Noshtalgia | Food

A dash of lime, a touch of road: Poha across the nation

A vendor in Lucknow shows off the quality of his poha.

A vendor in Lucknow shows off the quality of his poha.   | Photo Credit: Rajeev Bhatt

How strange that the ubiquitous poha, eaten in practically every Indian home, has suddenly become ‘alien’ food

It was the early 90s. We were driving from Rajasthan to Tamil Nadu, via Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, in a rickety Fiat that we ran alternately on petrol and LPG to save money. The ancient Padmini, bought second-hand from a sweet old lady in Belgaum, was not an LPG car — there were none those days — but my extraordinarily resourceful husband had modified the carburettor or whatever thingamajig so it would run on gas. We would lug two cylinders in the boot, searching frantically for refills in tiny towns that had all of one LPG distributor.

We were driving through central India in a tiny car, our three-year-old in the back seat, with little money, no mobile phone and one map. The car wasn’t exactly fast and we needed to get to at least a mid-size town before nightfall each day and leave really early come daybreak. To save time, we would try and eat breakfast on the run, and halt only for lunch, usually at ramshackle roadside dhabas. And as we drove, across Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, our breakfast was invariably poha. Yes, the very same flattened rice that so unnerved a BJP leader that he had to alert his compatriots that poha-eating eccentrics could well be illegal immigrants.

By six in the morning, most roadside stalls would be up and running and the only stuff on the menu was poha and chai. We would buy two servings, fill the flask with chai, hop back into the car and drive off. The sunshine-yellow, feather-soft poha, liberally garnished with peanuts, freshly grated coconut, green chillies and a dash of lime, would be served on large squares of newspaper. My job was to eat a few spoonfuls and then shove some into my husband’s mouth as he drove.

It was the most delicious poha I’ve ever eaten. Even today, try as I will, I never seem to get that exact taste. But then, I am never able to add a touch of road, that dash of newspaper, the nip in the morning air, the lightness of being.

In Calcutta, in my very first newspaper job, my dearest friend and colleague would bring poha in his dabba sometimes. I used to love it and I had imagined his mother made it for him. I later found that his mother was very unwell, and it was my friend who was chief cook and bottle washer. It was his recipe that I followed for a long time — it used to have diced potato in it but also tiny florets of cauliflower. Of course, in Calcutta, come winter and we put phoolkopi in shingaras too, a delicate intervention that I find hard to describe to philistines brought up on that crude monster called samosa.

Teatime tradition

In Bengal, poha is chire, and it comes emphatically into its own at teatime as chire bhaja, where it is fried crisp with peanuts and red chillies, tempered with kalo jeere for that hint of spicy sweetness, and seasoned with salt and pepper. Heading west, chire bhaja becomes chivda in Maharashtra and pauva no chevdo in Gujarat, but now has fragrant strips of ghee-fried coconut, plump raisins and cashews thrown in.

It was one of my father’s favourite snacks, and we would wake up many a Sunday afternoon to find him in the sunlit kitchen patiently crisping batches of chire and peanuts. Then he would sit himself down with a bowlful of it, three sharpened pencils, and The Hindu’s cryptic crossword till mother brought the coffee.

In fact, our home had quite a steady affair with poha. When we were really young, I remember father used to leave for work very early. Finding it hard to eat an elaborate meal, breakfast for him those days was poha — soaked and drained to soften it — mixed with curd and a dash of salt. Mother sometimes tempered it with mustard seeds and curry leaves, sometimes not.

On days when father was not rushing off, mother would make another variant he loved. This pepper poha – milagu aval in Tamil – had nothing more than mustard seeds and curry leaves, roughly ground jeera and pepper, and cashews fried in ghee. It looked completely unimpressive, a nondescript black and white heap unrelieved even by a touch of turmeric, but it tasted quite heavenly.

Puranic poha

And, of course, we children grew up on the story of Sudama having nothing to take to his best friend Krishna, the king of Dwaraka, but a handful of poha bundled in cloth. My large illustrated book had a drawing of the palace guards blocking Sudama’s way. It made me so furious I took a sharp pencil and slashed at the guards, even though I knew full well the very next page would unite Sudama with Krishna.

On Republic Day this year, Kolkatans employed a milder and more filling form of protest — they simply distributed chire to everyone.

Avalakki, poya, atukulu, sira, baji, phovu — poha has a word in practically every Indian language. In a paddy-growing, rice-eating nation, it’s hardly surprising that flattened rice should be so ubiquitous that it even made it into the Bhagavata Purana. But now, mythology itself must be re-examined. Was Sudama Bangladeshi? Who wrote the Bhagavata Purana? Are we all Bangladeshis? Was Krishna an anti-national because he ate poha with such love? And if we show poha recipes instead of identification papers to the NRC enumerators, will we all be sent to detention camps?


My friend’s poha

Image: Getty Images/ iStock

Image: Getty Images/ iStock  


1 cup poha or flattened rice

A handful (or more) peanuts

1 cup chopped potato, cauliflower and green peas

Salt to taste

A squeeze of lemon juice

For tempering:

A tsp each of mustard seed, cumin and aniseed

1-2 sprigs curry leaf

2-3 green chillies

1 tsp turmeric powder

To garnish:

2 tbsp grated coconut

A handful chopped coriander leaves

1-2 slit green chillies


1. Wash thick poha for several minutes, drain and keep.

2. Heat oil in pan and do a tadka of mustard, cumin, aniseed, curry leaves and chopped green chillies. Add turmeric.

3. Fry a handful of peeled, roasted peanuts in the oil.

4. Add diced potato, cauliflower florets and green peas. Stir and cover till cooked but firm.

5. Add drained poha. Add salt. Stir well and cook for a few minutes.

6. Sprinkle grated coconut and chopped coriander. Add a dash of lemon juice.

7. Arrange a couple of whole, slit green chillies on top.

8. Serve. (On newspaper squares.)

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Printable version | Feb 27, 2020 6:01:59 AM |

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