"Ponk", a very popular winter food in Surat, Gujarat, is green immature sorghum - Jowar. Jowar is an ancient, whole grain crop. It is a powerhouse in terms of nutrients and can provide vitamins like niacin, riboflavin, and thiamin, as well as high levels of magnesium, iron, copper, calcium, phosphorous, and potassium. It nearly can provide half the daily protein requirement and a very significant amount of dietary fiber (48% of the recommend\ed intake).
Sorghum is not just a nutrients rich food but also a wonder crop as it can grow in drought like situation too. It does not need excessive water and can wait for soil moisture to develop during drought like situations.
Ponk is usually available only during colder winter months, from November through February. Its one of the delicacies of Surat, Gujarat. And so it happened that we made a planned visit to Surat during this time period. We had heard so much about this place that we decided to visit the Ponk Nagri where one can see the process of how the Ponk is separated from its stalk. Obviously the hidden agenda was to hog mouth watering Ponk Wada and Patties.
The space was spectacular. One could hear a rhythmic "thud thud" sound from a distance. The area was a little smoky and strong winds was causing the ash and sand to fly. Luckily, we had a lovely photographer Vinit Bhatt travelling with us. He helped me capture the essence of what I wanted to share with my viewers.
Sorghum seedhead stalks from several places around Surat is brought to the Ponk Nagri. A set of 15-20 stalks are made from the stock.
Seedheads of each set are then inserted and roasted under charcoal furnace - in local language we call it "Bhathhi".
The slightly cooked stems are then taken out of "bhathhi". It is dusted to get rid of ash.
One roasted set goes to one beater and that is how the sets are distributed. The seedbeds are put in the cloth sack. The sack is beaten with a wooden stick. Grains are beaten out from the soft shelling. The beating goes on rhythmically and gives a "Thud thud" sound.
This Ponk is sieved to separate the seeds from its husk and other remains of the Jowar stalk. The seeds are served fresh or used in other preparations like patties and vada. The seeds that are left in the stalk are dried in the sun and then collected and sold as grain, Jowar. The husk, stem etc. goes to cow shed as cattle feed. Thus nothing goes waste.
Once this grain was very popular amongst farmers as it does not need lot of tending and gives enough nutrients to the farmers toiling in hot sun. What makes me sad is that it has become a special food or a delicacy today. It is no longer used on regular basis and people treat it like a seasonal/one time thing. All this started some where during the last century. Green Revolution kind of changed a lot of scenarios.
The demand for big three global grain corn, rice and wheat increased tremendously. Increased crop production due to usage of pesticides and chemical fertilisers along with excess water availability led lot of farmers to switch to more money making crop. The atrocities of chemicals in the fields started surfacing and led to poverty. Water became scarce. Government out of love for its people introduced Public Distribution System (PDS). Under PDS farmers are offered rice and wheat, which are not nutritionally even close to the Sorghum, at very cheap rate to ensure no one sleeps hungry at night. Lots of farmers left their traditional nutrients rich meal to carbs rich food.
Sorghum became a not so sort after crop anymore. It was tagged as "Poor man's food". So more and more people avoided buying the grain. The demand dwindled and so its production too. The situation was getting worst each day and a revolution came. People in western countries started realising that a whole bunch of them are gluten intolerant. Gluten is a protein found in wheat. People started looking for an alternative. Sorghum is one of the rescue crop for this bunch. Suddenly from poor man’s food it has become a luxury item. And due to its unavailability it became even more sort after crop.
The situation is more hopeful today but it cannot be unaffordable for rest of population. Though sold at premium rate today this crop needs to be regularised to ensure it again becomes the part common man’s meal.