Going back to my roots: The most underrated winter delicacy, Ponk

Now, before you jump to Urban Dictionary to check the meaning of the word “Ponk” and see its association with marijuana, that is not the ‘green’ hero of this story. No, it is not a variety of pork either.

The green grain I’m talking about is Ponk or Paunk (પૌંક), a winter snack found in South Gujarat (in and around Surat) in India.

Ponk

It’s been a few years since I left Gujarat. More time has gone by since the last time I ate ponk in Surat. But during my recent visit to my hometown, my mum surprised me one day with a breakfast of ponk! My parents were in Surat just the day before I arrived home and they came back with a few packets of husked ponk (it lasts only for a day or two). My mouth began to water at the sight of it as I was transported back to my childhood, to our frequent visits to my mother’s native town near Surat, and our compulsory pit-stop at the highway-side stalls for a bowl of this underrated snack item, that eventually became a family food tradition!

Picture this: freshly roasted, warm, green-colored tiny rounds of grain that have a tinge of sweetness, mixed with a generous amount of tangy sev, topped with spicy coriander chutney, and downed with a glass of chilled chaas. This single bowl is the perfect amalgamation of so many tastes and textures, with the sweet and tender ponk forming the base, the zesty sev making the perfect crunchy topping, the spicy chutney adding the contrasting punch to the whole dish, and the chaas acting as a creamy coolant.

Also known as tender jowar, green milo grain, or sorghum, ponk has been a favorite winter snack of Gujaratis for generations, and has also caught the attention of chefs and foodies around the world for its soft texture as well as its health benefits.

THE WONDER GRAIN

You should move over quinoa, millet, and brown rice, because there is a new superfood in the market to stock up on! While this super grain is most suitable for people who are gluten intolerant, it comes with heaps of health benefits for others as well.

> Sorghum is gluten-free.

> It has a high nutritional value, with high levels of unsaturated fats, protein, fiber, and minerals like phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and iron.

> It has more antioxidants than blueberries and pomegranates, taking it at the top of the chart of superfoods.

> It controls diabetes. Sorghum contains enzymes that help regulate insulin and glucose levels in the body.

> The high level of magnesium present in sorghum makes sure your bones remain healthy even as you age.

> Sorghum contains minerals that aid blood circulation and red blood cell development in the body, making it an essential grain for people with anemia.

> It improves digestion.

It’s not just the health benefits that make sorghum so good a grain. The tender jowar popularity exploded on a global platform as a grain that is drought-resistant as it uses very little water and fertilizer to grow, as compared to corn or wheat.

WHY CHEFS LOVE PONK

While ponk is primarily a Gujarati snack, chefs around the world have gone gaga over this grain. And the soft, tender texture has a lot to do with its popularity. When cooked properly, sorghum can give tough competition to the soft and silky Italian gelato. The slightly sweet taste makes it a grain less boring than quinoa and rice.

HOW TO COOK PONK

Sorghum stalks grow up to 10 feet tall between the cold months of November to February in parts of Gujarat (India). These stalks are cut and roasted inside a bed of hot charcoal. The grains are then beaten out of the shell and eaten raw or with accompaniments or as a fried snack.

While this is the purest and the most popular form of eating ponk, Gujaratis also mix it into a batter and make ponk vadas (fritters). People also substitute potato with ponk and use it as a filling in samosa or patties to give the regular fried snack a healthy twist.

Puffed rice is replaced by ponk in bhel (popular street food in India) and it is also used as a dessert to make ponk kheer.

In a fancier version, restaurants around the world have used this super grain in many ways — as a salad grain, to make a non-rice risotto, or powdered and sprinkled on top of desserts or made into a bread.

RECIPE

If you have still not introduced your palate to this super grain, this basic recipe is the best way to eat ponk for the first time.

You will need:

~ 1 packet of freshly husked ponk from a highway stall in Surat

~ 1 packet of sev (fried gram flour or chickpea flour noodles), either regular or mint or garlic

For the chutney:

~ coriander leaves

~ salt

~ lemon

~ green garlic

~ green chilli

For the chaas (buttermilk):

~ yogurt

~ salt

~ coriander leaves

Method:

Add a handful of coriander leaves, roughly chopped green chili and green garlic to a blender. Add some salt to taste. Add a dash of water and blend together the mixture.
Take some yogurt in a blender and add some coriander leaves (you can also add mint leaves and green chili for a punch) and salt to it and mix well. Add some cold water or ice to the mixture and blend again.
Take the freshly roasted ponk in a bowl, sprinkle lots of sev on it, drizzle some chutney on top and enjoy the snack with a glass of chaas.

Nostalgia hits me hard as I finish writing this piece. I think I’ll book a flight back to Surat just to eat ponk while the season is still on.