Poha: The quintessential Indian breakfast

When it comes to the first meal of the day, few dishes evoke nostalgia as much as poha does. Sweet or savouy, it is loved in all its versions. What is it about this simple, rustic dish that makes it so beloved? We flake through.

Most people correlate poha with the Maharashtrian-style of savoury dish—a turmeric-infused, fluffy flattened rice that has been seasoned with spices, onions, potatoes and garnished generously with farsan/coconut, or simply loads of fresh, finely chopped coriander with a lemon wedge on the side.

Poha flattened rice
While the savoury poha is one of the most popular ways to start the day in many parts of the country, historically Indians leaned more towards sweeter versions.

But have you ever wondered what makes the Kanda Poha or, for that matter, its brethren from Indore such iconic dishes? After all, poha, which goes by the name chuda, chira or chivda, in ancestry and in usage, shares its timeline with lia (popped paddy) or murmura (puffed rice)—the other two rice varietals that were invented not just as additional sources of food, but as sustenance for the winter months. In fact, according to many culinary anthropologists, the role of flattened rice or chuda was more than just as another form of food. Given that poha could be revived just by soaking it in water and yet was much lighter and as filling as rice, made it an integral part of the daily diet as well as the quintessential food you carried on your travels.

The various versions of poha

An excellent example of this is the Chuda Ghassa of Odisha. A no-cook dish that is made by rubbing the flattened flakes of rice between the palm using ghee, can be easily traced back to pre-12th century CE. Yet another instance of flattened rice’s early inclusion into day-to-day food habits is the Assamese Dohi Chira. This simple fare of rehydrated poha mixed with curd and jaggery, thanks to its wholesome nature and low glycemic index, remained a standard breakfast not just for the denizens of Assam but also of the Ahom kings and was an integral part of all the important celebrations, especially Bihu. In southern India, under the great Tuluva Dynasty, flattened rice was the ace ingredient to many of the sweet and savoury preparations, of which the Aval Upma and the jaggery and coconut sweetened Bajil Bela/ Teepi Atukulu (which is made during Janmashtami), remain a favourite even today.

“Interestingly,” says culinary archivist Chef Nimish Bhatia (founder, Nimisserie Bespoke), “unlike today, when poha’s popularity comes from the many savoury dishes, the past belonged to the sweeter side of poha. As a preserved food that could turn into a meal with very little, easy-to-procure ingredients, it was a primary source of sustenance and energy. In fact, much of poha’s early dishes were created by its wide use in Charak Samhita, where the easy digestion and malleability allowed for the creation of chira ladoos, payasam and even instant kanji that were used to treat a variety of conditions while readjusting the doshas in the body.”

“For a long time,” says Chef Bhatia, “many of the treatments advocated by Charak Samhita had flattened rice as one of the dietary recommendations for those with a heart issue or those who suffered from high levels of sugar.”

The wellness quotient

Such was the importance of flattened rice—which was a known source of iron, fibre, essential vitamins, and antioxidants—that by the early medieval era in India, specific rice varietals were grown for poha rather than it just being one of the ways to store rice for the winter months. In Odisha, the Acharmati rice and then the Sonar Mahuri were dedicated for the making of flattened rice, in the south, Wayanad’s Thondi and Paal Thondi and Palakkad’s Thavala Kannan were preferred for poha. “A reason for this,” says culinary researcher Chef Viveq Pawar, “was that these rice strains were not only native to the place, growing in abundance and something the denizens had a taste for, but also, these were packed with necessary nutrients. Of course, there were other medicinal rice varietals that were grown and turned to flattened rice for specific reasons such as Njavara kernels was to control diabetes and hair fall remedies, while Raktashali was specifically for post-op/illness diet, given its complex composition of antioxidants.”

Aloo parsley sesame chap with kanda poha flattened rice
Aloo parsley sesame chap with kanda poha. Today, savoury varieties of flattened rice find a lot of popular applications.

“For farmers elsewhere,” continues Chef Pawar, “poha mostly remained yet another ingredient that could be added to their daily diet as a source of energy. In fact, most of the villages in Maharashtra use the leftover rice from the husking and de-husking for making flattened rice, which is still made using a dhenki (a foot-controlled beater) that pounds pre-soaked parboiled rice into these thin, brittle flakes. The thicker flakes that are reddish in colour are still the ones that are traditionally made and preferred by farmers, not so much for its nutritional properties as it is for the sheer ability to digest quickly and to keep them satiated.”

“Two distinct reasons for chuda or poha’s popularity, along with the familiar rice-like taste, was,” adds Alka Jena (Founder, CulinaryXpress), “that it became an informed and easy pick as the solid food given to a teething toddler. In fact, Odia Chatua or Sattu for growing toddlers is still made of a good amount of powdered chuda thrown into a mix of roasted Bengal gram and cashew nut. Poha’s ability to keep one satiated, calm and composed also explains the reason why the Chuda-Dahi, which is rehydrated flattened rice mashed with yogurt, a pinch of salt, jaggery, coconut and banana, has remained such a popular, instant-fix for a morning nosh before a long day at work.”

“In fact,” continues Jena, “chuda’s ability to keep the stomach full despite long hours of not eating and a change of weather, made the flattened rice version one of the popular first meals among farmers too. Much like the soldiers, they too would often carry a handful in their bag just in case they felt hungry.”

Chuda ghasa
Chuda Ghassa uses ghee that breaks it down to an easy-to-eat format and also keeps it moist enough to eat without any accompaniments.

“Fascinatingly,” says Chef Bhatia, “poha’s emergence as this instant meal that travelled better than the moisture-shy lia and murmura was as part of the soldiers’ meal, especially those knights that were regularly on the move. Having a handful of poha in their sack meant they could have a simple meal anywhere without knowing how to cook. Those were the days when curd would be a standard fare in all taverns. Carrying Chivda, which was a term later used for double roasted poha that would turn it into a crunchy snack, resolved that issue of finding curd as it became an instant meal by itself.”

One of the reasons that ladoos (Atukula laddu) were made using poha was that they served as these instant energy pills and would almost negate any waiting time. Legend has it that Emperor Ashoka would often pack a bag of these ladoos that were cranked up with nuts and other spices as a meal when they travelled through different regions in incognito mode. The ladoos meant they could travel great distances without stopping for food. Centuries later, it was the same tactics that was applied by the first Maratha supremo Shivaji Maharaj and eventually, the revolutionaries who found sweet, flattened rice a much better option for survival when on the run, than the cooked format.

But what was it that made sweet poha such a valued dish? Aside from the convenience of making and carrying it, these dishes were great on energy. “These,” says nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, “could, of course, keep you full but more importantly, create these layers of energy creation that helped the brain stay alert and calm.” This explains why most of the traditional chuda dishes that are part of various rituals today were made of huge amounts of ghee, jaggery and cardamom powder. “Take, for instance, Chuda Ghassa that,” explains Jena, “uses almost three tablespoons of ghee because it is clarified butter that not only helps it break down into an easy-to-eat format but also keeps it moist enough to have it on its own rather than with dalma or guguni it is served with today.”

Dahi chuda flattened rice
The Dahi Chuda Gur has been popular in the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
Image courtesy A Foodies’ Diary

“A similar version called the Dahi Chura Gur is also had in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh,” adds Chef Pawar, “and in Goa, the Nalla Rosanche Fov uses coconut milk instead, along with jaggery.”

Which brings us to the question: Why was sweeter poha of such vital importance? And when did the savoury side take over?

“Curiously,” says Chef Pawar, “it wasn’t as if there were no savoury dishes at the time. Each state has its own version of the Kande Pohe that showcased native produce. Odisha had its Chuda Santula; Maharastra, the Dadpe Pohe; Varanasi, the chura Matar that used aamchur as its flavourant; the Ujjaini Poha that eventually earned its culinary stripes becoming the Indori Poha; Tamilian Aval Kozhukattai and the Gujarati Chaha-Pohe Karyakram – a version that many believe is the closest brethren of the iconic Maharashtrian special and could have been the inspiration for it.”

“However, there are two reasons,” adds Chef Bhatia, “why the sweeter versions were given importance. First, the sweet versions needed no cooking and hence, were conducive for those on the move; the other was the level of energy. High on fat, these sweeter poha options made for an energy refuel that was needed for the physical activity that most were used to back in the day. And since sweet poha could do so without the need to rest or creating any issue caused by spoiling of cooked food, it became the version mostly opted for.”

The bhujwas of UP and Bihar often tell tales about how revolutionaries turned to flattened rice as their hideout meal as it could be delivered without being caught. Flattened rice and the traditional wisdom of turning these dried flakes into an edible meal was in fact how the Paika revolutionaries managed to carry on the war for the time they did.

In fact, the savoury version was often kept for the time when one had the time to sit down for a quick meal. “Yet,” says Jena, “thanks to the multitude of flavours, the savoury poha took precedence when it came to quick meals in taverns and sweet shops as it was one of few dishes that was easy to make, economical and courtesy the rice-growing nation, all palate pleasing.”

Of course, major credit for popularising the savoury version went to the Marathas who took it everywhere they went. Legend has it that the Indori Poha stemmed from the Maharashtrian Kanda Poha that reached Indore as part of the invasion gift; the Chuda Santula was another such mused innovation. Fascinatingly, much of the savoury poha dishes that are made across India today owes its presence to the Marathas who by the Middle Ages oversaw a kingdom that almost rivalled that of the Mughals. And the proof of it was at least one poha version that seemed to be inspired by the Maharashtrian culinary masterpiece.

But eventually, it was the street food makers—the culinary architects of the last culinary chapter—who eventually popularised poha and made it the iconic dish it is today just by offering it as this “everyday affordable food”, that was delicious and filling.

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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