Indian Flattened Rice Pilaf (Poha) : Layering Flavors

My first taste of India was completely different from what I anticipated. I arrived at my friend’s apartment in Delhi, my head still aching from jet lag and the kaleidoscopic array of new sensory impressions. “You must be hungry,” said Swati, as she went into the kitchen. It was close to midnight, but the air was still hot and humid, and my shirt stuck to my back. I wasn’t hungry at all, but I still politely ate a bit of the vegetable pilaf she put in front of me. I expected it to be spicy and hot, but instead it was tart and refreshing, reminiscent more of Mediterranean tastes than anything I’ve previously experienced with Indian food. Poha was the start of my love affair with Indian layered flavors.

poha

Poha is the name for flattened rice (sometimes also referred to as beaten rice) that has been parboiled, rolled, flattened, and dried to produce easy-to-cook, nutritious flakes. It’s a Western Indian version of muesli, and it’s a common breakfast dish. Since poha is already cooked, it only requires a brief soaking to turn the thin flakes into plump grains. It absorbs liquids and flavors easily, and poha works well in soups, pilafs, salads, and even desserts. You can use it in any dish in which you would have used couscous, adjusting the cooking times accordingly.

pohacurry-leaves-poha

Like pasta, poha is a staple in my cupboard, allowing me to throw together a quick meal without much fuss. On weekends, I make it for lunch with its full Indian embellishments. If I can use one word to describe the logic of Indian cuisine as a whole, it would be layering. This is what makes Indian dishes so enjoyable to prepare and eat. Take this recipe for poha, for instance. The mild canvas of poha is embellished by warm flavors–onion, ginger, garlic, and chili–in addition to earthy ones like peanuts, turmeric and mustard seeds. The tartness of lemon creates another dimension, while the milky sweetness of coconut lends further complexity.

poha-vegetables2poha2

Sautéing spices in oil is a uniquely Indian technique to give a vibrant burst of flavor. Mustard seeds taste bitter and pungent when raw, but when sizzled in oil, they develop nutty and caramelized nuances which can’t be achieved in any other way. Because the aromatic components of spices are oil soluble, this technique allows for the flavor to be distributed evenly in the dish. The outcome is rich, but unexpectedly mellow.

Poha is a filling one-dish meal that needs few other accompaniments. Since it’s a dry pilaf, it goes well with yogurt and a crunchy salad. I always serve poha with a mix of chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions and I liberally season with cilantro leaves and lemon juice–another rich layer of flavor.

poha3

Indian Flattened Rice Pilaf (Poha)

Poha is available from Indian grocery stores where it can found in two varieties, thin and thick. For this savory pilaf, you need the thick variety. You can vary the vegetables, depending on what you have on hand. Sweet potatoes, green peas, turnip, cauliflower, spinach and zucchini are among my favorites. Be sure to cut firm vegetables like carrots and potatoes into small pieces to ensure they cook quickly.

If you have curry leaves, do use them for their green, zesty flourish. On the other hand, don’t worry if you don’t have all of the ingredients on hand. Poha is a dish that is perfect for experiments, and you can substitute other garnishes and spices.

Serve it with a fresh vegetable salad and thick yogurt on the side.

Serves 4-6

2-3 Tablespoons light vegetable oil
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
two branches of curry leaves (optional)
1 medium onion, chopped into small cubes
1/2 teaspoon minced ginger root
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1 hot green chili pepper, minced (or to taste)
2 1/2 cups of vegetables cut into small cubes (such as carrot, potato, or green beans cut into 1″ pieces)
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups thick poha flakes

Garnish
2 Tablespoons lemon juice (or to taste)
2 Tablespoons unsweetened coconut flakes, fresh or dried
2 Tablespoons ground peanuts
minced cilantro leaves for garnish

Rinse poha flakes in water to remove excess starch, drain and set aside. Prepare all of your ingredients before you start cooking.

Heat a saute pan on medium-high heat and add oil. When the oil is hot, add the mustard seeds, cumin seeds and cover the pan; the seeds will sizzle and pop. When the popping begins to subside, turn the heat to medium, add curry leaves (if using) and close the pan again (the leaves will sizzle ferociously). After 10 seconds, add onion,  garlic, green chili, ginger and cook until onions lose their raw smell and begin to look transparent, about 5 minutes.

Add the vegetables and stir. Add turmeric and cook till vegetables are soft (or al dente, depending on your taste). Add a spoonful of water to prevent vegetables from sticking.

Add soaked poha, salt and 1/4 cup of water. Stir thoroughly to blend everything together and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat. Add lemon juice, coconut flakes, peanuts and cilantro leaves. Taste and correct the seasonings if needed. Poha should taste tart and zesty. Enjoy!

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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47 Comments

  • GeM: It sounds tasty! How delicious… but I’m afraid I’ll shall to experiment… Here where I live it’s not possible to find as exotic garnishes and spices as I would like. 🙁 January 17, 2013 at 8:58am Reply

    • Victoria: I’ve lived for some years in small towns where the most exotic grocery store was the supermarket, so I can relate. If you let me know what you can’t find, maybe we can come up with interesting substitutes together. January 17, 2013 at 10:47am Reply

    • Deborah: I live in the Pacific northwest near Seattle and one strange thing I have found in the most mundane supermarkets is that the ethnic Mexican section has many herbs and spices at a fraction of the cost of the regular section. They are packaged differently and you might have to double check that you are buying the right thing, but you might find what you need in a different section of the supermarket. January 20, 2013 at 10:16pm Reply

      • Victoria: That’s a great idea! When I lived in a small town in the south of the US, I remember that the so-called “ethnic” section of the supermarket is where I found lots of interesting ingredients. The same spices sold at the spice section were often much more expensive. Sometimes one needs to shop like a sleuth! 🙂 January 21, 2013 at 7:03am Reply

  • Barbara: This looks and sounds delicious! How else do you prepare poha? Your recipes inspire me to try different things. January 17, 2013 at 9:04am Reply

    • Victoria: The most basic one is to soak it and then mix it into yogurt, along with some fruit, nuts and a drizzle of honey, a variation on muesli. Or I just brown one onion and add soaked poha and cook it briefly to meld the flavors. Then I add a handful of chopped herbs, salt and a squeeze of lemon juice. That’s my basic version of pilaf. If you want to add it to soups instead of pasta, rinse poha and add it at the last moment. January 17, 2013 at 10:52am Reply

      • Barbara: Yesterday we had dinner at a small Indian restaurant and I mentioned poha to the waiter. He was surprised I knew what it was. He said that he will get some for me. I’m excited to try it. January 19, 2013 at 9:12am Reply

        • Victoria: How nice of him! I’m sure that you will enjoy cooking and experimenting with poha, especially if you like rice. It’s such a wonderful grain product, and I would love to see it catch on like bulgur and couscous did. January 21, 2013 at 7:04am Reply

  • rosarita: That sounds delicious! I have never heard of poha and I hope I can find it somewhere in this area. We have a Whole Foods opening next month that’s about an hour away, maybe they will have it. My husband discovered curries online last year after I had hand surgery and he took over the cooking for several months; the house smelled like an Indian grocery store for ages. 🙂 January 17, 2013 at 9:14am Reply

    • Victoria: Worth checking, because Whole Foods store often carry various interesting ingredients. If you have an Indian or Pakistani grocery store in your area, you should able to find poha. It’s quite a common staple food in the region, and even the tiniest stores have it.

      Your husband is impressive! 🙂 Mine has a couple of dishes that he whips up whenever I’m too tired or too busy to cook, but usually we cook together with him as my sous chef. The evenly chopped vegetables in the photos is his work! January 17, 2013 at 10:59am Reply

      • rosarita: Nice work! Cooking together is a lot of fun, but it’s usually my job, which is fine because I love it. However, a sous chef and dishwasher would be very helpful 🙂 January 17, 2013 at 2:18pm Reply

        • Victoria: I would gladly do all of the cooking, if someone else took care of dishwashing. That’s one chore I really don’t like! January 17, 2013 at 2:57pm Reply

        • Andrea: My husband says (jokingly) that washing dishes is why we have children! (Actually, ever since my own hand surgery, he has washed them.). Surgery can bring out the chef in a kind spouse!. I hope that you heal quickly, Rosarita. My PT says that using your hand for chores/cooking is the best PT there is! January 21, 2013 at 10:50am Reply

  • Annikky: This sounds really good, as my problem with Indian (and Malasian and Indonesian and Thai and…) cuisine is that I adore the flavours but cannot take the heat. Would it work with ordinary basmati rice as well (I assume it would need to be pre-cooked then) or not really? I very much doubt poha is available in any of our local stores.

    On a not-very-related note: I came across a story about Peppermongers in the latest delicious. magazine and thought you would be able to appreciate their peppers. I am not sure what the policy is about posting links, so I recommend googling the name – the first link leads to their website. I am seriously considering their gift set. January 17, 2013 at 9:21am Reply

    • Radhika: Not all Indian food is hot. Where I’m from in India, our food is mild. When my parents and I traveled to Bangalore for a family friend’s wedding, even we had trouble with the spicy Southern Indian food. January 17, 2013 at 9:29am Reply

      • Annikky: Yes, of course – apologies for the generalisation. More accurately: most of the recipes for Indian food that I have come across are hot or at least hot for me, so I am always glad to find something from the milder end of the spectrum. And my only visit to India so far has been to Hyderabad 🙂 January 17, 2013 at 9:39am Reply

        • Radhika: Andhra food is known to be spicy-hot! I had a roomie from Hyderabad in college and her food was tasty but made my mouth burn. I learned to cook her recipes by cutting donw the number of hot peppers. :)) January 17, 2013 at 9:58am Reply

          • Annikky: This is exactly what I do as well. You have no idea how it gladdens my North-European heart that even native Indians occasionally employ the same method 🙂 I always feel like such a wimp when I replace the required 10 red chili peppers with 2… January 17, 2013 at 10:24am Reply

            • Victoria: It’s not wimpy! I recently read an interesting article about taste sensitivity, and that some people simply have more taste receptors, so the strong tastes appear even more jarring to them. Tolerance for hot food is also acquired. I can tolerate hot foods well, but I notice that when I don’t eat it often, my tolerance decreases. Before my husband and I travel to India, we start eating hot dishes in advance to prepare ourselves. 🙂 January 17, 2013 at 11:50am Reply

    • Victoria: You can definitely eliminate the hot pepper in this recipe, and it will not suffer. As Radhika says, there is definitely a range of heat in the Indian cuisine. Even within the same state one town will be famous for its fiery dishes, while another for mild ones. Even within the same town, people will cook different dishes, depending on their caste and religion. Indian cuisine is really a misnomer, because the country encompasses such incredibly diverse styles of cooking. In my experience, the mildest food in India is found in the southern state of Kerala, and interestingly enough, some of the hottest, in its neighboring state of Tamil Nadu.

      If you don’t have poha, yes, you can use pre-cooked basmati rice or couscous. Couscous will need more water to be properly cooked. Another interesting variation is to use cream of wheat (manka, which I’m sure you can find easily in Estonia). The dish is cream of wheat is called oopma (or upma). For this amount of vegetables, use 1 cup of cream of wheat and saute it lightly once the vegetables are almost done. Then add 1.5-2 cups of hot water. Cook, stirring and folding the mixture as it begins to stiffen, about 15 minutes. The result should be a fluffy pilaf studded with pieces of vegetables. January 17, 2013 at 11:13am Reply

      • Radhika: Yum! Upma was my favourite when I was little. Thanks for reminding me of it. January 17, 2013 at 12:46pm Reply

        • Victoria: It feels like a comfort food to me, probably because cream of wheat was something I ate a lot as a child. Except, of course, what my mom made was sweet, not savory. January 17, 2013 at 2:55pm Reply

      • Rachel: This sounds even more exotic than poha! The only cream of wheat I’ve had was sweet and porridgy. 🙂 January 17, 2013 at 4:08pm Reply

        • Victoria: “Sweet and porridgy” is how I ate cream of wheat as a child. I remember hating it, probably because my mom and grandmother forced it on me. January 17, 2013 at 4:53pm Reply

  • Radhika: Wow, this looks yummy. I’m Indian, from Ahmedabad, but I study English literature in the US. Reading this post makes me homesick. When my mom makes poha, she always adds a little sugar. She says that it makes the spices sing. January 17, 2013 at 9:27am Reply

    • Jiya: I agree!! January 17, 2013 at 10:18am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Radhika! There is nothing like mom’s cooking, isn’t there. 🙂 January 17, 2013 at 11:14am Reply

    • Siya: I am Indian too and I would say Gujrati poha is less spicy then south Indian poha.

      Talking about andhra, my favourite are those dried red chillies marinated in buttermilk and salt. Does anyone has a recipe or name what are they called ? (I am north indian so I don’t know its name) February 2, 2013 at 1:04am Reply

  • Jiya: Hello Jasmin, I am from India and I really love poha.

    – Poha is also made of Semolina/sooji (indian name). The same way but Semolina version has an inseparable part – peanuts – fried/caramalized.

    – This beaten rice can also be eaten with only curd and sugar. It’s very cooling and refreshing for our stomach. Some people use milk instead of curd.

    – In the version you mentioned in your post, we also use green peas. I love this version because I like the sweet and sour taste.

    – You can try one more thing of this beaten rice that i am sue you would love and this mixture makes a very nice snack with tea/coffee. (as we use in india).

    Simply fry (use non-stick pan so you can use less oil. ) everything one by one, separately in the sequence of what I mention below-

    – Onion (until they are brown and they shrink.)
    -Green chilli (until it loses its green color)
    – a little bit of chana daal / gram pulse. You will find it in Indian store.
    – Meethi neem ke patte / leaves of sweet Neem. (the one you have shown in picture).
    – Last but not the least – beaten rice until they turn crunchy and swollen.
    – Heat oil in a pan, mix everything mentioned above except beaten rice, mix chilli, salt, garam masala/all spices powder, zeera powder/cumin powder together. mix them with spatula for a few seconds.
    – Now mix the beaten rice.
    – Mix a few leaves of Meethi neem/sweet neem leaves.
    – Mix them well. You can store it in a container for weeks. They are healthy, yummy and an amazing Indian snack.

    Love from India
    Jiya January 17, 2013 at 10:17am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Jiya! Sounds like chiwda, an addictive, crunchy rice flake snack. It’s impossible to stop eating it. 🙂 January 17, 2013 at 11:16am Reply

  • Tatiana: Thanks for posting this yummy recipe. Can’t wait to try it! And thank you Jiya for the additional idea! January 17, 2013 at 12:09pm Reply

    • Victoria: You’re welcome! It’s a family favorite, and I hope that you like it. Jiya’s crunchy snack variation is addictive. My husband used to buy from the Indian grocery store, and I finally asked him to stop. I couldn’t control myself from finishing it all, as long as it was in the house! January 17, 2013 at 12:33pm Reply

  • sara: looks very good! i love indian food, but i never tried making it at home. btw, your side dish salad sounds like salsa. January 17, 2013 at 2:23pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s a bit like salsa, I suppose. It has the same juicy, crunchy texture, and it’s so refreshing. January 17, 2013 at 2:58pm Reply

  • OperaFan: Looks and sounds delicious – LOVE the fork! Yours?
    I live near the Jersey Shore and sadly, good Indian restaurants are pretty much non-existent. The most I’ve ever attempted is to make curry stew using pre-blended curry powders (probably Thai) procured from the Asian supermarkets which are a distance to reach.
    Maybe I’ll be bold enough to try some of your recipes someday. My family (also sadly) does not have adventurous taste buds, but I find almost as much gratification from just looking at pictures and reading about these foods. January 17, 2013 at 2:43pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes! It’s one of the forks from my grandmother’s set. Pretty much everyone had the same set in the USSR, although in Russia these days it would be considered somewhat old-fashioned. Still, when I tried to buy a couple of replacement pieces on Ebay, the prices were prohibitive. So, if you have more than 4 people over for dinner, we have to supplement the set with something else.

      Do you ever go to Flushing or Edison? It must be quite a drive for me, I realize, but if you’re ever in those areas, you can find some excellent Indian food. There is even a place in Edison where you can get sugar cane juice squeezed right before serving. They flavor it with ginger, lime, and black salt, and the result is a kaleidoscope of flavors. We used to make a monthly or bi-monthly trip to Edison just for that. January 17, 2013 at 3:02pm Reply

  • Rachel: Your photos make me hungry. I’ve never heard of poha, but it sounds easy to cook and delicious. You also had me at couscous. I could live on that stuff! January 17, 2013 at 4:05pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s even easier to cook than couscous! 🙂 January 17, 2013 at 4:51pm Reply

  • kaori: I have never heard “flattened rice” and looks very yummy. There are many Indian restaurants here but their dishes are way too spicy for me, even I ask “less spice”. This is very refreshing! January 17, 2013 at 9:34pm Reply

    • Victoria: I have a friend who cannot tolerate any chili heat at all, not even a tiny amount, so I completely understand how you feel. In this recipe, the chili can be left out, and the dish will taste just as good. January 18, 2013 at 11:43am Reply

  • Claire: The trouble is I’m reading this post at night and now I’m salivating over this delicious recipe! I can already smell the aromatic ingredients & the zesty tartness of poha. I doubt that I’ll ever find this in any Indian restaurant around; the best dishes are those which are homestyle. What a delicious post! January 18, 2013 at 12:54am Reply

    • Victoria: So true, homestyle cooking is my favorite too. Even in India, dishes like this are usually made at home. January 18, 2013 at 11:50am Reply

  • Austenfan: Looks and probably tastes gorgeous! Can you get all these ingredients in Brussels? I remember once talking to someone who owned an Indian Restaurant in Utrecht. He would travel to London every now and again to get spices and the like. You can get lots of spices for Indonesian food but apparently Indian is much harder. January 18, 2013 at 1:26pm Reply

    • Victoria: The only two unusual ingredients in this dish are poha and curry leaves, the rest are available at any supermarket. But yes, it is easy to find Indian ingredients in Brussels. There is a big Indian/Bangladeshi community here, and even the Moroccan shops (a very large community too) carry some ingredients used in Indian cooking. January 18, 2013 at 2:00pm Reply

  • Andrea: Victoria, your pictures are so lovely. I also love the fork; what a special piece since it was your Grandmother’s! I have my Grandmother’s flatware, but my wedding silver only consists of 5 complete settings, which was a bit prophetic as we have 3 children. We can use it with them, we just can’t have anyone else over!

    Is this poha just made from rice? I am gluten-free, and it sounds like a great addition to my “approved” foods. January 21, 2013 at 10:58am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Andrea! I love this story of your grandmother’s silver.

      Yes, poha is made entirely out of rice, and it’s gluten free. As I mentioned to Barbara, if it had a champion, I’m sure it would catch on as well as couscous and bulgur did. It’s so easy to prepare. January 21, 2013 at 11:21am Reply

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