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The Charisma of Poori-Bhaaji

Popularity and palate appeal aside, here’s what made Poori Bhaaji one of the finest examples of the idea of Republic

By Madhulika Dash; Photo courtesy Chef Neha Deepak Shah and Stock Images

One of the fascinating things about noted historian and writer RV Smith’s article “Memories of the First Republic Day” is how in detail the account is. Nothing is left to imagination. And this includes the food that was the highlight of the day – at least from the food places that played an equally important role in our freedom struggle.

Smith writes about how iconic places like the Karim’s and Ghantewala Halwai (now shut for business) distributed food and sweets to the poor on the occasion, while Gurudwara Sis Ganj alomng with Gurudwaras Bangla Sahib and Rakabganj held a big langar to mark that day that made people finally realise and accept that we were one and we were free. India had not just won the freedom but was a republic too with her own place in the World Map and the stage of Nation. And in the center of all the celebration was the humble poori-bhaji (and halwa) – a meal that hadn’t only witnessed the changing of eras (read history) and rulers; but also been at the forefront of every single, significant event that went into the making of the Indian human history.

Be it being the first food to make it to the highways to infusing a sense of brotherhood among people of different caste and religion to even becoming the first street food to find credence and a place in the Indian Railway platform. But what gave this common man’s favourite breakfast the edge? A probable answer to this and as to why it was one that was selected to be a part of the very first Republic Day celebration was

of course the all palate appeal. A fact that was acknowledged even by Guru Nanak and Guru Amar Das considered poori-bhaji to be the great cultural equaliser when they made it a part of the langar

that Emperor Akbar had to partake too.

The other theory of course is poori-bhaji own ancestry as one of the oldest meal compositions created and propagated by our ancient texts including the Rig Veda and Charak Samhita. According to these ancient texts Poori, which finds mention in one or many of its earlier avtaars including Pupalika, Pahalika and Mandhukroda, and the Mithila period, Phulika (which is also believed to be the version from which pani puri originated), is considered to be a pure source of energy thanks to the combination and the art of deep frying (or air frying). In fact, it was one of the few grains that allowed the scope of fortification as and when required. In case of Poori, says Sveta Bhassin (Nutritional Therapist), provided that perfect, layered foil for not just instant release of energy but also the minimalist treatment of herbs and spices so that they can be

more effective once inside the body.”

Culinary archivist Chef Sabyasachi Gorai (Chefpreneur, Fabrica By Saby),who has been studying the various forms of ancient cakes including the iconic apupa that led to the creation of the one of India’s oldest dessert, Malpua, says, “the thing about poori, which is made of wheat flour is that it is a creation that not only plays the perfect canvas to as many combination with the ease of a trapeze artist, but is also an inherently an almost neutral flour with a certain sweet taste that makes it easy on the palate and palate memory. Result, the expansive popularity of poori and bhaji, which traditionally was a melange of vegetables instead of the potatoes that are served today.”

The other ace up poori’s sleeve continues Chef Gorai, “was the technique of making it, which was frying. Or in other words, quick cooking that would evaporate the water outside the dough creating a vacuum inside while breaking down the sugar. Thus, lending poori is pillowy lightness and that sweet nice taste, which while instantly satiating your craving and often lead one to over binge.”

In doing so, adds Bhassin, “the combination of poori-bhaaji did emerge as one meal that instantly satiated and could fill one up for a long day at work, given that most of our pooris were often peppered with an extra layer of goodness including a layer of lentil or a filling of green peas mash. These flavour additions served more than just making the pooris tasty or filling, they made it a good on the wellness part of it as well, because of the minimalistic cooking that the filling was exposed to thus preserving all the nutrients.”

Fascinatingly, while this made poori, which traditional text considered one of the finest antidote for the brain and managing stress levels, an integral part of our curative food system, it also worked to its popularity with wheat becoming a second choice of staple, even for the rice growing and loving places. The nutritive state of poori also led to quite a few other meal combinations that were wired for wellness, the prime of which being the poori-srikhand, pooru-halwa and of course, poori-aamras.

Each, says Bhassin, “that come with a good dose of curative properties for the brain and its wear and tear. And in turn, its management of the moods, thus turning poori-bhaji into a comfort food as well.”

The latter in fact, adds Chef Gorai, “that took poori-bhaji that for long remained a part of rituals to the street to become a popular breakfast that fed the citymakers and dwellers alike. Another factor was of course the economics. Wheat was a common staple grown widely across the country, and bhaji was cued to what was local and easily available. This may explain how potatoes too came to be one of the combinations of the meal, which had superbowls like the Guajarati Undhiyu and Odia Ghanta playing accompaniment.”

What, conclude the experts, “however was poori-bhaaji biggest win on other breakfast that made it a staple across India – even nudging the cabinwalas of Calcutta to create the famous cousin luchi (made of maida) – was its shelf life. Pooris travelled really well and stayed in a dabba for weeks, could be had on its own and lend this balmy feeling even when cold turned it into one of the single most innovation that united India – in palate.”

Clearly, it was that feeling at play when thousands of denizens queued in front of the Gurudwara to celebrate their first day of being Republic with the good old, poori bhaji.