Puran poli. The Maharashtrian Holi festival treat that connects the rather diverse worlds of Tarak Mehta and Shakespeare.

Puran poli served with sweetened hot milk at Aaswad

"Yet I do fear thy nature. It is too full o'the milk of human kindness." Lady Macbeth. 

A life enriched by a wee bit of the milk of human kindness

Tuesday, 12th March 2019, is a day that will be etched in my life forever as the one on which I discovered the joy that one gets by dipping puran poli first into hot and sweetened milk and then  having it.

This is the point at which a Maharashtrian reader of this post might say, 'what's the fuss all about? That's what we always do!'

I would not deny that. I must confess though that I had no idea what to when I had ordered a plate of puran poli at Aaswad, a family run Maharashtrian sweet shop and snack bar turned vegetarian casual restaurant at Dadar in Mumbai. It was served with a bowl of hot milk accompanying it you see and this was new to me. 

"How should I eat it? What do I do with the bowl of milk," I asked the manager who had come to our table at that point. 

He looked at me, sized me up as someone not too conversant with Maharashtrian food, smiled and  then kindly and patiently proceeded to do a demo for me. He unwrapped the puran poli, which was folded like an envelope on the plate, laid it flat on the plate and poured some ghee on the round surface of the puran poli. He then advised me to break a bit of the ghee drenched puran poli with my fingers, dip it  (the pp) into the milk and then take a bite of the milk and ghee soaked puran poli.

The moment of truth. Please forgive the food
smeared fingers. This was at end of a long meal

I did as instructed and then did a double take once I took the first bite. What I tasted was truly ambrosial!!!!!

The confluence of flavours of the sugary milk, the jaggery infused lentil mash stuffed within the poli (a thin stuffed roti) and the slight savouriness of the ghee, made for a heady taste experience. 

I had thought that I would have just a bite or two at the start and not have the entire puran poli. I then proceeded to wipe the plate clean. That is how good it was! 

The manager at Aaswad told me that there are people in the state of Maharashtra who apparently also have puran poli just with ghee or even with kadhi or dal (if I heard him right). However, the Brahmins like their food a bit sweet he said and he added that the food at Aaswad represents the sort of food cooked in Brahmin households in the state. The owners are from Malvan though. Hence they had served the puran poli with sugar sweetened hot milk here, he explained. While puran poli is an evergreen favourite in Maharashtrian houses, my understanding is that it was a Holi special. He confirmed this. He added with a smile polished with happy memories from his own life, "certain food rituals can't be tampered with in Maharashtrian homes. Puri with shrikhand and alu bhaaji on Gudi Padva (the Maharashtrian new year( for example and puran poli on Holi."

(Update) Suryakant Sarjoshi, the second generation owner of Aaswad, later wrote to me on reading this post and said "this is such a sweet puran poli-like gesture from you before Holi. You know, it takes a lot of hard work and dedicated efforts to get the right recipe for Puran Poli. All the ingredients of the stuffing, when blended together gives the divine taste. The process of of stuffing the blended ingredients inside the dough is quite tricky. To top it, the outer crust has to be thin and yet soft. Phew! I sometimes wonder how women in our households, with no catering college training, would achieve such perfection. Truly commendable.

It is offered to the Holika Goddess during Holi when the Holi is lit. It is now consumed through the year. You must try and visit the Konkan region during Holi or Ganesh Utsav someday to try these dishes. You are welcome to our humble home too as my mother and wife are experts at making puran poli."

I was floored by his warmth. I have had puran polis in the past, including the amazing puran poli ice cream at Aaswad, but what made it special this time is what Shakespeare would describe as the 'milk of human kindness,' a phrase Shakespeare had used in Macbeth, with which it was served.

Now what's Tarak Mehta got to this, you wondered? Well, stay with me for a bit more.

The discovery of India. One ghavne at a time.

In case you asked, 'what is puran poli,' and you are not Maharashtrian then you would have asked a very pertinent question. Let me try to explain though I am not a Maharashtrian myself. 

Puran poli is a sort of sweet roti made with an equal mix of wholewheat refined flours at home and refined flour (maida) commercial. It is stuffed with mashed channa dal and jaggery. It is a Maharashtrian dish and is had on most auspicious occasions, starting with Holi as I told you earlier. It is a dish that I have got to know of after I started I to blog about food and got to meet some Maharashtrians foodies in the process. I had lived in Mumbai for more than a decade before that and yet had not encountered the dish!

(Update) My friend Anjali Koli, whom you will read about later, adds that puran poli is dry roasted on a tava. A bit of toop (ghee) is added while eating. The fat of the ghee helps one digest the protein (channa dal) better. The milk helps soften the texture of the puran poli.

Anjali says that there are various combinations in which puran poli is had across Maharashtra. It could be had dipped in sugarcane juice at times, with the channa dal stock curry kata chi amti. The strained water that one gets after boiling the dal.

With Camellia Punjabi MBE and British food writer of Indian
origin Meera Sodha at the Living Foodz Epicurean Guild
Awards 2019 last night. In the red bag is the box of
Ben's Cookies that Meera got me allthe way from London!

The fact that being Bengali one didn't know all of this about puran poli oneself, reminded me of what the legendary restaurateur Camellia Punjabi had told me recently about her experiences while trying to open restaurants serving regional Indian food at the Taj Hotel group and later with her restaurants in London. This was way before the interest in regional Indian food that you see today in mass and social media.

"They told me that we Indians are not interested in Indian food from regions apart from our own. That we do not try to find out more about it. Nor are we inclined to try it," said Miss Punjabi and then added with a twinkle in her eyes, "I tried to challenge that notion through my work."

The Power Puff Girls at Aaswad. My mother in law, Pervin Bilimoria, in the
foreground and mother, Rekha Karmakar, at the back. Both Tarak Mehta fans

I was with my mother (a Bengali who was born in Dhaka, grown up in Delhi and who had lived abroad and then in Kolkata) and my mother in law (a Parsi, born in Surat and who lives in Mumbai) at Aaswad that afternoon. Turned out that they were even less conversant with Maharashtrian food than I was and I do not blame them for that. 

They had reached the restaurant a bit before I did and did not know what to order. My mother in law  then confidently called for a misal pav. She told me that she had first come across the dish when I had nominated the dish at Aaswad for the Foodie Hub Awards and when it went on to win the ' Foodie Hub best vegetarian dish in the world' award that year.

"You had not come across misal in your office canteens," I asked, sounding a bit surprised. She shook her head to indicate she had not though she had worked in a bank in Mumbai all her life before she had retired. I had thought that misal was a common office canteen dish in Mumbai and hence the surprise in my voice. The first time that I had it myself was in the IMRB office canteen at Dadar soon after I had moved into Mumbai. I loved it!

Aaswad's now legendary misal

My mother told me that she had heard of puran poli before. This was in her favourite serial on TV, Tarak Mehta Ka Ulta Chashma! She added that she was happy to have finally tried it.

We had some other Maharashtian dishes such as thali peeth (which mom confused with thepla which she had heard of on TM), kothambir vadi, pohe, bharli vangi and a Maharashtrian rice flour based crunchy dosa like dish called ghavne/ ghavan that afternoon. My mom loved the ghavan the most, possibly because the taste was familiar to her and because she loves dosas. She enjoyed the Kothimbir Vadi and Thali peeth too though she said the she wished that they not fried. Ironically, the non-restaurant version of the thali peeth is actually not a fried dish.

Image link: https://goo.gl/images/K3vCEd

Thali Peeth at Aaswad

Kothimbir vadi at Aaswad

Finding answers in a plate of rice

Masala bhaat with kadhi and a sweetish vegetable curry at Aaswad

My mother in law loved the masala bhaat which she ordered for her mains at Aaswad as she loves spicy rice based dishes. My mother found it to be a bit moist for her taste though. Pulaos are not so in Bengal, she explained. Which then got her to ask my mother in law about what a Parsi pulao is like. "Like a biryani," concluded my mother rightly when the dish was explained to her. Yes, the Parsi pulao is rather similar to the biryani of Kolkata.

I had a plate of varan bhaat toop. Marathi for dal, rice and ghee. Comfort food to the community. I enjoy it too. Especially, with the fried red chilli that they give at Aaswad and the papars. The dish perplexed my mother once again though for reasons different from the masala bhaat.

Varan bhaat toop plate at Aaswad

"We do not have just dal and rice in Bengal. We have at least a vegetable side dish with it. Or fish fry," she exclaimed.

My mother in law did not find the varan bhaat toop combination strange though. Dal rice is a common dish in office canteens in Mumbai. Served with a papar and pickle at the most. She lived on it during her office days. If you step into any air-conditioned office in Mumbai just after lunch, you will see that it smells of dal fry! My mother though would freak if she saw that the dal there (in canteens, not Aaswad) has garlic in it. We Bengalis, hardly ever add it to dal.

Bharli vangi with ghavan/ ghavne at Aaswad

"I learn so much about food when I come to Mumbai,"  concluded my mother. "It's good to keep learning even after one has crossed seventy."

It was interesting to see the reaction of both the mothers to the meal.  I realised that while I do hang around with people who are well versed with food or are food obsessed these days, not everyone is so. They are just normal. Not food nerds like us!

I can't say that the two moms rush off to cook the new dishes that they are introduced to.. That is not their thing! But at least they are interested to try food which is different from their own. I am not saying that they always like what they try. My mother in law for example, never took to the Kolkata biyrani over the Mumbai one, though there are Bengali dishes that she loves such as alur dom and kosha deem.

However, they do enjoy the experience of trying out new dishes. And that, Ms Punjabi would be thrilled to point out I am sure, is a great thing.

My mother talks about her Aaswad  Tarak Mehta moment moment on FB

The new Indian food revolution

Thankfully things are changing. Take the two septuagenarians again. It is not that they are more interested in the food from other parts from other parts country now just because their son/ son in law is food obsessed. There are many more factors that influence them.

My mother in law is treated to home cooked vegetarian dishes by her Gujarati friends from her yoga class these days I am told. My mother gets to learn about Sindhi, Gujarati, Maharashtrian, Catholic and Muslim food when she goes for walks at Almeida Park in Bandra when she visits us in Mumbai. She has made friends from different communities there who teach her about their home cuisines. My mother reads food blogs too including those written by Maharashtrians such as Saee Koranne Khandekar and Anjali KoliNandita Iyer  who is a Tamilian  and Alka Keswani who is Sindhi.

It is from Saee that I myself had learnt that unlike what one gets in Maharashtrian restaurants, the thali peeth made at home is not deep fried. The former is done more for logistic exigencies in small eateries.

Mom & me at Anjali's

Anjali Koli with Rekha Karmakar (mom)

Meet the Kolis

Yesterday afternoon, Anjali Koli had most kindly invited mom and me for lunch at home. She served us a home cooked Koli meal for us. The Kolis are the fisher folks of Mumbai and are considered to be the original residents of the city.. She and her father lavished us with warmth. Anjali modified the meal and served more vegetarian than seafood dishes unlike what the Kolis would normally do for guests as my mother limits her protein intake these days. She limited the amount of spice too as she was worried about my low tolerance levels for chilli heat.

Anjali and mom are friends too though she and I knew each other first through our respective blogs. Mom told her about our Aaswad experiences and wondered why the main course options among Maharashtrians were so limited and whether the kothimbir vadi could be served steamed.

Anjali explained that Aaswad, whose full name is Aaswad Upahar & Mithi Griha, was originally just a snack shop and hence the range of main courses is limited at present and there there is more to Maharashtrian vegetarian food than what sees in restaurants such as Aaswad and Prakash. She also pointed out that kothimbir vadi is a snack and hence deep fried.

Anjali looked patiently answered all the questions that my mother had for that's what food bloggers do.

And for the everything else there is Tarak Mehta!

PSA Aaswad is going to go back to its old location opposite the Sena Bhavan in a few weeks from what I have heard

Here’s what Anjali cooked you can but imagine how wonderful it was:

1. Grilled Sole fish with garlic, curry leaves tadka. It’s traditionally boiled and dry roasted on the embers of a coal stove. Anjali added a tarka because she felt it would be too plain to serve to guests. Her father, who has given up non-veg too, told us that the fish was one of his favourites and it was truly beautiful
2. Fresh Ambaar (tiny prawns) with spring onions. My mother said that this could have passed off as a Bengali dish too
3. Bhavnagri mirchi in coconut+onion+poppy seeds masala. This was my favourite of the day.
4. Laal maath stir fry with onions n chilies. The laal shaak of Bengal
5. Kokum Saar with radish. Loved how this paired with red rice
6. Fresh halad karvanda pickle. This turmeric pickle was amazing and its flavours were so clean

With the mummies at Aaswad, March, 2019

With the Kolis


Unknown said…
Hi Kalyan,
Do try Puran Poli once with Coconut milk instead of regular milk. People from the Konkan region prefer to have it that way. Jaggery and coconut never goes wrong..