When it comes to functional food, few can beat the easiness of puffed rice – the light, crunchy, low-calorie instant snack that India innovated.
When it comes to chaats, few offer the amazing array of possibilities like those made with puffed rice, or murmura, as it is popularly called. Unlike panipuri or aloo chaat, that have a method to the delicious madness, mudhi and its various versions are rather whimsical in nature. No matter what you add to puffed rice, it’s bound to get the snack mood right – and how. This perhaps explains the many versions of bhel that exist in the country, ranging from muntha masala, a spicy and tangy version popular in Andhra Pradesh and uggani, also known as borugula upma, a warm snack made of soaked puffed rice, chopped vegetables and spices, to the fiery hot bhadang murmura in Kolhapur and mudhi masala in Odisha. Then there’s the famous jhal mudhi in West Bengal, which, if foodlore is to be believed, was created by immigrant Bangladeshis who found it an addictive snack to kill time with.
Concurs Chef Sharad Dewan (Regional Director, Food Production, The Park Hotels), who finds mudhi this fascinating ingredient with an incorrigible appetite for adventure. “Although there is a sense of recipe to this amazing palate teaser,” says Chef Dewan, “jhal mudhi, often across Bengal and neighbouring states, is prepared with any number of ingredients that are available at the time. Only three components remain sacrosanct – one, mustard oil; two is the sliver of coconut that gives this spicy dish its quintessential sweetness; and three, mudhi.”
“Similar is the case with,” he adds, “Odia mudhi masala that opens up horizons even wider when it comes to adventure. This version of bhel (said for pure association) is made to order and uses add-ons that range from simple mixture (specialised farsan of Odisha) to a wide variety of fresh ingredients including cucumber, onions, chilli and even boiled green peas called guguni.”
“Mudhi’s easy pairing, in fact,” says recipe blogger and food stylist Alka Jena, “has allowed mudhi masala to go beyond the typical application of being just a snack to being a quick breakfast and even a celebratory feast such as the mudhi mansa at the town of Baripada where it is considered to be a hearty Sunday brunch or breakfast, depending on the time you are having it.”
Fascinatingly, the mudhi mansa is one of the few ways that Odisha, one of the rice bowls of India, utilises some of its varieties to create delicacies that are not just for instant gratification, but can also function as a good meal. “In fact,” says culinary revivalist Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, “in most eastern Indian states, mudhi is an essential component in sattu, and the key ingredient in native baby food where mudhi, along with cashew nut and pumpkin seeds, are pulverised into a powder that can be instantly turned into a porridge to feed a hungry baby or even become a meal for those not well.”
“The reason for this is,” says Chef Gorai, “because puffed rice, thanks to the process of roasting, is easy to digest. Its glycemic index of 70 or more makes it faster digesting than most foods including popcorn, which makes it a great choice for satiating boredom cravings or even as a healthy alternative when one needs an instant boost of energy and a cup of coffee isn’t recommended.”
“This quality, along with murmura’s really long shelf life, has made it a quintessential part of every household in India, even in those with special dietary requirements. What works in favour of puffed rice additionally, is the calorie count, which at 33 calories a cup is by far the lowest in the category of puffed and popped grains and cereals,” says expert Ram Chatterjee (Wellness Advisor for Pullman Delhi), who considers mudhi a necessary part of healthy snacking, especially to fight mental exhaustion that sets in from sitting in one place for long periods of time. Chatterjee who has been an integral part of wellness activities across the hospitality sector, in fact, is one of the few advocates of mudhi as a superfood and considers it to be essential when it comes to creating interesting options thanks to how effortlessly puffed rice can be paired or fortified with other equally healthy ingredients. He adds, “Pair it with peanuts, and a handful of seeds and herbs, and you can have a bowl that is high on protein. Turn it into a granola with walnut and almond slivers added to it, there is a power boost for your brain that exclusively functions on fat. Or just plain toast it with a bit of ghee and rock sugar and you would have a sweet indulgence minus the excess calories and fat.”
Its versatility has given mudhi an amazing collection of delicacies and also made it a centre of focus lately for many chefs and diners looking for a healthy alternative. “The beauty of mudhi,” says Chef Dewan, “is that it often doesn’t need much to create that extra layer of palate play in a dish, provided you have chosen the right variety of puffed rice and have introduced it at a time when it can retain its texture.” A good example of this is the jaggery coated puffed rice cakes that the seasoned chef adds to his desserts, especially panna cotta and mousse to give it that distinct crunch in the beginning. “What I am looking for,” he says, “is this nice bite which quickly melts away, leaving behind that thin silver of sweetness that adds to the experience.” This magical palate play was also one of the things that Chef Gorai was looking for when he took inspiration from the mudhi muan (jaggery and pepper flavoured balls of puffed rice) to create his pralines that are served alongside oats biryani. “Unlike any other cereal that has an aftertaste,” says Chef Gorai, “mudhi doesn’t leave any trace behind, so one is free to enjoy other flavours of a dish.”
Curiously, this lightness in mudhi is best showcased in bhel and its many brethren where the role of puffed rice is not only to provide the crunch but also this amazing canvas that plays up the different flavours of ingredients that make bhel so addictive. “In fact,” adds the culinary expert, “in most cases, it acts as this secret ingredient that helps elevate the flavour composition to a kind of taste that most of us find fascinating or even irresistible about chaat.”
But is the lightness and the ability to enhance flavours the only reason that mudhi is such a popular instant food across India? So much so, that rice growing states often have paddy varietals earmarked for their murmura fix?
Not really, says Jena, who has been researching old cultivators’ paddy varieties. “The thing about mudhi is that it is a product that mirrors all the goodness of rice but in a more soluble format and that includes the taste, which plays a vital role in mudhi’s popularity not just in the state that it is grown in but also in those it has travelled to, thanks to the shelf life,” explains Jena, who finds this 15th century innovation a fascinating way of giving rice a different role in the culinary matrix.
Concurs Chef Gorai, who finds mudhi a refined form of functional food that was created for the nutritive value it could bring in. While it is hard to ascertain when and how mudhi was created, admits the culinary anthropologist, “What is definite is the role mudhi was created to fill. It was built to be this instant food that could be fortified with ease (bhel seems to be one such masterpiece of the same thought) for instant gratification as well as wellness. Like madhulaja, an ancient preparation of puffed rice and honey, which is usually consumed as a recovery treat thanks to the overall lightness of the dish. This perhaps explains why most of the paddy versions chosen for making mudhi has been from the original cultivator grain that were known for their aroma, nutty taste and nutritiveness, and yielded well to boiling.”
Take the case of the Mugeishala rice for instance, he continues. “As one of the earliest known varieties grown in the Mayurbhanj belt of Odisha, this slightly off-white, aromatic variety is mostly grown for puffed rice because it retains water, which aids not just in puffing the rice but also in making it sturdy enough to be able to hold its crunchy texture irrespective of the curry and chutneys poured onto it. It is one of the key reasons why mudhi made of this rice is served along with mansa (mutton curry) as it can retain its crunch even when slathered with the rich curry. Of course, what also acts in favour of this puffed rice is that sweet, slightly buttery texture that acts as the perfect canvas on which one can play.”
“Likewise,” adds Chef Sharad Dewan (Regional Director, Food Production, The Park Hotels) “is the case with Rajamudi rice. Once the privy of the Wadiyar family of Mysuru, this red coloured rice is known not only for its nutty flavour but is also a powerhouse of vitamins, fibre and phytonutrients, making it the perfect choice for puffed rice – and is considered the king of puffed rice much like the one made with Mugeishala. Culinary wise, these versions of the puffed rice are favoured purely because of that subtle sweet nuttiness that they add to a dish and the ability to retain the crunchy texture vis a vis their brethren when added to a curry or tossed in chutney.”
But is it only the paddy varietal that gives mudhi such a brilliant taste and texture? While much of mudhi’s nutritive value is inherent to the rice it is made of, which is often a rich source of minerals, vitamins, calcium and fibre, the taste and texture is thanks to sand roasting, which is the traditional format of making puffed and popped grains in India. And the brilliance of this age-old technique over the gun and the salt-fortified puffing followed in the west is that it is a minimalist, effective way of creating the puffed version without destroying any necessary nutrients in the process thanks to the fact that sand once heated not only retains the heat well but can cool down really quickly too. “This quick, uniform heating and cooling,” add the experts, “is crucial not only for how the puffed rice would turn up but also for the nutritive-starch composition.”
Sand roasting enables a gradual expulsion of moisture from the grain, which in effect enhances carbohydrate and protein digestibility by breaking down the crystalised starch in rice, and enhances the β-glucan extractability, levels of dietary fibre, minerals, and antioxidants and reduces the inherent antinutrient levels in the rice. “This gelatinisation of rice not only helps in easy digestion but also minimises excess fat and mucous levels in stool, easing bowel movements. It also results in a process called resistant starch formation, which is a kind of a fibre that can result in,” explains Chatterjee, “improved insulin sensitivity, lower blood sugar levels and reduced appetite. Or in other words, the feeling which aids in weight loss thanks to thiamine in puffed rice that allows quick digestion of carbohydrates.”
While this process makes puffed rice a safe indulgence and effective as an ingredient that helps in bone development, controlling acidity, better cell function and even cranks up zinc, iron and magnesium that regulates muscle functions in the body including the heart, the fact that all these nutrients are quickly assimilated in the body demands another layer of fortification that the body can store for the future. Little surprise that bhel, over the years, has become the poster boy for mudhi’s crackling goodness – the add-ons often deliver the next set of nutrients and energy required.