Gluten-free, lactose intolerant friendly, low-calorie, easy to digest and make - a few things that makes this farmer’s first meal a good addition to one’s food habits. Vedas agree too!

By Madhulika Dash; Pictures by A Foodies’ Diary

If there is one ingredient whose popularity is akin to rice or a little bit more, it is poha or as ordinarily known as flattened rice. Made from parboiled rice that is dried and then flattened, flattened rice to most of India – at least the rice growing belt is akin to corn in Mexico. It is cheap, readily available and is enjoyed in many ways with the more famous version being the Odia Santhula, Maharastrian and Indori style poha, Rajastani Poya- Chutney and a series of dishes made down south including the aval biryani. Each version isn’t just loved for its unique flavours but also that filling of palate satiation that poha dishes bring to us. Think about it, most of the savoury poha dishes are built in layers and has almost all things that are known to be fast digesting and thus can send this booster of energy to the body making us feel full, happy, and ready to work. It was one of the few qualities of flattened rice that has made poha, a breakfast quintessential across India. The other being of course is the versatility of poha, which is akin to rice in the sense that it can take on any kind of tempering, herbs and even ingredients and yet manage to taste delicious. The outcome you have not just but over a dozen version of the kanda poha that come with addition of peas, potatoes, carrots and even a layer of farsan on the top. Its other equally brilliant format is of course the chivda where the flattened rice fried on high heat before the other tastemaking condiments are added. The high-heat not only lends the poha with that beloved crunch but lightness that has turned this Gujarati and Marwari merchants invention into a popular chakana and trael food today. But more on that later.

Amidst all its savoury versions, there is one poha dish that finds mention not only in our vedas but also occupies a place of pride in the rituals and is easily considered the best morning meal not just in one state but three. The dish is Chuda Chakta – or a mashed dish made with unpolished flattened rice, curd, jaggery and seasonal fruit, though priority is given to bananas that grow through the season. The three-state instant meal option, Chuda Chakta or as Assamese would call it, Chira Mudhi Doi not only is a dish that is loved by denizens all ages and is happily had in health (and sickness) but is also an integral part of the rituals.

No good occasion in Assam, says Dr Geeta Dutta (founder, A Foodies’ Diary) is complete without the Jolpan of the Chira Mudhi Doi. It is an essential part of the Bihu offering and considered to be one of the purest forms of food that even the Lords accept readily.” Concurs Chef Sumanta Chakrabarti (Corporate Chef, Sonar Tori), who finds it a classic that aces the art of appealing to newer palates. And one of the reason for its modern-day relevance, he says, “not only comes from the fact that it is the first meal that a kid has in her home or the nostalgia associated with it as it is often the food lovingly fed by grandmas before we hopped out for a good play-day during the summer vacation but also because it is the meal that even Durga Maa is offered on the morning of visarajan. The logic behind offering such a basic meal rather than something more gourmet stems from the belief that chuda digests slowly and hence can keep you satiated for a longer period of time.”

It is, incidentally, a fact that even our traditional wellness science approves of as Chuda Dahi’s mention is found not just as part of the common food habits – even kings, says culinary custodian Manju Dash, “too had when they were not only on the move towards the battle field but as part of their working meals while at court. In fact, if there was one dish that bridged the gap between raja and rankh (that being the monks and sadhus), it was the chuda or if one has to be more precise chuda-dahi that allowed for easy digestion, was high on gut friendly probiotics given that both dahi and chuda comes with their fair share of the gut friendly bacteria and could be elevated with ease to suit the purpose. While the famers meal was a simple dahi, chuda and jaggery with fruits as an option, the royalty could be gourmet with a choice of fruits and dry fruits – the exception was only when one wasn’t in the pink of health. In which case not just the poha – which ordinarily was the unpolished even the red ones – were replaced with the white ones, but the preparation was kept to the basic.”

However, she adds, “the sheer versatility of the dahi-chuda and its adaptable nature made it popular among the pandits, monks and even the merchants who abstained from eating food on the road and carried their own meals. This perhaps explains how the concept of the iron-rich, fibre-rich  dahi-chuda not only travelled across the length and breadth of the East Coast but also the different versions that took shape of this amazingly filling breakfast deal. Story has it that Gautam Buddha found the meal so soulful that he would often have it on days spent on meditation. It is said to have extolled chuda-dahi as a dish that was made for the body, mind, and soul. A possible reason why it was a popular meal of the Mithila Pandits too, who found it a meal that allowed them the focus and the calmness to carry on their work.

Would it be safe to assume then that the breakfast would have been a part of the soldiers’ meal too? Quite possibly, say the experts, “as chuda had the double advantage of great economics and local availability, which were the two crucial factors that were considered before a dish or an ingredient was made part of the army ration even back in the day – and chuda, an ingredient that is lighter to rice both in terms of calories as well as weight – fitted the bill perfectly. And since dahi was often available in remote parts of the kingdom, it would be an easy pick specially as a peace time grub that allowed enough energy and alertness for the  soldier to function.”

What makes it an ideal addition to the work meal of today’s work soldiers’ as per nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, “is the very same facts that made it a popular breakfast. It is gluten-free, high on good carbs, can manage sugar well, cools the stomach and the mind, has this boost of gut friendly bacteria, has enough iron and fibre for good bowel movement and also to keep one satiated for a long time. What needs to be seen however is the kind of poha one selects – the unpolished ones are surely better and involves chewing that itself adds to the feeling of being full – and the layer. Preferably there should be one or two contrasting fruits that gives the dish sweetness as well as the required antioxidant. Nuts can be a good addition to it if the plan is for a long hour of work ahead.”

So next time you think poha, try the Chuda-Dahi…