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Poha, a breakfast fixture, finds mention in Krishna-Sudama tales; Indore's famed flattened rice dish looks at GI tag

Poha also went beyond India well before cornflakes was invented.

, ET Bureau|
Aug 13, 2019, 04.21 PM IST
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When the British came to India, they found the easy-to-prepare poha a useful product for their Indian soldiers.
Applying for Geographical Indication (GI) status for foods can be contentious, as the battle between Odisha and West Bengal over GI status for rosogullas shows. But hopefully the plan by the splendidly-named Indori Mithai Aur Namkeen Nirmat-Vikreti Vyapari Sangh for GI status for poha should not face problems.

For one, the Sangh hopes to establish heritage status for just the heartier form of the flattened rice dish enjoyed in Indore. But also, it is welcome that anyone is trying to give poha its due. The food world delights in making obscure ingredients trendy, yet poha remains both familiar, yet curiously unappreciated. We eat it for breakfast, or as a snack in chivda, or grind it to give dosas and papads a certain lightness, but rarely consider it otherwise.

Compare that with corn flakes, which are essentially the same thing: Soaked and cooked grain that is then flattened and dried. The Kellogg brothers invented the process in the 1890s and built a fortune from it, but poha making is far older. The story of Krishna and Sudama usually has the latter bringing a few handfuls of poha when he goes to meet his rich and royal friend — and far from disdaining, Krishna relishes this memory of their youth.

Poha also went beyond India well before cornflakes was invented. When the British came to India, they found this easy-to-prepare grain a useful product for their Indian soldiers. In 1846, The Times of India reported an order from the Bombay garrison that whenever native troops were to be transported by ship, “the commissariat department will supply only grain parched, and ‘powa’, for their use on the voyage.” In 1878, the paper reported that a troop of sepoys was detained at Cyprus for want of ‘powa’ for their journey back home.

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Poha was probably ideal for the voyage for the same reason it’s good to eat on flights — just pour hot water and in a few minutes, its fluffed up and ready to eat. It is also useful during natural crises, like floods, when it can be supplied as an easy-to-prepare food.

This has also caused misconceptions among raw food faddists that poha is a grain that magically needs no cooking. It is, of course, cooked in the preparation process, in which the rice gains a slightly gelatinous quality which probably accounts for its particularly soft texture when rehydrated.

This might also make it slightly resistant to integrating with curries, which has been cited as one reason why it isn’t used more. Poha’s status as a slightly superfluous product is shown by a series of government orders in the 1960s, when rice was in short supply, limiting its manufacture, to hold rice for regular use. (Presumably the Army had found other rations by then).

Luckily, those times are past and poha can now be made without restriction. All that’s needed is for us really to appreciate and use it, in different ways, and for that the Indore organisation’s GI application, is one much needed step.
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