My next pair of randomly generated coordinates took me to the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Having spent far more time traversing New York City than the globe, I first became acquainted with South Indian food at Tiffin Wallah, a restaurant in Manhattan’s so-called Curry Hill. I’ve been back repeatedly over the past 10 years for various get-togethers with friends, and even hosted my engagement party there. So I was eager to try my hand at preparing a South Indian recipe at home.
I started by searching the web for a list of South Indian breads. There are virtually no baked goods in South Indian cuisine, no equivalent to naan, the fluffy, tandoor-baked flatbread popular in North India. Instead, there are steamed rice and lentil cakes (idli), large crepes stuffed with spiced potato and other fillings (dosa), and a variety of skillet-cooked flatbreads, such as the breakfast staple parotta, similar to the North Indian paratha (I’ll save my discussion on parathas for another post!)
Being the sweet tooth that I am, thengai poli, a sweet flatbread stuffed with sugar, butter, and coconut, caught my attention. Dessert flatbreads have an important place in Tamil cooking. See this interesting blog post on puran poli, a flatbread filled with a sugary lentil mixture, and check out the Thengai Poli recipe below.
Thengai Poli (Sweet coconut flatbread)
This dessert flatbread is traditionally served on the first day of Pongal, the Tamil harvest celebration. The recipe below is adapted from ones I found on two blogs by Tamil authors: Priya’s Kitchenette and Jeyashri’s Kitchen.
Both recipes called for using freshly grated coconut but I cut corners, and prepared my thengai poli with prepackaged shredded coconut instead. I also substituted brown sugar, more readily available in American supermarkets, for unrefined palm or cane sugar known as jaggery (though honestly, it wouldn’t have been too hard for me to pick up some jaggery at a South Asian grocery store in Jackson Heights, New York’s Little India.) Brown sugar is more concentrated than jaggery, so I reduced it, per the advice of this website. Oh, and last but not least, I substituted butter for ghee. So these are definitely an Americanized version of thengai poli…
- 1 cup all purpose (maida) flour 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- Pinch of salt
- ¼ cup plus 1 tsp Water
- ¼ cup brown sugar or ½ cup jaggery
- ½ cup shredded coconut (ideally freshly grated, but the pre-packaged kind worked fine for me)
- 1 teaspoon butter or ghee
- Pinch of cardamom
Oil or butter, for brushing onto polis before they cook.
Prepare dough: mix flour and salt in a medium-sized mixing bowl, and rub in oil with your fingertips. Add water and mix with your hands until a soft dough forms. Knead until smooth and elastic, and then set aside, covered, for at least an hour.
Prepare the filling: melt brown sugar or jaggery on low heat in a small or medium-sized sauce pan. Add butter or ghee, and shredded coconut. Stir on low heat for several minutes, until mixture comes together and thickens. Remove from heat and let cool.
Divide dough into equal-sized pieces (I divided mine into 6 pieces) and form into balls. Roll out each piece of dough into a thin round, about 1/8 inch thick.
When filling has cooled, roll coconut mixture into balls and place a ball at the center of each round. Fold dough around the filling. Using a rolling pin, roll out until flat and thin. Brush poli on each side with ghee or oil.
Coat a skillet with a little oil or butter. Over low heat, cook polis on one side until redish-brown spots form, and then flip over and cook on the other side.
Fold polis in half and serve.