Puran Poli is a delicacy from the western Indian state of Maharashtra, to which my mom belonged. It is a delicate-skinned wheat flatbread with a sweet, cardamom-scented stuffing of chickpeas and jaggery, an unrefined Indian sugar. This recipe is easy enough to follow, and it comes with a story!
The Ghost of the Banyan Tree
The story was that the Ghost lived in the 100-year-old banyan tree that stood just behind Building No. 13 in J. P. Nagar. At night he or she (for no one had actually seen the Ghost) would come out and hang around the domed water tank that sat like a giant cement idli smack-dab between the parallel roads leading into the housing society. Now and then the Ghost would scare some unsuspecting passer-by by placing an unseen hand on his or her shoulder and then exploding into a hollow, cackling laugh that echoed around the neighborhood, especially on windy monsoon nights.
The victim was almost always someone new to the area because no one who had actually lived in J. P. Nagar for any length of time dared to go alone near the water tank after nightfall. And none of the children, who had once loved to run barefoot up its slippery sides and then slide down from the top, hands up in the air, did that anymore because their mothers worried the Ghost would push them off.
None that is except Ashish who was the scamp of the neighborhood.
Ashish remembered exactly when the Ghost had moved into J.P.Nagar three years ago: it had been the day after his fifth birthday. Pichukutti, who lived upstairs from Ashish’s family in Building No. 13, had returned home from work late that night. His eyes were big and round and terrified for a full week afterwards and he kept his arms hugged around his body as though he was unbearably cold under the 100-degree Bombay sun. Someone, he said, had placed a cold, heavy hand on his back as he walked past the tank. Then there was a loud swoosh as something freezing and invisible swept through and past him and into the banyan tree. Pichukutti knew it went there because he could see the leaves rustling for a full 10 seconds in the otherwise still night. Then he remembered to start running toward the building faster than he’d run his whole life.
The story spread fast and soon there were more reports of alleged touchings and feelings and even some sightings, although those could never be confirmed. When Mrs. Raval’s daughter, Chhaya, had a meningitis fit one night, tearing at her hair, Mrs. Raval blamed the Ghost for “sitting on her head”. Another time, when Mr. Bhonsle parked his scooter off the street behind the building, he swore he heard someone calling his name from the unseen depths of the Banyan tree.
Ashish eavesdropped curiously on those stories when neighbors brought them home to his father. Baba listened without looking like he was. He always had the newspaper open before him, his bifocal glasses halfway down his nose, and his face would not flicker even slightly at the most gut-twisting, blood-draining account. If the story-carriers found him rude or uninterested, it didn’t deter them.
After they had left Baba would pull Ashish out from behind the door and look him in the eye, a deep ridge plowing through his tall forehead. “There’s no such thing as a ghost,” he’d tell the boy in a stern voice. “A water tank is just a water tank, and a banyan tree is just a tree. No one lives on them, certainly not ghosts.”
That suited Ashish just fine. He loved that water tank, and now that no one else wanted anything to do with it, it was his alone. The tank had once stored and supplied water to all of J.P. Nagar, but had become defunct after the municipality put in pipes that carried water directly from the city's reservoirs to the buildings. In the summer vacations, when school was out, Ashish would spend his days in a tiny alcove in the back of the tank, hidden by a flurry of neglected bushes. Undisturbed, he sorted through used postage stamps from around the world that he collected from family and traded with friends. He would let the stamps swim for a few minutes in a plastic cup of water to separate them from the little bits of envelope they were still sticking to, then press them against the fading-red wooden door that the maintenance workers had once used to go in and out of the tank. When the stamps were dry they’d flutter down to the floor and Ashish would stash them into Baba’s discarded cigarette packs.
Once he’d had his fill of counting, comparing and admiring the stamps, he’d hide the packs behind a loose brick in the alcove wall.
The stamps were his treasure: little, rich-colored, square and rectangle and round bits of paper from around the world marked with strange currencies and strange names for familiar countries, like Nippon and Helvetia. He could have kept them home but he didn’t trust his little sister, Prajakti, who had a way of getting her fat little hands into everything that was not her business. Once she had shoved a handful of his stamps into her greedy mouth, and Aayi had yelled at him-- at him! -- for leaving them around.
Besides, they deserved a great hiding place, like a haunted water tank. Ashish knew no one would dare look for them there. He never ran into the Ghost and soon he was convinced his father had been telling him the truth.
Until one sticky summer’s day when the stamps just disappeared.
Ashish couldn’t believe they were gone, just like that. He put his hand into the hole at least a dozen times, feeling frantically in the dark. No one had seen him put those stamps there. He knew no one dared to come to the tank, not even the homeless men who sometimes wandered in and out of J.P. Nagar, because they’d all heard about the Ghost.
But the stamps were missing, for sure. Who could have taken them? The answer seemed simple, but incredible at the same time.
That night Ashish lay in bed alternately thinking of his precious stamps and the Ghost. “It’s not fair,” he murmured half to himself, half to the Ghost. “Baba says you don’t even exist, and now you’ve stolen my stamps.”
It was a windy night and behind the closed window he could hear the mighty Banyan whoosh and wave. Its big, oval, glistening leaves were shrouded by the dark night, and through the glass he could see the blurred outlines of the thousand, stringy tentacles the tree had sent prying and prising and probing into the earth around it.
A branch tapped against the bedroom window, tat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat, like a finger knocking to be let in.
Ashish shivered slightly. He looked over at Prajakti who was sleeping soundly in her bed on the other side of the room. The raging banyan was a perfect backdrop for him to pull a sheet over his head, wave his arms about, and make booing sounds to scare her awake. It was always a lot of fun to see her flee the room crying and screeching and hollering.
But he just didn’t feel like it tonight. He buried his head into the pillow and fell fast asleep.
In the morning light the Banyan tree looked harmless. From his bedroom on the third floor Ashish could crane his head and look almost all the way into its dark, deep center, although not all the way in. Lower down, around the massive trunk, worshipping women from the neighborhood had wrapped yards and yards of white cotton twine to pray for long lives for their husbands. The Banyan was a paradox: at once a portal for Gods and Demons.
As Ashish looked, his eyes caught a bright red spot among the white strings. It looked like...he raced down the stairs, three at a time, and burst into the back to get a closer look. He could not reach the stamp but he could clearly see the English queen, tiara and all, in profile on a scarlet background.
That morning he was really quiet at breakfast, and Aayi tried to cheer him up. “Eat up your sandwich, Ashu,” she egged him. “And be sure to come home in time for lunch today. I am making your favorite -- puran poli.”
Puran poli. For a moment Ashish forgot all about stamps and ghosts. His mother made puran polis like no one else could, with whisper-soft, flaky layers of poli sandwiching a core of buttery, melting-sweet puran. His mother’s puran polis were the talk of the town, and neighbors often asked her to make them some when they had special guests coming that they wanted to impress.
He was home well in time for lunch, to Aayi’s surprise. Usually she had to go out and scour the neighborhood streets to find him. She praised him profusely, hoping he had turned a new leaf, oblivious to the plan that was quietly hatching in his little head.
It was not at all hard for Ashish to smuggle out two of the puran polis: he did such a good job of it, Aayi just thought he had loved them enough to eat five at a sitting. He made a beeline for the water tank.
Once there, he pulled out the brick and placed the puran polis in the hole. “These are my mom’s special puran polis, and they are the best in the whole world,” he said, addressing the Ghost. “If you give me back my stamps, I’ll get you two more tomorrow.”
A whisper rippled up from the bushes around the tank and Ashish’s voice rose, sharply urgent and slightly fearful. “And you have to promise to leave me alone.” He paused. “Although you can continue haunting everyone else-- I don’t know what they’d do without you.”
The next morning he rose bright and early and begged Aayi for some leftover puran polis for breakfast. She began to admonish him for wanting sweets first thing in the morning, then melted, as he knew she would.
“Just two, Aayi.” Then, “No, four. I’m really hungry.”
He pretended to gobble down all four, then raced all the way to the tank.
His heart was thumping and his hands shivered a little as he pulled out the loose brick. A grin split his face.
There they were, all his stamps. Even the little scarlet one that had been stuck in the Banyan tree sat right on top. There was no trace of the puran polis he had left yesterday. He grabbed the stamps and counted them breathlessly. Satisfied, he packed them up and pushed them back into the hole, then placed two puran polis in front. “Thank you, Ghost!”
The Ghost was true to its word. After that day Ashish’s stamps never disappeared again and the alcove and the tank continued to be his and his alone by day.
Pichukutti continued to avoid working late at the office. Mrs. Raval continued to mutter a prayer each time she walked past the Banyan tree, clutching her daughter close to her side, and jumping each time the wind swept past them. Mr. Bhonsle parked his scooter as far from the Banyan as he possibly could without leaving it in the middle of the street.
Life went on as usual in the housing society.
There was one new development, though: each time someone in J. P. Nagar made puran polis, a good number of them simply vanished into thin air.
My story about the precocious Ashish and the Ghost who loved to eat Puran Polis goes to the August edition of Chalks and Chopsticks, an event mixing food and fiction started by Aqua and hosted this month by Desi Soccer Mom Jaya.
When I think of Puran Polis, I think of my mother. My Aayi, a true-blue Maharashtrian born in the Alphonso-gold port city of Ratnagiri, died when I was seven. One of the few but wonderful memories I have is of her mama (maternal uncle), a toothless but formidable-looking man we all called Aaba, coming home to visit us with a packet of puran, a sweet, cardamom-scented mush made by cooking chana dal with jaggery.
Aaba, who was always terribly well dressed in a dhoti, black waistcoat, and a white Nehru Cap, came all the way from Nashik, an ancient city steeped in mythology and holiness and nestled in Maharashtra’s gorgeous Western Ghats. The puran came wrapped in a square package of green leaves wrapped with twine. I have no idea where Aaba would buy it from, or if his wife back home would make it, but I do remember Aayi saying it was the best she’d ever had.
Besides tasting great on its own, puran makes up the stuffing for one of Maharashtra’s most exquisite culinary treats: the Puran Poli. Versions of puran poli are made in south India under different names, like Bobbatlu in Andhra Pradesh, Obbattu or Hollige in Karnataka and Poli in Tamil Nadu.
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For the poli
Make the dough for the poli
- Mix all the ingredients, then add enough water to knead into a fairly soft, slightly sticky dough. You want a sticky dough so you can roll out your polis quite thin, the way they should be.
- Place in a box with a fitted lid and set aside for at least half an hour.
Make the puran
- Cook the chana dal until tender but not mushy. The lentils should still be whole, so you can drain out all the cooking water easily.
- Place the drained, cooked chana dal and the jaggery in a food processor and process until you have a fine paste. DON'T add any water.
- Heat the oil in a heavy skillet. Add the powdered chana dal and jaggery and cardamom powder and cook, stirring constantly. The mixture will begin to thicken up and you want it to go until it's just beginning to come off the sides and bottom of the skillet, but is still sticky and not powdery.
- Set the puran aside. When it is cool enough to be handled, shape into 1-inch balls and set aside.
Assemble and cook the puran poli
- Now take the dough you prepared earlier for the poli and break off a piece, about half the size of the ball of puran.
- Roll it out, using as little flour as possible, into a disc about 3 inches in diameter.
- Place the ball of puran in the center and pull the edges of the dough over the top and seal the ends together. The puran should be completely ensconced in the dough.
- Flatten the ball gently and, again using as little flour as possible, roll it into a disc about 6 inches in diameter.
- Heat a griddle and place the poli on it. Cook until golden-brown spots begin to appear at the bottom and the poli begins to puff up. Flip over and cook the other side until done.
- You can brush the poli with a little oil, if you like, although that's really not necessary.
- In Maharashtra, puran polis are traditionally eaten with Kathachi Amti, a spicy, watery concoction made with the stock left over from boiling the chana dal, or with some ghee or milk. I love dunking it in vanilla soymilk...bliss!