Mua: The Brilliant Winter Warmer

Meet the original energy bar that is an extraordinary blend of technique and wellness science, and worth its goodness in gold. 

By Madhulika Dash


Mua. For most Indians, while the word, incidentally pronounced MU-AA, may mean different things, but for denizens in Odisha and peers, it is the very definition of an unforgettable winter treat – a dessert minus the guilt. Mua, often alternated with Ukhada, is one of the few exceptional dishes in the Indian culinary lexicon that gives away little not just about the dish itself but of its genesis too. That is till you have tasted one of ancient India's most prolific creations, and suddenly the familiarity of the dish hits you like a bolt. 

Not only is this popped paddy based sweet treat instantly likeable, even for first-timers, much like arisa pitha or ariselu, mua, which historians believe is a word defining crunchiness, too has its brethren that are spread across the country- from the hills to the southern sea, albeit called differently. 

The Goodness Pop

This makes Mua, a ladoo format sweet made of jaggery, popped paddy (and in some case puffed rice too), cardamom, fennel or panmahuri and pepper with slivers of coconut thrown in for taste, texture and goodness, one of the widely available winter treat much like its brethren til ke ladoo. So why is something so common, reasonably lesser known and recollected? After all, old Samhitas put not just the ingredients but the treat itself in the same league as til ladoo or gond ladoo – both in terms of the timeline and its usage as a healing antidote. 

In fact, the sheer composition of mua much like its peers showcases an exceptional knowledge of not just the circadian rhythm, but its correlation to seasonal changes that directly affects our food habits. Take for instance the base ingredient khai or lia. Made by sand roasting pre-soaked paddy kernels, khai or lia was valued in the ancient world not only as a food item, especially one that could be carried with ease, but as a wellness resource. 

Void of any inherent anti-nutrient levels, with the nutritive components of paddy – essentially carbohydrate, protein, fibre and minerals – effectively altered for easy digestibility, khai formed an integral part of not just the meals of toddlers, elderlies and recovering patients but was valued enough to be part of the temple prasad as well. Its easy digestibility along with the subtle taste made khai not just a popular snack of the rice eating and rice growing regions of India, but the base ingredient for many a treat including the widely made Mua ladoo. In fact, what gave khai its instant fan following aside from the taste was the economics. 


A Treat as Old as Khai

Making khai and even importing it was more affordable as compared to makhana that earned its stripes around the same time as mudhi (puffed rice) and amaranth (rajgira) as sustainable food. The same applied for Mua ladoo too, which travelled really well, was cheap, courtesy the ingredients needed to make, and could be tweaked to taste depending on the region it was made in. 

And yet, much like til and gond ladoo, mua ladoo across board followed a standard recipe that is said to have set up by the Vaids back in the day, who used it both as a winter antidote and a classic nourisher, giving mua a through-the-year relevance. 

However Mua ladoo popularity, which is an integral part of the Makar Sakranti celebration in many parts of Odisha, came as a winter and a harvest treat for which nutritionists say it is most suited for, given the calorie-heavy diet one has during the season. Mua by contrast brings in all the necessary nutrients but at a quarter of the quantity. Based on the wellness principles of Charak Samhita, Mua Ladoos have an interesting blend of not just the right kind of warming and balmy spices – fennel, cardamom and pepper – but also have the other necessary components that keeps one mentally happy during the gloomy days.

In fact, each mua ladoo in its nutritive and taste composition is akin to a good nutri bar today with the added benefit of fortifying it further. One of the mua's aces that has been at the foundation of the different variants one gets to see today. And the beauty of the evolved versions where mua has transitioned from its spherical format to a more familiar chikki and brittle styled ukhada is that each comes with the necessary qualification to be the perfect snack and power meal. 


The Temple Association 

It is here that the flourishing history of Mua lies. While it is plausible that Mua's journey could have started as an antidote that was prescribed to those recovering and to kids, the ladoo's popularity has much to do with its association with temples – where it enjoyed its status as a prasad and a beloved treat of people around. 

In fact,  most mua making and selling shops today are around a temple – and that isn't just in the case of Odisha but across India where this crunchy treat travelled to.

But how?


A Designed History

A simple explanation for this is the temple builders, who through ancient and medieval history enjoyed a vigorous patronship as cooks did, or sometimes more. Temples through history were not just built as an institution that promoted a thought process and the art of living, but were platforms that united a kingdom. They were open tomes on philosophy and culture and often set the tone of the path a king wanted to follow. 

One of the reasons is that in East, North East and Southern Odisha one finds more temples which were platforms of influence than palaces and forts. But building one that could be the epitome of the magnificence of a certain period of dynasty took time. Each temple that today defines an era and a style of architecture took a long process of coming about – during which time both the temple architect and the builders worked round the clock getting the tone right. 

Since most of the early experimentation happened on ground - the reasons why Bhubaneswar, once Kharavela dynasty's epicenter for temple building, has close to a thousand (and still unearthing) odd temples – the working hours were back breakingly long with not much time to spare. It was here that mua, which by virtue of being food for wellness made of local produce had become part of the culinary lexicon, came as a rescue.


The Perfect Work Food 

Portioned well with the right kind of nutritive composition, Mua became the perfect definition of work food – something that could be had with ease and kept one satiated so as to not lose day time. But mua did more than just sustain these workers to work long hours, it also helped them maintain a cheerful focus and disposition. 

Of course, the fact that it needed no add-ons and yet could be tweaked to a place or seasonal local flavours made it a popular snack for these workers who by the rise of Chola empire had become a much-in-demand work force and would travel far and wide. And with them travelled the farmer's treat called Mua, which by then played the role of an equaliser and was enjoyed by both commoners and royalty. 

In fact, mua's balmy nature during winters and its association to seasonal harvest festival made it an integral part of many food cultures, including Odisha, where the treat is enjoyed more during the change of the season. In fact, the composition of Mua helps maintain the mind-stomach balance around the Sankranti time when days become longer. This is usually a phase where the body is thrown into confusion and is in need of a quick burst of energy that can keep the mind calm and is easy on the digestive system. 

Mua, a reformatted paddy, along with jaggery, spices and coconut slivers for fat works this equation like a well-managed orchestra of taste and texture where each ingredient plays a specific role to keep us happy and calm. 


The Right Kind Matters

To do this effectively, care is taken to use the right kind of khai and jaggery in making the treat. In Odisha, mostly paddy varieties like basa, masuri, rangasiuli and pradhan are used for this purpose because of their inherent sweetness and the ability to withstand hot jaggery without getting soggy. This ensures that Mua ladoos once cold would get the trademark crunchiness that they are known for. 

Likewise for jaggery, which is seasonal first flush, has a bitter aftertaste. This ensures the contrast in taste will build well. Also, the right kind of jaggery melts better, giving a thin layer of glue to the khai instead of chunks, thus creating a better bite too. However, the thin line that separates mua that would work to a pile of gobbledygook is the timing of adding the spices and the technique of blending and creating ladoos while the mixture is still warm. 

Done right, it creates the perfect energy bar that has just enough of everything to do a world of balmy goodness to you. 

Image courtesy: Chef Ajay Sahoo, JP Jagdev