Legacy chefs wax eloquent about Puran Poli, one of the oldest sweet flatbreads that today stands testimony to ancient India’s changing preference for wheat and sweet.
“Some sweets are remembered for their lavishness (ghevar), some for exceptional taste and technique (nimish), some for the food lore that is matched by their all-round deliciousness (gajrela) and some for their out-worldly balminess (halva). Puran Poli, the classic Maharashtrian celebratory sweet flatbread, however, with its simplicity and geniality manages to tick all the boxes and a bit more too.”
This declaration from the famous Jiggs Kalra on the launch of his book Kama Bhog could be marked as the legendary author’s “unprecedented love” for Puran Poli like many others including those it is a legacy dish for. That’s the beauty of this griddle-cooked sweet flatbread that, according to Manucharitra, a 14th-century Telugu encyclopaedia compiled by Allasani Peddanna during the golden era of the Chola Empire, began its culinary journey as Bakshyam, a stuffed sweet flatbreadmade of a sweet lentil stuffing and hand-pounded rice and semolina dough.
It is believed that the first Bakshyam was created in the villages of Anaantasagaram and Bukkarayasamudram — it is still one of the culinary highlights at the former — that were part of the erstwhile Vijayanagara Empire. Made over hot plates using copious amounts of ghee, the original format of Bakshyam that got its name because of its use as a popular snack was called Olige and came in two variations: chakkera olige and kova olige. Each followed a standard recipe of channa dal, flour, jaggery or stone sugar or khand.
Thanks to its good taste and nourishing quality, Olige or Bakshyam soon became an integral part of the Tamil concept of Pancha Paksha Paramaannam or thefood offered to God as prasadam. That explains why Puran Poli, both in its erstwhile and current avatar, is only made during festivals. Also, there are many versions of this Maharashtrian classic present across India today, albeit with subtle differences that make each of them equally delicious. Puran Poli’s brethren today include the Gujarati Vedmi, Karnataka Holige, Tamil Nadu’s Obbattu and Konkan’s Poli or Poli Puri to name a few.
The rise of sweet polis
How did a southern innovation become a cult classic in the coastal state of Maharashtra? “It has,” says Chef Neeraj Rawoot, Executive Chef, JW Marriott Bengaluru Prestige Golfshire Resort and Spa, “as much to do with the political movement, especially the Southern dynasty to western ports, as it has to do with religion, trade, and immigration in search of newer opportunities. In fact, chances are that Puran Poli as Olige travelled far and wide thanks to the portal towns of Southern India and Maharashtra. The other factor was the rise in wheat production.”
By medieval times, says Chef Rawoot, “wheat, a hearty crop, had become a mainstay across a lot of rice-growing regions, and its elevation to a prasadam or festive food was a testimony to the rising popularity of wheat flour as one of the important food ingredients in our ledger thanks to its pairing with lentils which were valued for their wellness properties.”
The other factor, states cuisine specialist Chef Kedar Bobde, Executive Chef, Hyatt Regency Chandigarh, “of the sweet flatbread’s easy adaptability in certain regions was the sustainability. Aside from the fact that everything, including the water that channa dal is boiled in, is used in making Katachi Amti (a spicy kala channa preparation) that is served with Puran Poli in coastal Maharashtra to even the leftover ladoos that soon take the shape of sheera or kheer. As for the dough, it is the same chapati dough that is a part of the daily meal. In fact, each variant of Olige including Puran Poli’s beauty and relevance was that it was cued to the food culture and produce of the region it travelled to.”
Similar yet different
Take for instance, continues Chef Bobde, “the fact that Puran Poli’s peers in Karnataka and Gujarat use tuvar dal instead of channa. In the case of Holige, which is the modern version of Olige, there is use of chickpea flour in the dough. But the tweaking isn’t only in the use of flour — plain, whole wheat or maida or half and half — and the lentil, but also in the flavourings, and this is true for Puran Poli varieties within Maharashtra as well, where this popular 14th-century flatbread has seen quite a few variants.”
While coastal Maharashtra, adds Chef Bobde, “remains loyal to the original Holige recipe minus the chickpea flour and the addition of green cardamom, western regions add a bit of dry ginger to the puran while the areas around Satara add a little grated kopra (dry coconut) to the filling. Likewise, in regions around Nagpur, they traditionally make it with khand (stone sugar) with only a pinch of jaggery and nutmeg to give it that distinct taste.”
The filling also decides the thickness and size of Puran Poli. For regions that follow the Holige style, the Puran Polis are thinner and larger, while others that are mused by the Gujarati Vedmi are smaller and slightly thicker with a chewy consistency.
These parameters while effective in giving each of the Puran Poli brethren their uniqueness, did result in a time-consuming process that limited the treat to festivals like Ugadi in the South, and in the Maratha Empire to festivals like Holi, Ganesh Chaturthi and Champa Shashthi Puja, where, say the chefs, “it is served either with Katachi Amti or a glass of milk or as it is.”
Another reason that Puran Poli remained within the realms of festivity was its composition. Much against the sublime, subtle sweetness that this sweet flatbread has, says Chef Mandar Madav, Executive Chef, Conrad Centennial Singapore, “Puran Poli is a very rich treat thanks to the amount of ghee that goes not only in the dough, while griddle roasting the poli, but also in the puran or filling. Plus, channa as a lentil takes time to digest. Given that the making fortifies each of the nutrients, the need to limit the consumption was needed, and hence the inclusion of it as a prasad.”
And yet amusingly, adds Chef Mandar, “the simple process of roasting on the griddle turns it into a flavour bomb that makes it irresistible and it’s hard to stop at one, though with a home-style Puran Poli one usually does.”