How to make Poha, from the king of breakfasts

Hasmukh was the king of breakfasts. It was his responsibility to make them at Sapna Ranch and each morning there would be something different – bhelpuri (a type of chaat, made with puffed rice and tangy tamarind sauce), poha jada (thin beaten rice), poha patla (thick beaten rice), upma (savoury porridge made using semolina and vegetables) and ragi (millet porridge). Poha patla is Hasmukh’s favourite “because everything is raw and there’s a good mix of crunch and softness”. It’s a popular breakfast dish all over India, but IMO it would be perfectly acceptable to eat this any time of the day.

Hasmukh prepares the all important garnish

Breakfasts at Sapna Ranch

Each morning Hasmukh would make the breakfast along with the help of one or two volunteers on the ranch. As he cooked, the rest of the community slowly stirred into action; plants were watered; dishes from the night before were put away; dogs were walked; coffee was brewed and fresh papaya was cut (then devoured).

Eventually Hasmukh would cry out across the farm, “Everybody! Breakfast will be ready in ten minutes”. If people weren’t already by now hungrily hovering around the kitchen, then this call would rouse people from their beds or other tasks. The mat would be washed and homemade curd, fruit, hot kada, poha patla, and eventually people would sit around cross-legged to enjoy the first meal of the day. If it tasted good (which it always did), Hasmukh would exclaim over breakfast to whoever helped him cook that morning “it’s come out good [Chloe], now when I come to England, I know I will be able to get poha patla”. This was pretty much how mornings went at Sapna Ranch.

An unconventional education

Hasmukh grew up an only child in the city of Mumbai. By the time he was 15 both his mother and father had died and Hasmukh found himself alone and homeless. Despite being underage, his love for self-learning and endless curiosity got him a job working for an IT company. Nights he would spend in the lab, tinkering around with machines and teaching himself computer programming.

By early 20’s his talent was spotted by someone from the States on a business trip (thanks to Hasmukh’s late night tinkering he was the only person in the company who knew how to run a specific programme) and by 22 Hasmukh landed himself a job in America working for a successful emerging technologies business.

For the next 20 years Hasmukh lived stateside, running marathons, getting into pizza and clocking up some serious air miles flying around the country for various business meetings.

Experiential Learning

By his early 40’s Hasmukh was ready to move back to India. Originally, his plan was to find a piece of land and set up a small orphanage for about 30 kids; they would live on the farm and be cared for whilst going to the local school. But, along with a rising number of other Indians, he quickly became disillusioned by the school system in India and his plan changed – a lot. Hasmukh realised that ‘learning by doing’ was a much better way to educate a child as opposed to the over-cramped exam driven schools.

Currently, he and other pioneers are in the process of acquiring land for an ambitious 800 strong community called EBHLE (Experience Based Holistic Learning Environment). At its centre EBHLE will have an ‘alternative education’ system for 300 children aged between 6 – 12. Children will not only decide what they want to learn, but their education will come practically. Instead of using two senses, all five senses will be called upon.

Sapna Ranch, where he currently lives along with volunteers and other community members, is essentially a test-site for EBHLE. The ranch is full of experiments carried out by him and previous volunteers and his strong belief that ‘learning by doing’ is the best way permeates the daily routine. Arguably, this is most noticeable in the kitchen as volunteers are encouraged to create new and weird dishes. The geodesic bamboo structure I helped to build during my time at Sapna Ranch is a prototype of one of the ‘pods’ that will sleep 30 children and about 8 adults in EBHLE.

Given Hasmukh’s own unconventional education and his resulting success, it’s not surprising that he is such a strong encourager for people to ‘learn by doing’.

The ‘test’ dorm that I helped to build at EBHLE
Hasmukh and other community members enjoying the sunset

Hasmukh’s ‘walk into the woods’

There are lots of people coming and going at Sapna Ranch for most of the year, but the monsoon months are slow and quiet. Hasmukh spends this time completely alone, reading and watching documentaries. Despite being such a charismatic man, happy to share everything he owns with strangers (like myself), he insists that he is also completely content with his own company. I believe this considering how utterly self-reliant he is.

So when I ask Hasmukh what his last supper would be, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the answer. I ask most people on this blog this question and the response is generally their mother’s cooking or another childhood favourite.  But for Hasmukh it was completely different, he replied “in the woods”. For him, it wasn’t a matter of what he ate, but where he ate it.

When they time is right, Hasmukh has decided that he will “exit public life” and go and live in the woods. It won’t be a sudden thing, but a gradual process. Once he has eventually shared out everything he has, materially (and I’m sure he also means intellectually and mentally), he will go and spend his final days in nature. I find the thought of this so sad and tell Hasmukh so, but he seems so content and at peace with the idea that I feel reassured, “call it, ‘my walk into the woods’” he says.

Recipe for Poha

Serves 6

Ingredients

  • 1 tbspn mustard seeds
  • 1 tbspn cumin seeds
  • 20 fresh curry leaves
  • 1 tbspn turmeric powder
  • 1/2 tbspn chilli powder
  • 2 tbspn coriander seeds
  • 6 handfuls of poha jada (or patla if it’s the only one you can find)
  • 2 tbspn jaggery powder or sugar
  • 4 onions
  • 1 coconut
  • Handful of peanuts
  • 1/2 handful of raisins
  • 2 lemons
  • Salt

Method

Begin by soaking the poha in hot water for 10 minutes. This softens the poha. NB you only do this with poha jada (the thick one), do not soak the rice if using poha patla

Now make the garnish: heat oil in a frying pan and add the mustard seeds. When the mustard seeds begin to pop you know the oil is hot enough. Next add cumin seeds, then curry leaves and finally turmeric powder. Remove from the pan from the heat before finally adding the chilli powder.

Roast the coriander seeds in a dry pan, then blend them into a powder. Stir in the powder to the poha.

Add the jaggery powder (or sugar) into the garnish and mix well.

Finely dice the onions and grate the coconut

Now mix together the poha, garnish, onions, peanuts, coconut, lemon juice and salt. Taste and add more salt if needed.

Optional extras for this dish also include: boiled potatoes (finely chopped), pomegranate seeds and coriander (basically whatever you can get your hands on and think would be good).

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