Jessica Helfand | Essays

Bring In Da Ponk!

 Ponk made and photographed by Meena Kadri

There is a reason that most Americans don't think of roasted millet as a dietary staple, and it may have something to do with the fact that extracting it requires actually thrashing the wheat stalk from which it hails. To my knowledge, thrashing isn't a terribly common culinary term in Western culture (other than when it is used to describe Gordon Ramsay's bedside manner) which probably should have been my first indication that this was not your run-of-the-mill recipe.

It bears saying that Indian snack food is often of the savory variety: indeed, barring marzipan, candy in India tends to favor ingredients like cumin and cardamom, and is more likely to be salty than sweet. Kids in India snack on dahi poori and pani puri, deep-fried vegetable concoctions and all sorts of spicy finger food variations on potatoes and papadums and paneer. Beyond its mercifully enduring presence in hot, milky chai, sugar makes a rather infrequent appearance.

But as snacks go, it may well be the simultaneous presence of sweet and savory — along with saucy and crunchy — that endears itself most to a western (read "resistant to spicyness") palette like mine. A year ago, we spent five weeks in India in January, which is the height of the season for Ponk, a Gujarati seasonal delicacy that proved not only to be utterly delicious, but also turned out to be the antidote to just about every Delhi Belly symptom known to man. (Or at least to me.) Until recently, I simply assumed the active ingredient was crack, but it turns out it's roasted millet — or wheatberries — blended with any of a range of equally delectable mix-ins, of which my personal favorite is sev — fried sprinkles made by deep-frying chickpea flour. Yogurt in various forms (often with a touch of mint or cilantro) and bits of pomegranate are also key here, as are toasted sesame seeds and fried onions, as seen in the photo above by our friend and Design Observer contributor Meena Kadri — who will forever after be known as the person who introduced our family to Ponk.

Recently, we came upon a stash of wheatberries at the salad bar at an organic market about an hour from where we live, which was all the inspiration we needed to try this at home. Thus liberated from the thrashing phase, we set immediately to work assembling this divine dish, which turned out (big surprise) to be a bit of a challenge. Given that our local supermarket's international aisle conflates Thai, Indian and Chinese into one über-Asian section, sev sprinkles were nowhere in sight, leaving us to daringly improvise: we bought Chinese rice noodles and tossed them with coriander and cardamom. Pomegranates, too, were MIA, so we substituted a mango-and-lime fruit chutney. We whisked cumin into the plain yogurt, pan-fried some organic shallots and toasted some sesame seeds, then spooned the whole thing into small teacups that we slurped in front of the fire, trying in vain to imagine that the temperature will again one day climb above zero.

The truth? Better in concept than in execution. But it looked divine — almost as divine as Meena's.

This post is part of multi-site online conversation looking at food, curated by Good magazine's Nicola Twilley.

Posted in: Arts + Culture

Comments [1]

Jessica – you were very much missed as I was preparing the ponk pictured here! Funnily enough – the servants at our heritage home in Ahmedabad have no recollection of serving you ponk here last year. This event (so clearly strong in your memory) was totally eclipsed by the highlight of your children making pancakes for them... served with love and the exquisite maple syrup from your own trees.
Meena Kadri

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