance.
I also have a short cut for you in case you don't want to make this masala at home and can't find it in stores. To one tsp of garam masala, add 1/4 tsp amchur (dried mango powder) and 1/4 tsp fennel powder.
How to make Indori sev at home?
There are many recipes available online. If you're adventurous in the kitchen, you may try!
I tend to use any store-bought sev that I have at home. This recipe from Hebbar's Kitchen is one of my favourites!
1 cup thick poha (flattened rice)
1 tbsp oil
1 tbsp peanuts
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp fennel seeds
2-3 green chilies slit
8-10 curry leaves
1/4 cup potato cut into small cubes (optional)
1/2 tsp Jeravan masala (or to 1/2 tsp of garam masala, add 1/3 tsp amchur and 1/3 tsp fennel powder)
1/4 tsp turmeric powder
1 lime (1/2 to squeeze and 1/2 to serve)
1/2 tsp sugar
salt to taste
freshly chopped cilantro
1 tbsp pomegranate seeds
1 small onion chopped (optional)
2 tbsp sev of your choice
For the Jerawan masala:
Whole spices: 1 tsp coriander, 1/2 tbsp cumin, 1/2 tbsp fennel, 4 cloves, 5 peppercorns, 1 black cardamom, 1/2 tsp caraway seeds, 1/2 inch cinnamon, 1 bay leaf, 3-4 dry red chilies depending on how spicy you want
Powdered spices:1/2 tsp amchur (dry mango powder), 1/2 tsp saunth (dry ginger powder), a pinch of nutmeg powder, 1/4 tsp turmeric, a pinch of asafoetida, a pinch of black salt
To make the Jerawan masala, dry roast the whole spices in a pan until you can smell the aroma. Take them off the heat, cool and then add the whole spices along with the powdered ones in a blender and grind coarse.
Wash the poha thoroughly in a colander or vegetable strainer under running water, and let the poha rest and drain in the same colander.
In a wok or thick bottom pan on medium heat, add the peanuts and sauté to lightly roast them. Take them out of the wok and keep aside.
Add the diced potatoes to the same pan and sauté. Lower the flame and cover and cook with few splashes of water until the potatoes turn soft. It should take about 4-5 minutes.
Once the potatoes are done, raise the flame to medium and add the mustard seeds, fennel seeds, curry leaves and slit chilies and let them crackle.
Add the poha along with the Jerawan masala (or the replacement as mentioned in the ingredients) and turmeric. Toss and then squeeze half a lime and add sugar and salt.
Mix everything and take the pan off the heat. Add cilantro, onions, peanuts, pomegranate seeds and sev on top.
Serve hot with sweet jalebis if you can or just some freshly brewed chai. Every bite of the poha is a whirlpool of flavours. Tangy, spicy, sour and sweet - experience everything and relish this glory of Indore on your plate at breakfast or evening snack. I even make it for high-teas and it's loved so much. You cannot go wrong with this recipe. It's so easy and oh, so delicious.
If you make this Indori poha, share your joy with me! Post your comments here or tag me on Instagram!