Poha: The momo for the mornings

I begin writing this perched on the top berth in a sleeper coach of a train that has a long halt at Ujjain Railway Station. Ujjain is an ancient town that has an important role in India’s history and religion.

At the previous station, Nagda, I had a breakfast, that has become almost a ritual whenever I go visiting my in-laws in Indore.

Ujjain in addition to its historical and religious connections is also famous for its namkeen (salty snacks) and poha (chiwda or flattened rice). Poha makes for a quick-to-cook healthy breakfast and people of Madhya Pradesh and neighbouring Maharashtra swear by their poha/pohe.

Poha seller in Noida

A poha seller in Sector 16A (Film City), Noida. There are a couple more in the vicinity and all do brisk business in the morning (Photo: Soumyadip Choudhury)

During my university days in Bhopal, poha along with jalebi (what appears to be a strange combination for the uninitiated) was the default beginnings to the mornings and didn’t pinch our slim student wallets much.

Being married to an Indori means that even today this dish makes regular appearances on the breakfast table.

I was born and brought up in Shillong, a city with a small but visible Tibetan population who ran a number of popular restaurants and food joints. This meant that the most popular of their dishes – the momo – also found a place of prominence in the menus of many other eateries in the hill city.

Pork momo and chicken chow chow – chow chow because cosmopolitan Shillong had (still has) a large Nepali population – were what friends had when we went out to eat and drink. It didn’t cost us much. Neither the food nor the drinks. Momo (with soup) at Rs 10 a plate, IMFL at Rs 15 a peg and a bottle of beer for Rs 28. Those were the good times.

After I landed in Delhi, in search of a livelihood, noticed that momo was finding fast-adoption competing with pakoda and samosa as a late-afternoon snack. But the momo I had in Delhi were no match for the stuff I grew up eating. Some friends told me the best momo in Delhi was to be found at Majnu Ka Tilla, the hub of Tibetans in Delhi. A place I visited a few times, but never got around having momo there.

Momo joints have mushroomed over Delhi and its suburbs (both of which make up the National Capital Region or NCR. NCR, contrary to popular belief includes Delhi) and also at other cities around the country. And there are many varieties and festivals galore.

For some reason, momo hasn’t really emerged as a breakfast dish. The classic Delhi breakfast is chole-kulche (something I have a weakness for), aloo-puri or bread pakoda. The new welcome addition to this limited breakfast menu is the poha.

In Noida (where I work) and Greater Noida (where I stay) quite a few poha vends have opened and do brisk business in the morning. Even our unimaginative office canteen makes poha to order.

Some of the vends boast of serving “Indore ka mashoor poha (Indore’s famous poha)” Poha is finally getting popular.

Many brands such at MTR and Mother’s Recipe now sell instant poha (just add hot water and it’s ready to eat). MTR’s Poha gets the taste quite right and I keep quite a few packets always in stock at home. But I wouldn’t recommend MTR Khatta Meetha variant or the one from Mother’s Recipe.

Breakfast at hotels where I stay while travelling on work make it a difficult choice of what to eat from the wide range that is served on the tables. For me, the presence of poha makes the decision easy.

The Chaiwali, half-jokingly, says she wants to set up a poha business. The Sylheti in me has some shutki plans (but that I assume will be too strong for non-Sylheti tastes).

Till then more power to the poha (with a sprinkling of namkeen atop).