The myths and legends behind the versatile ‘poha’
- Nandita Iyer
Updated : July 11, 2022 10:07 IST
When I was a child, my grandmother had a stock of six-seven stories and they were narrated in rotation. The story of Kuchelan, better known as Sudama in north India, was one of my favourites. This is the version Ammama would tell me.
Krishna and Sudama developed a deep friendship during their gurukul days. They parted ways when their schooling came to an end. Krishna went back to the palaces of Dwaraka. Sudama became a Vedic scholar. He got married and had many children. He faced grinding poverty, such that he struggled to feed his family.
One day, his wife, Susheela, reminded him of his friendship with Krishna. She asked him to pay Krishna a visit and request his help.
With much reluctance, Sudama took off to meet his friend Krishna. Familiar with Krishna’s love for aval (poha) from their student days, he carried some in a small potli (cloth parcel). Krishna welcomed his old friend with joy and showered him with care and love. Noticing that Sudama was hiding something from him, he asked what he had brought for him. Sudama shyly gave him the aval. Krishna ate it with relish, enjoying each morsel.
Sudama made his way back home, his heart full of a dear friend’s love, without even broaching the topic of his poverty or requesting help. When he reached home, he was shocked to find that his humble dwelling had been replaced with a luxurious home and every material wealth possible.
In different cultures, the story is narrated differently and the food that Sudama carries for Krishna varies. In Ammama’s version and many south Indian versions, it is poha, some say puffed rice, and some others that it was sattu peeth poha (poha fried and coated with sattu flour).
I was fascinated by this story that portrayed Krishna’s love for the simplest food served with love, the power of friendship, and Sudama’s quiet devotion. Each year on Krishna Janmashtami, vella aval or jaggery-poha is one of the main delicacies prepared at home as an offering.
Poha, a staple in most Indian kitchens, is made from a single ingredient, paddy. Paddy (unprocessed rice with its husk intact) goes through a series of processes. It is first soaked in hot water for around 20 hours. This partly cooks the rice within, which is why poha can be eaten after just soaking. The water is drained and the paddy roasted in batches along with sand to dry out the moisture.
The sand is separated out by passing the roasted paddy through a sieve. Stones and any other impurities are removed, and the paddy is fed into the flaking machine, where the outer layers of husk are removed and separated from the grain, which is flattened to the desired thickness.
Poha is available in different grades of thickness for use in different dishes. The thinner it is, the less the water and soaking required to prepare it. There is an optional polishing phase where the off-white coloured poha is polished to make it white in colour. This strips it of nutrients and fibre. You can tell if the poha at home is polished if it is bright white in colour.
Poha is also prepared on a smaller scale in villages, with the soaked paddy hand-pounded to remove the husk and flatten the grain. The flattened grain, or poha, is sun-dried to remove all the moisture. This method also improves the probiotic component in poha as the process of soaking and sun-drying kickstarts fermentation, fortifying the poha with good bacteria. As poha can be made into dishes by just soaking, without cooking, it is an added advantage.
Kanda poha is a popular Maharashtrian dish made with onions. Gujaratis make bataka paua (poha and potatoes). Given that it is a blank canvas, I make poha with whatever is in season, such as mixed winter vegetables, fresh peas, raw mango or raw papaya. It always turns out delicious.
1 cup poha (thick)
Half cup grated jaggery
One-fourth tsp green cardamom powder
One-fourth cup milk
2 tbsp grated fresh coconut
Wash the poha and discard the water with any impurities. Drain well.
In a pan, mix the jaggery with a splash of water and let it melt over a low flame. Once this mixture cools, add it to the washed poha and let it soak the liquid jaggery for 15-20 minutes.
If the poha is dry, add a splash of milk. Sprinkle cardamom powder and grated coconut and combine gently. Cashews roasted in ghee can be added to this as a garnish.
1 cup poha (thick)
1 cup dahi (curd)
Half tsp salt
2 tsp oil
One-fourth tsp black mustard seeds
One-fourth tsp cumin seeds
1 sprig curry leaves
1 dried red chilli
1 tbsp molaga podi (optional)
Wash the poha well and drain. Add 100ml water to this. Cover and let it sit for 15 minutes. Whisk the curd well with the salt. Add this to the soaked poha and mix well, squeezing with your fingers so that the poha is mashed well with the curd. Heat oil in a pan. Add the mustard seeds, cumin seeds, curry leaves and red chilli. Once the seeds splutter, transfer the tempering over the poha. Serve with a generous sprinkle of molaga podi or spicy peanut podi. Dahi poha also tastes great when topped with diced ripe mango.
Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer is the author of the newly released book This Handmade Life—7 Skills To Enhance And Transform Your Everyday Life.