Call it poha, aval or chira, this comfort food's popularity knows no bounds

Indore is the true 'Poha City' of the world. In the mornings, every sweet and chai shop is converted to a poha counter with huge kadais or cauldrons of poha.
Image used for representational purpose only.
Image used for representational purpose only.

Few breakfast dishes arouse as much passion as poha. Who would have thought that the humble flattened rice can trigger such culinary chauvinism? The South Indians also quibble over whose idli is softer but they do not go to war over it. If the Greater Bombay Presidency had not been split into three states, then the Malwa region surrounding Indore would have definitely seceded from Maharashtra.  

Poha (chira, sira, chuda, chivda, aval or avalakki) is uniquely Indian. But cooked poha is primarily the specialty of Western India. Poha is not only comfort food but it is also a convenience staple. Its popularity as a cereal arises from the fact that it can be eaten with very little cooking or no cooking at all. In the East, Biharis love to eat dahi chuda and the Bengalis doi or doodh chirey. But in the West and South, they like it cooked - but only minimally so.

To make poha, rice is parboiled before flattening. So the flakes easily absorb water or milk making it easy to consume. Biharis make hyperlocal distinctions between chudas. People from Champaran claim their marcha chuda scores over other regions for its flavour and aroma. The Bhagalpuris insist their katarni chuda made from the rice from the initial days of the fresh crop is far superior. I have had both. While marcha chuda is more filling mixed with dahi, katarni chuda is best enjoyed when lightly fried in ghee with a little onion and served with green-chilli pickle. The Ranchi Club serves wonderful crispy fried chuda with sauteed green peas during winters to go along with drinks. Across the border, from Champaran in Nepal, raw (uncooked) chuda comes as an accompaniment with mutton tash (a spicy tawa fried broiled mutton dish) and sometimes shukuti (smoked meat) with a dash of mustard oil, chopped onions, garlic, and chillies.  

Bengalis eat a variant of the Maharashtrian poha which they call chirer polao (or pulav). To justify the name, they add cashews and kishmish. The vegetables are cooked with whole garam masala and like any good Bengali dish, a pinch of salt is added before tempering it with some “gawa (cow’s milk) ghee” and garam masala powder. Chirey bhaja used to be a favourite evening snack for Bengalis in winters but is now going out of vogue. Of late, one sees packed chirey bhaja - but one can never be sure of the preservatives and artificial flavours used. However, any true blue Bong will tell you that nothing can beat chirey mixed with mishti doi on a summer afternoon -- especially after coming home from school.

Aval upma is the South Indian version of poha. What distinguishes it from the Maharashtrian poha is the use of mustard seeds, urad dal, chana dal and sometimes a pinch of hing (asafoetida) in the tempering with, of course, curry leaves replacing coriander (though that too is sometime used). Puli or lemon aval is another variant. Some temples, I am told, also make aval without onion.

Pune is associated with Laxmi Narayan Chiwda. But that is not breakfast poha. It is a savoury chiwda akin to a namkin or sev made with the addition of corn flakes, potato strips and other condiments. When I lived in Pune in the eighties, Laxmi Narayan Chiwda was sold in brown paper bags from one store outside their factory at Bhawani Peth in the old city. Now it is a huge brand selling across the country and even exported. Though the puritan in me does not approve, keeping with the times they have expanded the range to include potato chiwda, corn chiwda and badam chiwda. I'm not sure if the original blend is still available from the Bhawani Peth factory outlet.

Indore is the true 'Poha City' of the world. In the mornings, every sweet and chai shop is converted to a poha counter with huge kadais or cauldrons of poha. Mothers dropping kids to school buses or autos would buy a helping of poha and pack it into their tiffin box. Others would get served on cut newspaper topped with a sprinkling of sev, chopped onions, chillies, coriander and a dash of lemon. What differentiates Indore poha from others is the fennel seeds and Jeeravan powder - which is supposed to be a mixture of some 18 spices including hing (asafoetida), mace, nutmeg and caraway seeds. Kanda poha of middle Maharashtra is more basic. But further down south, it gets another dimension with coconut shavings.

My most recent discovery has been tarri poha in Nagpur - where poha is served with a hot channa (chickpeas) curry. This was indeed delicious even if a trifle sinful way to start the day. Though available all over Nagpur, Ramji Shyamji Pohewale in Sneh Nagar is one of the more famous outlets recommended by my friends. The small half of tomato placed on top adds an artistic dimension to the plate. If Vidarbha is bifurcated in future, who knows, it could well be over poha.

Read all food columns by Sandip Ghose here

(Sandip Ghose is an author and current affairs commentator. He tweets @SandipGhose.)

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