Poha is one of those great one-name dishes that lends itself to such a variety of interpretations that I wouldn’t be surprised if every household in India that makes it made it in a completely different way. Though this version has a lot in common with avalakki chitranna, another dish I deeply love, they feel like completely different things to me.
Perhaps this won’t feel as tangible to someone who didn’t grow up making this (probably imaginary) distinction in their mind, but to me, chitranna has to have peanuts in it (probably not true, but essential to the kid in me). Conversely, I would never ever dream of adding vegetables to chitranna—whereas they feel almost mandatory here. Needless to say, these are distinctions that probably, in the grand scheme of things, matter very little. What’s more important to note, is that poha (or avalakki, or aval, or whatever you call it where you’re from), that ingenious beaten rice that is so ubiquitous in regional Indian cuisines, is endlessly adaptable and incredibly easy to cook. Apart from the slight labour of dicing vegetables, this is a dish that comes together in a matter of minutes. Though purists will mock, I’d even say you could use all frozen cubed vegetables here (though not for the onion—we’re not monsters: please don’t use frozen onion here. [Or if you do, report back with your results! I’m always looking for new ways to be lazy!]). And if you’ve ever struggled to get the texture of your rice just right, this is an ideal dish for you. Poha is already parcooked before being flattened and dried, so it doesn’t need to be boiled so much as merely softened—which you do by adding water judiciously to the pan in small quantities and stirring it in. It’s an eminently forgiving technique and takes all of five minutes after the poha has been stirred together with the cooked vegetables and spices. Though I’m most likely to make this for breakfast, it makes a fantastic lunch, too, especially topped with a hard-boiled egg. Highly irregular, but perfectly delicious!
A note on poha: You can find poha at most Indian grocery stores, where it is usually sold as poha or avalakki. It’s usually available in a variety of thicknesses. For this recipe I prefer the thicker variety, sometimes sold as “gatti” avalakki. If you can only find the thin avalakki (what’s so wonderfully called “nylon” avalakki in Karnataka), the dish will still work, you’ll just have to use much less water, and the final dish will be a little less hearty.
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp black mustard seeds
8 curry leaves
1 medium red onion, peeled and cut into thin slices through the root
2 small green chillies (such as bird’s-eye or Serrano), cut into half lengthwise
2 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into ¼-inch dice
1 carrot, peeled and cut into ¼-inch dice
½ cup frozen peas
½ tsp turmeric
3 cups thick poha
Juice of 1 lemon
Ghee for cooking
Water as needed
In a large kadhai or a wide sauté pan, heat two tablespoons of the ghee till it begins to shimmer.
Add the cumin and black mustard to the hot oil.
Once the mustard starts to pop, add in the curry leaves and stand back, as they will sputter quite a bit.
Toss to coat the leaves in the hot oil and then quickly add the onion and green chillies and stir. Take care not to let the spices burn.
Once the onions have softened and begun to take on a little colour, and the green chillies are blistered, add the carrots, potatoes, a teaspoon of salt, and the half teaspoon of turmeric. Stir well and continue to cook on medium heat till the vegetables are cooked through but still have a little bit of bite. You can add a tablespoon or so of water to the pan if you feel like it's too dry or the vegetables are scorching.
Add the poha to the pan and stir to coat thoroughly in the spices and oil.
Gradually add water to the pan, a quarter cup at a time, stirring well between additions to make sure it is absorbed before adding more.
The poha is done when the grains of rice are tender to the bite but separate. Turn off the heat, add the lemon juice, and stir well to combine.
Check for seasoning and adjust salt as needed. Serve hot.