Monthly Specials: The Plentiful Pleasures Of Ponkh
While I was growing up, Sunday breakfasts at home meant juar jo bathh, jowar porridge. It’s disgusting, and almost as bad as the Camlin glue-like wet sabudana porridge given to someone who has the runs. (See 0.30 to 0.40 here to get an idea.) Bathh is a wet gruel made with broken, dried jowar grains, tempered with mustard seeds. My father likes it when it’s stirred with some milk and grainy sugar, my mom with yoghurt and salt. I like it poured down the drain. The only thing that stopped bathh from turning me against jowar forever was the other dish made at home using the grain: crumbly, aromatic dodo, which is like a koki made with coarse jowar flour instead of wheat.
I’m glad I didn’t develop a permanent dislike to jowar. One winter soon after I got married, I met ponkh at a function on the Gujarati side of my family and I got to know this this young, sweet, tender emerald grain and I fell in love with jowar, at second sight.
WHAT IS PONKH?
The very impressive Sorghum bicolor (L.) Moench or jowar, as the dried grain is known in India, is one of only six species of sorghum found in the country. It’s also one of nearly 30 wild varieties found in the world. Bicolor is a domesticated variety, found mostly in the tropics, which grows well in hot climates. It needs warmer temperatures to survive; short droughts have no effect on the yield.
Sorghum is native to North Africa, most likely Ethiopia, from where it travelled to the rest of the world. It’s been cultivated in India, which is considered its secondary centre of origin, since 2000 BC. It’s the fifth-most important cereal in the world. The largest producer, the US, uses it mostly for animal feed. That is such a pity. They could pick up a few recipes from the second largest producer, India, where people have been eating it for millennia. It might even go the way of the turmeric latte. Jowar is considered a powerhouse of nutrition, rich in protein, niacin, iron, and vitamins B1 and B2. Also (for those who care) it’s gluten-free.
Ponkh is merely fresh, green, recently harvested sorghum, eaten while the grains are still juicy, bright and tender, so they pop like plant caviar between the teeth with every chew. A few communities in India seem to be obsessed with it every winter: Gujaratis and rural Maharashtrians (who call it hurda). And rightly so. Those who haven’t been introduced to ponkh don’t know what they’re missing. The first bite is revelatory. After the initial crush of ponkh pearls between your teeth, you get a mouthful of mellow, nutty, earthy, delicate sweetness. ‘Tis the season of ponkh until the end of January. Go get some.
HOW TO SELECT AND STORE PONKH
Most ponkh in the city comes from Surat and some from Aurangabad. The grains shouldn’t be too bright; they should be a natural slightly-yellowish pale green, more peapod than jade. Vendors will pop up around the city selling ponkh on the streets in the next few months, you’ll know when the artificial bright green colour of their produce definitely does not belong to something that grew out of the soil. When you nibble on a seed, the sweetness should be grain-like or nutty, not sugary, which means it has been artificially sweetened. The seeds should be ‘kaula’ or tender and moist, not dry or very chewy, which means they’re overripe or have been stored incorrectly.
Ponkh keeps well in the freezer, in a sealable plastic bag. I buy a few kilos every winter and use it up slowly until the end of the monsoon the next year. I pour out the amount I want to eat, wash it well and either steam it, or roast it in a pan until it’s fragrant and slightly toasted. Then I make it in one of half a dozen ways.
HOW TO EAT PONKH
Adventurous vegetarianism among Gujaratis has ensured that at least two caterers in Vadodara, Hari Shyam Caterers and Gujarat Caterers offer ponkh fried rice and ponkh soup. But before I venture into fusion ponkh, I’d rather perfect some more local expressions.
The first time I had ponkh, this is how it was served to me: a roasted or steamed bowlful topped with a layer of black pepper sev, a few sakhariya dana (aka nakul dana), a smidge of strong green garlic (also in season now) chutney and a squeeze of lime juice, with a glass of light chaas on the side. Ponkh is said to be heaty, which the chaas counters. This is how I have my first serving of ponkh every season and is the traditional Gujarati way to eat it.
On farms in Surat, they have ponkh picnics to celebrate the harvest and the slight chill at this time of year. They may add two or three more sev flavours such as salted and garlic but that’s about it. In Maharashtra, tender jowar is called hurda. A friend had a hurda harvest party a couple of years ago in Aurangabad where farmers carried roasted un-winnowed stalks that had been cut that very morning and roasted them on hot coal ashes. We sat in half circles around the farmers as they winnowed them by hand on jute sacks and handed grains to us by the palmful. We customised each pile mixing in different quantities of four chutneys (garlic, sesame, coconut and peanut), yoghurt and a bit of jaggery. Alongside we were served a glass of cool taak or Maharashtrian chaas.
When the marginal utility of sev-flecked ponkh starts to drop, I start using ponkh to make pakodas, pudlas, patties (pronounced “petties”) and upma. Over the years, I’ve found that tender sorghum is one of the most easily adaptable ingredients. Here’s a good recipe for pakodas and another for patties. For the savoury pancake-like pudlas, simply replace mung sprouts with steamed, roasted or raw ponkh in this recipe. Here’s a great way to make upma using only ponkh and spices cooked in milk.
When I feel like eating lighter or healthier, there is ponkh bhel with ponkh in place of puffed rice, while all the other fixings are pretty much the same – tamarind chutney, coriander-chilli chutney, green (instead of red) garlic chutney, chopped potatoes and onions, topped with chopped kothmir and sev. Here are some simple recipes for three of my other favourites: hurda chaat, hurda ussal and hurda raita. Saee Koranne-Khandekar‘s YouTube channel My Jhola has a great video on hurda harvesting and preparation which ends with a demo for hurda raita.
In the next few months, I’m going to try flavours that are a bit more complex, like hurda thalipeeth and a ponkh locho by adding both ground and whole ponkh to the batter in this recipe. I plan to throw in lots of ponkh into a chopped salad or use it as the primary grain in a rice salad. I’ve heard about ponkh kheer, which might be a fun dessert for an eight-course dinner party at home, each course based on ponkh. Of course there will be ponkh samosas as an appetiser, dipped in ponkh chutney made from ponkh crushed and blended with kothmir, ginger, garlic, lemon juice, green chilles, salt and a touch of sugar. There’s enough variety in texture and flavour among these dishes to make sure people properly ponkh out.
WHERE TO EAT PONKH
The Chowpatty restaurant serves a special ponkh menu every winter, which should be available in the last week of December this year. During seasons past, they have served it as bhel, bhajiya and patties; with purple yam in a chilla; and with nachni khichu.
Ground Floor, Sadguru Sadan, opposite Babulnath Temple, Chowpatty. Tel: 022 2369 8080.
This institution of Gujarati food has seasonal specials every year. The ponkh bhel is a favourite.
248, Karai Estate, opposite Bhatia Hospital, Tardeo Road, Tardeo. Tel: 022 6580 8405. Also at Dalamal Tower, Free Press Journal Marg, Nariman Point. Tel: 022 6666 6880.
My old favourite Jani Khaman and Locho in Borivali West has shut down. The owners redirected me to Gopal Locho, saying that the latter invented ponkh locho. When I called Gopal, they said they’ll know when it will show up on the menu by next week.
Shop No.2, Raj Arcade, G Wing, 90 feet Road, opposite D Mart, Mahavir Nagar, Kandivali (West). Tel: 022 4013 0542.
The Bombay Canteen
As soon as it shows up in markets, executive chef Thomas Zacharias puts ponkh in TBC’s excellent barley and jowar salad.
Ground Floor, Process House, Kamala Mills, Near Radio Mirchi Office, S.B. Marg, Lower Parel. Tel: 022 4966 6666.
WHERE TO BUY PONKH
Chheda Dryfruits and Snacks
41 Ridge Road, near Jain Temple, Walkeshwar Tel: 022 2364 2236 / 98677 54099.
Welcome Tea & Dry Fruit Shop
No.6, Union Building, Bhaji Galli, opposite Grant Road Railway Station. Tel: 98338 73783 / 022 2387 3783.
Both these shops sell frozen ponkh that arrives from Surat every day. They also sell sev and sakariya dana.
Grant Road Market
Shankarshet Lane, Grant Road.
Bhaji Galli, as it’s also called, has vendors who sell seasonal produce through the year. Right now it’s ponkh, green garlic and kand.
PONKH PICNICS NEAR PUNE
About a three-and-half-hour drive from Mumbai, the farm has hurda picnics every winter. See here for details.
Konkan Kanya Agri Tourism
They organise fun farm visits with activities and unlimited hurda at every meal, priced at Rs550 per person for adults and Rs350 per child. See here for details.
See here for a list of farms in and around Pune and Aurangabad that have ponkh parties this season.