It was a cold winter night in Lucknow. After I had managed to coax my toddler to bed, I settled under a quilt, cozy and snug, looking forward to some precious ‘me time’ with my book. This is when the doorbell rang to announce the arrival of my husband’s cousin, his tone and smile an unspoken apology for the late hour. His work-related travel plans were always sudden and since this was the pre-mobile phone era, his visits were usually unannounced.
Most Indians are familiar with the adage ‘athithi devo bhava’, which means ‘guests are equal to God’. It was certainly the maxim that my mother-in-law lived by. Her love for cooking and hosting guests was well known. Only married for two years at the time, I had already seen many acquaintances drop by our home, only to walk out as friends for life after she had cooked a meal for them.
Within minutes of welcoming our visitor, we rustled up piping hot rice and offered him an array of podis (or spice powders) to choose from. The choices before him were tantalising: on the one hand, there was a crunchy coconut podi, made of roasted coconut pounded with roasted urad dal (black gram) and chillies. On the other was a mildly bitter angaya podi, a digestive spice powder made from the flowers of the neem tree and sundakkai (or dried turkey berries), roasted until deep red and ground with red chillies, salt and curry leaves. A good pinch of asafoetida makes this podi deeply flavoursome.
In all four South Indian languages, podi translates to pounded or crushed. These aromatic powders are usually made of dry roasted lentils, and flavoured with spices such as pepper, cumin and red chillies. Traditionally prepared at home and stored in earthenware jars or glass bottles, they are usually eaten with rice and a dollop of ghee. The most popular among all podis is milagai podi or chutney podi as it is also known. As an accompaniment to idlis and dosas, this powder can add a jolt of spice. That’s why its most popular sobriquet is ‘gunpowder’. Other podis include paruppu podi (made of tuvar dal or pigeon peas), karivepaku podi (made of curry leaves), yellu podi (made of roasted sesame seeds), raw plantain podi, and podis made of mint and coriander leaves. In recent times, mundakathan podi or balloon vine powder is gaining popularity as it is widely touted to help mitigate arthritic pain.
All these powders have a few principal ingredients that bind them, the most important of these being lentils and spices. Most podis are made of either tuvar or urad dal or a combination of both. The spices used are also the products of various parts of the plant such as pods, seeds, buds, stamen, leaves and bark. “Podis were what one [could] call reserve material taken from plants around us,” explained Padmini Natrajan, a culinary editor, author and independent writer. “When there was a kitchen crisis [such as] not enough [wooden] logs or damp ones and making freshly cooked dal would be time consuming, the podis or powders made from various ingredients came in handy as an accompaniment to the main course of white rice and ghee. These recipes handed down through generations made good use of all available resources.”
As Natrajan explained, abundantly available fresh produce such as curry leaves, coriander leaves and other seasonal greens were dehydrated and made into powders. Gourds such as bottle gourd, ridge gourd and chayote squashes were chopped and dried in the sun. They were then roasted with urad dal and peanuts, spiced with red chillies or black pepper and powdered. “Vegetarians needed a daily fix of proteins and thus, these lentils provided them with an instant [fix]. Moreover, in large joint families, these [podis] turned out to be economical as well,” explained Natarajan.
Apart from being a convenient source of protein, podis may also have been a natural byproduct of traditional systems of preservation. Food blogger and cookbook author Dr Nandita Iyer says that podis may have been created because of practical reasons. Anything with moisture would spoil easily in the days before refrigeration, while these powders would stay fresh for longer.
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Photo credit Anjana Narayan