PODI is a cultural archive of South India

PODI is a cultural archive of South India

Whether we're glimpsing into the simple, sun-soaked lunch of a Karnataka farmer enjoying millet bakri and podi, or peeking into the hurried late-night dinner of an overworked IT consultant pairing plain rice with podi and a dollop of ghee, podi serves as a culinary thread that weaves through lifestyles, social classes, castes and even continents. It's a dash of home, a sprinkle of comfort, and a heaping spoonful of cultural richness—all wrapped in the unassuming simplicity of a pantry staple.

The origin of podi is a testament to centuries of indigenous ingenuity, a culinary craft perfected to not just satiate hunger in a pinch, but to be the perfect travel companion. Its longevity and resistance to spoilage has made it stand through the test of time.

So what exactly makes podi a versatile star of a South Indian home kitchen? A podi is built like a perfume - there is a base note of a wide variety of pulses and/or nuts that act as the perfect canvas to layer on texture, flavor and aroma, there is a middle note of spices and a top note of a hero spice or herb like curry leaves or moringa leaves or an aromatic like garlic. 

Nut-based podis are used by resourceful homecooks to make easy stir frys or stuffed vegetable curries that pair excellently with whole cooked grains or rotis. 

In South Indian restaurants, podis are simply called by the names idli podi, dosa podi, gunpowder, chutney pudi, karam podi or milagai podi - while these generic names don't clearly indicate the hero ingredient, they are usually some combination of lentils, nuts, spices and herbs. In South Indian home parlance, the nomenclature tends to be specific. 


A reflection of what’s grown across seasons

Podi simply means 'powder' in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and pudi is the equivalent word in Kannada. Every South Indian home with a podi tradition has their own repertoire of podis - a proud family signature! 

Dalia (roasted bengal gram) podi, Karivepaku/karuvepillai (curry leaf) podi, Dhania (coriander seeds) podi, Garlic podi are popular podis in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

A popular podi called chutney pudi in Karnataka, paruppu podi in Tamil Nadu, pappula podi in Telugu speaking regions, is made of chana, urad dals and spices. While in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, podis are eaten with rice and breakfast foods, pudis in Karnataka are millet and rice flour rottis and breakfast foods. 

Podis made with some ingredients like skin of several gourds (ridge, bitter and bottle), amla (gooseberries), sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, and jackfruit seeds, tend to have a much shorter shelf life and are made in small quantities seasonally when the ingredients are available.

A seasonal podi called chinta chiguri podi is made of tender tamarind leaves, chilies and lentils, has a delicate, tangy taste and can only be made in a 2-3 week window in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Seasons also dictate how podis are consumed. During monsoon, podis are eaten with kanji. 

The kind of chilies used is also based on the region and availability - for example, Guntur Sannam in coastal Andhra, Chapata/bamboo chili in Warangal area, Byadigi in Karnataka. 

Some podis have a fine texture, for example, Methkut/Menthi hittu (made of fenugreek seeds and also used as a seasoning when making a local snack, a simple mix of poha/flattened rice and some oil), and a pudi called pitti chitni (made by a micro-community of Chitrapur Saraswats). 

Three key Northern Karnataka (Dharwad-Hubli, Bellary region) pudis are made of peanuts (shenga), flax seed (agasi), niger seed (uchchelu/gurellu). These tend to be textured and coarse. They are eaten with akki rotti (rice flour), jolada rotti (jowar) and sajje rotti (bajra). 

The podis that are popular in Kerala are dry coconut/copra podi, curry leaf podi and a fresh podi called chammanthi podi (made of fresh coconut, pulses, spices, and tamarind).

In Telangana, during Bathukamma, the 9-day state harvest and folk festival that is celebrated enthusiastically by the farmer and producer communities, amidst a lot of communal dancing, gathering of wild flowers, food takes center stage. The humble podi is a key part of the prasadam (offering) to the goddess. Based on the region, five or nine different podis are mixed with rice as an offering called saddulu. This was my earliest introduction to podis, as a kid I was very fascinated by a festival food that consisted of multi-colored and flavor-packed rices. We would also play a guessing game of which rice is what! 

Pick a functional benefit and there is a podi for it - whether it is from protein-laden lentils and pulses, anti-inflammatory spices, vitamin and micronutrient-filled herbs like moringa or curry leaf, vitamin C packed amla, or fiber-rich flax and niger seeds. 

A love letter across oceans and generations

In a culture often reserved about overt emotional expression, podis silently stand in for familial love and care. They are a tool for easy cooking as well as a vessel for feelings. For a South Indian that grew up with them, they are the unsung heroes in care packages sent miles away to college hostels or new homes. They are memories encapsulated and they comfort and nourish us, no matter how far we wander. A piece of home can always be found in a humble jar of podi. Podi is not just a condiment, it is an emotion, especially for diasporic South Indians.

For newer generations, podi is a small yet profound connection to our roots, bridging the gap between modernity and tradition, between homelands and new lands. Podi is fluid and free flowing. We sprinkle podi on a cottage cheese toast, or add it to bowls of pasta, noodles and ramens, or simply dust it on morning eggs and avo, flavor up popcorn, edamame, potatoes, or that Sunday chicken roast and grilled veggies. 


It was this experienced versatility that led me to start this little company called PODI life in 2021, with high quality, flavorful podis as our flagship offering. Our podis are my amma, Vasavi’s creations. In these two years since, we have learned that it's a taste that transcends cultures and all sorts of boundaries. 

A customer once said, “Podi is soul food at its best. Podi embodies the spirit of our ancestors - a pick me up for lows, a celebration at our highs, and a companion for everything in between. A veritable rainbow of flavors on my dining table.” In short, podi is life!