What is podi? If you haven’t encountered it before, you should know that it’s a spice blend popular in India, one that is sprinkled on food to spike the flavor profile of a dish. But for most fans, you can say podi is an emotion. Podi is usually a combination of lentils such as split Bengal, black gram, sesame seeds, curry leaves, spices like chilli, black pepper, and cumin, but podi mixes vary widely from one tradition to another.
According to Sangam literature (ancient Tamil texts), the concept of podi originates in Southern India. It was popularized by the Vijayanagar dynasty, a south Indian royal family that became prominent around 1336 AD to 1565 AD. The empire was located on the banks of the Tungabhadra river (present-day Karnataka), and gradually spread over the entire Deccan region. “So even today, podi is popular in the regions of central and northern Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka,” Chef Regi Mathew told me.
Mathew runs a Kerala cuisine restaurant called Kappa Chakka Kandhari in South India, and confirms that according to ancient texts, something called ‘ellu podi’ (sesame seeds-based), was the first kind of podi to come around. “Traditionally, podis are eaten with rice, or as a part of the main meal, or dusted on snacks. Their main purpose is to add flavor to a meal, sometimes when certain spices are involved, podis can aid digestion too,” he says.
For Bangkok-based Garima Arora, the first Indian woman to win a Michelin star for her restaurant Gaa, podi is a “flavor bomb.” “It's my go-to when I want to add a layer of flavor to a dish. I’ll eat it with rice, dal or even keema (minced meat),” she tells me. Her first podi memory includes eating it at a South Indian friend’s house. “She was from Kerala and since I come from a Punjabi house, it was a new taste for my palate and it left me impressed,” she says.
“In Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu it’s pronounced podi, whereas in Karnataka, it’s called pudi. It’s eaten by mixing the powder with ghee or gingelly oil,” Mathew shares. Pure sesame oil is also a good alternative if neither of those are available.
As for me, I stock my pantry with many types of podi. The karuveppilai podi is made of curry leaves, paruppu podi has lentils and various spices, maligai podi is made of sesame seeds and lentils and is called “gunpowder” thanks to its explosively flavorful properties.
Arora introduced gunpowder through the idlis on her menu at Here, her second restaurant in Bangkok. “Sometimes guests are surprised that gun ammo in India could be edible!” she laughs.
Podis are textured differently. Some are dry powders, some, like chammanthi podi, which is made of coconut and lentils, is textured like moist, coarse sand. This is because natural oils from the wet ingredients get released during the blending process.
As for how you start using them, well, I have yet to find a more satisfying dish than podi sprinkled on warm, soft idlis for breakfast. But toast with ghee and a sprinkling of dry podi comes close.
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