TAKE toor dal, or channa or moong dal sometimes. Wheat flour. Jaggery if you want to be traditional, sugar if not, and sometimes a mix of the two. And ghee, though vegetable oil can also be used instead (in one case, for religious reasons). With just these few ingredients you can tell the food stories of most of Western India’s communities as they come together to make puran poli.
That this sweet stuffed flat bread is seen as belonging firmly to Western India is no accident. Food reflects geography, and that of Western India inclines its food to austerity. Not for this region the rich milk-based sweets of the river plains and deltas of Northern and Eastern India, or the coconut crammed concoctions of lush Kerala in the South. Western India’s geography gives it a thin fertile strip along the sea, but it is dominated by the Deccan, dusty and dry behind its rampart of the Ghats.
This does not automatically condemn Western India to ascetism – the happy abundance of Gujarati, Parsi and Goan food is proof against that. Yet there is an underlying austerity, especially in regular home food, and puran poli’s filling, based on that most homely of ingredients, dal, reflects this. The region’s difficult geography and relative lack of riches also meant that it was never much coveted by conquering powers. Even its native conquerors, the Marathas, wanted to get out and gain other lands.
The consequence is that Western India was never dominated by a community like the Mughals in North India, Bengali bhadralok in the East or Tamil Brahmins in the South. Different communities dominated at different times, but no single one shaped the region. Instead communities dominated in different areas – professionally, like the Gujaratis and Parsis in trade or Hindu Maharashtrians in scholarship or agriculture, or geographically like Catholics in Goa or Bene Israeli Jews on the north Konkan coast.
Each of these communities took up the same ingredients and fashioned them subtly to their own ends. The ingredients of the region are often common, like fish, coconuts and rice, yet a multiplicity of little known cuisines have come from them. The differences between them are subtle, and often based on social differences such as the souring agents used in Goa: vinegar by the Catholics who could drink the alcohol it was based on, kokum by the Hindus who could not.
Puran poli shows how these socially derived variations work even better, since as a sweet it more easily crosses the barriers of vegetarian/non-vegetarian, halal, kosher, home-made and other such restrictions. So the Gujarati instinct for luxury comes out in its small, fat puran polis, bursting with the filling of sweetened cooked dhal and doused to dripping in hot melted ghee. They are the most dangerous items on a traditional Gujju thali since once you have two – and they are too delicious to have just one – all your appetite for the rest vanishes. By contrast Maharashtrian food’s elegant frugality is seen its larger, thin, bone-dry puran polis that must be moistened before eating, with coconut milk on the coast, cow’s milk or ghee in the interiors.
Maharashtrians also often economically make a tangy-hot curry to eat with the puran poli from extra dhal or even just the liquid in which the dhal for the filling cooked. Of all the puran poli variations it is these austere versions I like best, though I find them impossibly hard to make. Luckily in Mumbai one can buy them from places like Tambhe Arogya Bhavan in Dadar, to eat dipped with milk and not the least pleasure is finally eating the sweet sludge of filling that always forms at the bottom of the bowl.
Parsis used the ingredients and techniques of their Persian homeland to make something startlingly different of puran poli. They made it into dar-ni-pori, a sturdy thick thing, filled with dried fruits and nuts and looking almost like a cake. Katy Dalal’s final instructions in the recipe in her book Jamva Chaloji 1, confirm this: “Cut into wedges and serve hot with tea”. Simple puran poli has gone genteel, as a pastry to serve on porcelain plates, with forks for five o’clock tea.
Another West Coast community with foreign roots stayed simple, but with a religious adaptation. The Bene Israelis make two versions, one with vegetable oil and one with ghee, depending on whether there is meat in the rest of the meal, so keeping kosher strictures against mixing dairy foods and meat. Esther David in her novel The Book of Rachel tells us that they are a festive food: “Puranpoli is made on Purim in memory of the liberation of the Persian Jews and the festival of Queen Esther…”
Konkani Muslims also make puran poli but not, my friend Rafique Baghdadi tells me, with religious connotations: “It’s fried crisp on the tava and is utterly delicious.” Further south, near Karnataka, puran poli blends into the huge family of holiges, the sweet breads of that region. Across the West Coast almost every community turns tricks with puran poli, with the odd exception of Christian communities. As far as I’ve been able to find the closest they get is the steamed rice cakes with coconut-jaggery filling called patoli or patalio in Mangalore and Goa, or sometimes with the sweet dal as an optional filling for the deep-fried crescent pastries called nevries.
Neither one is quite puran poli, and the reason for this omission could again be rooted in community history. Because the one big change, almost the identifying one, made by Christian communities was to give up unleavened flatbreads for oven baked pav and other such yeast raised breads. In the process they may have forgotten puran poli, the one loss from all the variations that they added to the foods of Western India.