Puliogare! The Story of Tamarind Rice Is One of Alchemy & Emotions
This is a story about Puliogare. Tamarind rice. And alchemy. And a culinary war that continues till today. And how an assuredly meat-based recipe became a pure veg, green sticker delicacy.
Southern Slurp is The Quint's podcast on food, recipes, and fantastic stories from the kitchens of south India, both ancient and modern. Listen to this episode, and then go check out the rest of the playlist if you're hungry for more!
A Train Journey
Circa 1988. Summer holidays. I'm five years old and small enough to fit into the window of the Mumbai Express, enroute my grandma's house in Dadar from Chennai Central. The journey is no less than two full days.
I'm hungry, there's no station in sight, and the train has stopped randomly in the middle of nowhere, indefinitely, like it usually does.
I ask my mother for the seventy third time in about ten minutes for food. I manage to get under her skin.
Five minutes, a ringing ear and a red cheek later, my mother opens a large, round metal 'dabba'. The scent of rice mixed with dried red chillies, cooked tamarind, and fried groundnuts fills the coupe. The Puliogare is almost two days old, and yet it's great to eat. My mother sniffs it a little, just to be sure. The aroma of the rice that has soaked in the thick paste of spiced tamarind makes her sigh with pride. She looks at me and smiles.
My twin brother and I sit across her and we begin to finish the roughly 1 kg of Puliogare!
What's In a Name?
Kannadigas call it PuLiogare. The Telugus call it PuLihOrA. In Tamil land, it's called PuLiodharai. And the Maharashtrians have historically called it Ambil Bhath! This version of mixed rice has been around since at least before the 3rd century BC. And we're pretty sure it's from the kitchens of south India.
Steamed white rice, tamarind paste, fenugreek, dried chillies, salt, sesame oil and the genius idea that brought it all together. The ingredients of this recipe have always been readily available, and always been cheap. There no onions! And that's why the tamarind rice is the most common prasad across temples in South India. It's easy to make. It doesn't spoil for at least two days! And most of all, it is unbelievably tasty!
And at the root of it all, is the tamarind. That strange 'fruit' from a strange tree with sour leaves, that is both the sweetest and the most acidic of all fruits!
The Persians called it 'thamaar - e - Hind'; the Indian date. And it was used widely during the Mughal era.
Is the tamarind south Indian?
Well actually it’s African. Archaeologists say it came to India 10,000 years ago. Ten. Thousand. YEARS! That makes it practically Indian, people. We cultivated it, mass produced it, and have used it in ways that beat description. And not just as a souring agent or spice in food.
It's been an important aspect of Ayurveda since at least 320 AD. And if you're looking to convert iron or any other metal into gold, you can't do it without tamarind! It's even been used as a medicinal ingredient.
Yup, tamarind was used in alchemy! So says the 12th century Rasarnava or Treatise on Metallic Preparations.
Tamarind and Rice
Odana' is 'cooked rice', according to the Rigveda, that's about 3,500 years old. Buddhist texts define it as a 'bowl of rice'. But we have been shovelling rice onto leaf plates from long before then!
By about the 11th century, Odana came to mean different types of mixed rice.
Dadhy-odana was curd-rice.
Pishitha-odana was meat and rice.
Ghrit-odana was butter/ghee rice.
Thaithidika-odana was tamarind rice!
3rd century BC. We are now at the cusp of the birth of tamarind rice. We're in the flatlands of the Tamils, where endless rice fields rustle and flow like an ocean of green waves. A nameless poet whose poem still lives on in Agananooru, an ancient anthology, writes;
“Her husband’s cloth is well washed, but after he puts it on, he dirties it by wiping on it the thin fingers, which are like November flowers, with which he has stirred the thick curds and which he has not washed. He is eating the thick tamarind soup which she has cooked for him, and on which she has thrown aromatics after frying them. When she looked at it with her lilly-like eyes, her bright face beamed with delight!”Agananooru, 3rd Century BC.
Here's another one.
உப்புநொடை நெல்லின் மூரல் வெண்சோறு அயிலை துழந்த அம்புளிச் சொரிந்து, கொழுமீன் தடியொடு குறுமகள் கொடுக்கும்.
She brings white rice she got from bartering salt, mixed with a sauce of ayirai fish cooked in sweet tamarind sauce, to her father.
From Meat to Imagination
I chose these verses for two reasons.
One, they describe the combination, or the mixing of rice with tamarind extract, which is what the Puliogare is all about. And two, the names of the tamarind in different languages all seem to have been adapted from Tamil words.
Marathi's 'Ambil' from Ambuli in Tamil.
Sanskrit's 'Thinthida' from thiththippu, which means sweet in Tamil.
It was earlier called Chinchaphala in Sanskrit, but linguists say that word too might have had a south Indian influence.
But in both these cases, the dish has either meat or fish in it. But the tamarind rice of today is pure veg. Green sticker through and through. How did that happen, you ask?
PT Srinivasa Iyengar, in his book ‘History of Tamils’, writes that there was a huge wave of vegetarianism among south Indian Brahmins around the 5th and 6th Centuries AD. And that this coincided with the Bhakti movement among the Vaishnavites and the Shaivites and also with the growing influence of the Jain sect.
The Variations, and Some Free Advice
A number of vegetarian recipes were therefore born in this period. It wasn't just about replacing or eliminating meat from a recipe, but creating courses from scratch that used tamarind imaginatively.
The PuLiogare of the Kannadigas has dried dessicated coconuts.
The Poliodharai of the Vishnu temple in Triplicane, which is world famous...erm...the temple too is world famous...is made with pepper and not dried chillies.
The Pulihora of Andhra is a more basic recipe, akin to Ashalata's, and devoid of the powdered spices.
As food aficionados fight over which version is the best, I did the right thing; I tasted all of the versions, and in full measure.
And I can tell you, without a shred of doubt...they are all beautiful!
Try making it at home. Trust me, it won't suck as much as you think it will!
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