Monday, 14 January 2013

Open Sesame!

Gul Poli (black sesame and jaggery stuffed pastry)

Pilao, pilao! Dheel! Dheel! Dheel! Arreyreyrey! Khinch…khinnnch! Kaaat!! Yayyy!

Every rooftop terrace resounded with the jubilant or protesting cries, whistles, party horns and drum rolls from friendly rivals flying and contesting kites in a “pench”. Everything was fair in this war, from hurling friendly insults, the squabbling over ownership of kites, the pedestrian rights of the terraces to running after the wayward defeated kites with poles in hand to claim the bounty.

The crisp and azure winter sky of my childhood came to life with hundreds of paper kites of myriad colours and designs soaring and plummeting, their tails saucily dancing after them. From dawn to dusk on the two days of Makar Sankranti, people of all ages gathered on their rooftops terraces known as chandnis or gacchis. Flying and fighting kites in the feisty winds of the winter solstice, their spirits rose and fell and rose again with the fates of the kites in duel.

The kite flying or “patang pilana” would actually start much earlier, with kids and younger folk doing a recce of the local kite stalls, staring in wonderment and longing at the lovely kites in so many shapes and sizes and the huge pastel coloured bobbins of “manja” cutting edge lines and the much larger snow white spools of the “sadha” cotton twine hanging in the front of the shops, waiting to be unravelled and measured out by the hand breadths or lacchas. Every shopkeeper had their own formula that was supposedly the wickedest, for an aggressive or potent manja played a key role in the success of the kites flying. It had to be of a good strength, suitable ply, sharpness and stiffness, but light in weight.

The kids eyed the kites they coveted, boasting to one another how they would be getting the bigger fighter kites and manjas on the days of the festival and hurried back to their pads, hugging to their chests the smaller kites and the shorter fan shaped lacchas of manja held preciously in their hands.

One Sankranti season Dada, my brother and his friends had even made their own manja, stringing cotton thread between two poles and walking up and down rubbing the length of thread with a deadly gooey paste of rice, colour and finely crushed glass! I was the hanger-on and was allowed to crew on this daring mission only because I was sworn to secrecy.

Back on the terrace, some kids were leaders and others like me, were followers and caddies. Sport of most sorts not being my forte, I was happy to faithfully tag along Dada. He was an ace sportsman, cricketer and kite flier and I was his Sancho Panza, releasing or launching the kite and then running hurriedly to take my position carrying the charak or the spool.

In between these tasks, I had to play the water carrier for the thirsty lot. I also had this critical task, which I fulfilled bursting with self-importance, of making forays downstairs to raid and smuggle some of the til gul laddus or gul polis, candied sesame seed halwa, revadis and chikkis for the warriors.

Once our nefarious activity was detected and stopped, the gang was happy to feast on some of the less sinful and more freely available plenties like the skinned sugar cane pieces, bers (jujubes) hari boot (green garbanzo beans), gengulu (Palmyra sprouts), red - not orange- carrots and pieces of “gulacha face”- the froth from jaggery boiling captured in its foamy lightness along with peanuts, roast gram dal and small pieces of copra.

Out in the sun the whole day, then moving to the shade when it stung, jumping up to squint at an interesting prize-fight, grazing, teasing, laughing and shouting ourselves hoarse, who would’ve imagined that our lives would enter another hemisphere, geographical and chronological in a southbound journey!

Gul poli

The gul-poli as this paratha is called is a traditional Marathi dish that is prepared during the Sankranti/ Lohri festival. This dish is particularly made during this season as traditionally the purpose was to eat heat-inducing foods during winter and also these ingredients are freshly harvested during this season. The accompanying dollops of ghee supposedly warm up the body. 

This year I made gul poli with black sesame seeds, for a change. Black sesame seeds are a bit more savoury and have lent this poli a nice bottom note of savouriness. The colour is courtesy the black sesame!


For the stuffing:

1 ½ cup grated soft kolhapuri gur
¾ cup black sesame seeds
¼ cup white sesame seeds
½ cup desiccated coconut (make sure it is not rancid)
½ cup roasted and powdered peanuts
1 tbsp poppy seeds (khus khus),
7-8 green cardamoms
A large pinch of nutmeg powder
1 tbsp ghee

For the dough:

1 cup wholewheat flour (atta)
1 cup plain flour
1 tbsp oil for shortening 
A pinch of salt
water for kneading


In a kadhai or pan toast the black sesame seeds very lightly (they become bitter if you toast them too much). Add poppy seeds to puff up slightly. Add the desiccated coconut towards the end of the toasting of the sesame seeds as coconut burns easily. Turn the heat off. Cool the roasted mixture and grind or pound all the ingredients for the stuffing except the gur. Mix the ground mixture with the grated gur and a tablespoon of ghee until it acquires an oily, moist crumbly texture that can be rolled into loose balls. 

Knead the flours, salt and oil into a smooth medium soft chapati like dough and let it rest covered for about 15 minutes. 

Make equal portions of the dough and the til-gur mixture and roll them into balls. Roll out the dough balls into small puris, with thin edges and thicker centres and place a loose ball of the til-gur mixture on it.  Fold the puri around it like a modak or a momo. Make sure to trim the excess dough peaks and then gently roll the stuffed dough ball in your hands making sure the filling has reached all over the inside of the ball. Then pat it gently into a roundel on a floured surface and sprinkle some sesame seeds on it  and roll out into a medium sized paratha, as thin as possible.

If you can see that the filling has not reached the sides during the rolling, trim the edges of the roti into a perfect round with a fluted pastry cutter. Dust the excess flour and then cook the polis on a medium hot griddle. Dot it with some oil and turn over to cook the other side and oil this side as well. 

Take care to use a spatula to turn them over as the roti can get very deceptively hot because of the gur.

Serve warm with cold ghee or cold with melted ghee.

These polis are served during the main meal during the festive season and not as a dessert, like so many Marathi sweets like shrikhand-puri, kheer-puri and puranpoli. The gul-polis stay well for a week or so (if one can stay away from them) and make a great snack, too! 


If you find rolling the crumbly stuffing in the dough difficult, add two tablespoons of besan, lightly roasted in a tablespoon of ghee (like a besan roux). This will help bind the mixture and tastes good, too! You could also try adding a tablespoon of khoya!

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