What explains the love of the Indians for the churan?
Few things capture the quintessence of street food quite like a bit of churan – the inscrutable blend of powdered herbs and spices, sold on handcarts in towns and villages across India. Its mouth contorting whiff of acidity, enhanced by the tang of spices and the riot of umami, represents the forbidden pleasures of the street.
For generations of children growing up in the subcontinent, the cries of the churanwala, laden with the promise of secret indulgence, have been the only bright spot on many dull school days. Buying churan at the churanwala against the will of the parents and licking it off with your fingertips is a rite of rebellion that can only be enjoyed by those who have experienced it themselves.
Sometimes the churanwala sprinkles a charcoal-colored speck called Current (black salt with added citric acid that gives the tongue a jolt) on the churan and causes it to ignite with the push of a stick – momentarily transforming its craft into performance art. If powdered churan isn’t appealing, it has other hugely addictive offerings, such as anardana golis made with dehydrated pomegranate and spices, soft and gooey churan-infused tamarind and jaggery balls, dried fruit coated with churn and balls of churan in sugar envelopes. bright colors.
No one is immune to the lure of the churan, although it is often dubbed a feminine indulgence. There is a renegade pleasure in its explosive flavors and the voracity with which it is consumed that subverts all established notions of feminine propriety. “Churans and chaats are the touchstones of childlike or savage femininity, offering the possibilities of lives lived differently – on the one hand nostalgic and conservative, on the other manly with heterotopic possibilities,” the historian wrote. food Krishnendu Ray. Anything can happen on churan.
For chef Manish Mehrotra, the boldness and hardiness of churan was one of the reasons for injecting it into artistic platters of gourmet dishes. At his award-winning Indian Accent restaurant in Delhi, he paired frankly French foie gras with pomegranate and churan to give it a distinctly desi flavor. Between courses, his diners are served a popsicle of anardana churan sorbet, a take on anardana goli, as a palate cleanser. “I wanted to present the benefits of churan to new generations in a more appealing format while triggering nostalgia at the same time,” Mehrotra said. “Furthermore, churan is originally intended to aid digestion and whet the appetite.”
The popularity of the most commonly eaten churans is rooted in their ability to aid digestion. As the writer Sudhir Kakar observes in his book The Indians: portrait of a people, “The most common pan-Indian concern with food is its digestion…” Churans are not random mixtures of salts, spices and acids. They are carefully constructed with ingredients that possess medicinal properties. The principle behind it is finding the right balance of the six rasas or tastes – sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent – which is imperative for stimulating the digestive fire.
The word churan is a colloquial deformation of the Sanskrit churna, which means powder. The Ayurvedic tradition of churna kalpana involves mixing and grinding herbs, spices and salts in different permutations to make medicinal powders. The Charaka Samhita, an important work of classical Ayurveda, expounds many medicinal churna formulations. For example, to treat diseases of the respiratory tract, he recommends sitopaladi churna, a powdered mixture of ingredients like sitopala (candy sugar), tugakshiri, pippali (long pepper) and brihat ela (black cardamom).. To treat abdominal diseases, he prescribes patoladya churna, which is made by combining patola extract with herbs and spices like kaampillaka (rottlera), vidanga (embelia ribes), trivrit (Indian Jalapa) and triphala (a mixture of amla, haritaki and bibhitaki).
millennia later Charaka Samhita was written, many churnas are mentioned in it, and other classical works of Ayurveda continue to be prescribed by Ayurvedas. Some have even become home remedies for colds, coughs and, more commonly, indigestion and flatulence.
In all communities, traditionally, making churan at home has been a highlight of the culinary calendar. Shared with family and carefully wrapped for loved ones leaving the comforts of home, the churan served as a token of domesticity and family affection.
Growing up in Uttar Pradesh, food blogger Anjana Chaturvedi closely followed her mother’s biannual ritual of making churans. “It was a lengthy process spanning several days,” Chaturvedi said. “It all started with developing an elaborate list of ingredients to buy at the grocery store. The ingredients would be sorted and cleaned meticulously. After that, the herbs and spices were mixed by hand and left to dry. The whole house would smell of churan for days.
On his blog, Chaturvedi documents some of these family recipes, such as the effective hing harad churan, which exploits the virtues of asafoetida and myrobalan, combining them with cumin seeds, carom seeds, dried ginger, black cardamom, pepper, cloves, long pepper. and a combination of salts. The ingredient list also includes nausadar, or ammonium chloride, used in many Ayurvedic formulations and tatri or nimboo phul, which gives churan its sour flavor.
Chaturvedi moved to Dubai almost four decades ago, but making churan for her family is a “ritual she has clung to”. One of his personal favorites is ajwain and aloe vera churan. “It’s heavy to do,” she said. “The carom seeds are soaked in lots of lemon juice, gel-like aloe vera pulp with spices, then left to sit for days before being carefully air-dried. It can be eaten as is or ground into a fine churan.
In Sindhi homes, says food blogger Alka Keswani, new mothers traditionally receive a digestive churan called fakki. To make it, a long list of ingredients is pounded and mixed with pounded mishri, including fennel seeds, dry ginger, shah jeera, green cardamom, licorice, peppercorns, seeds fenugreek, peppermint tablets, almonds, vavding and tabasheer.
A Tamilian equivalent of fakki is angaya podi, a spice blend made with black pepper, cumin, coriander, curry leaves, turkey berries, neem flowers, among other ingredients. Traditionally given to nursing mothers, angaya podi is good for anyone looking to improve digestion.
In Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, Indian jujube or ber is commonly used to make churan. Specifically, “in the Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh, a powdered mixture of dehydrated beer and salts called birchun is extremely popular,” said Ruchi Srivastava, a food researcher and television producer. Next door, in the Malwa region, it’s jeeravan – the spice blend that gives Indori poha its distinctive flavor and doubles as a churan – that finds favor.
It is believed that Malwa inherited its fondness for the churan from the Marwari traders, especially the Jain community, who settled there. But if Malwa loves her churan, Gujarat loves it with unparalleled zeal.
“In any Gujarati home, you’ll likely find an assortment of churans and mukhwas (mouth fresheners),” said culinary consultant Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal. “It’s not just an obligatory postprandial ritual, but also something that people, especially women, have bonded over.” Ghildiyal remembers as a child watching elders making churan at home or getting supplies from trusted traveling churanwalas. “My favorite is kharek – dried dates stuffed and coated in churan,” she said.
Food blogger Sheetal Bhatt shares Ghildiyal’s passionate love for kharek. A resident of Ahmedabad, Bhatt buys her kharek from Kali Topi Lambi Muchh, an institution in the city famous for serving it with chutney and more churan. At home, she says, there is always churan in the pantry. Hing di vati and drakshadi vati (granules of raisins coated with churan) are two of his staple foods, along with amboriya (chopped mango kernels, dried and mixed with spices).
Bhatt laments the disappearance of the tradition of making churan at home. “The modern lifestyle and vertical living doesn’t allow the time and space to engage in these culinary rituals,” she said. Luckily for everyone, across the country, churan shops offer an assortment of products that not only promise the flavors of homemade churans, but also their potency.
At the iconic Ram Lubhaya & Sons in Amritsar, for example, the store’s star is aam papad, but he wouldn’t shine as bright without the store’s unique churan. “Our papad aam is first class, but only complete with a generous sprinkle of our limbo masala churan and pudine ki chutney. It can help digest heavier meals,” said Vikram Kumar, whose father opened the shop decades ago. His Ram laddu – sweet, spicy and tangy balls of tamarind pulp, sugar and churan spices – are enriched with the goodness of tamarind seeds.
Across the country in Kolkata, the century-old Jain Silpa Mandir, a veritable institution, is iconic for its churans and pickles. The Jain family, owners of the store, migrated to Kolkata from Firozabad in Uttar Pradesh almost 150 years ago and eventually set up their business in the north of the city. For a loyal patron of Jain Silpa Mandir, it is hard to miss his churans. Its recognizable flat-bellied glass bottles contain everything they hold dear: from churan laced chhuhara, ginger and amla to churan goli and Vaskar Lavan digestive (a blend of ingredients like amla, harad , bahera and rock salt).
It is the ajwain goli, however, that is synonymous with boutique. “In Kolkata, our ajwain goli is called Jaino goli,” explains Anup Jain, the fourth generation owner. “Our greatest joy is seeing how the taste of our churan is ingrained in people’s memories as a reminder of happy times. Many come to our store and remember how, as children, they accompanied their grandfathers or fathers to our store and keep coming back for the flavors of childhood.
Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a Kolkata-based food and culture writer.. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Food Writing for 2022.