Few things capture the quintessence of street food like a smidgen of churan – the inscrutable mixture of powdered herbs and spices, sold off handcarts in towns and cities across India. Its mouth-contorting jolt of tanginess, perked up by the piquancy of spices and riot of umami, represents the forbidden pleasures of the streets.
For generations of children growing up in the subcontinent, the cries of the churanwala, gravid with the promise of secret indulgence, has been the one bright spot on many a dull school day. Buying churan off the churanwala against the wishes of the parents and licking it off the fingertips is a rite of rebellion that can only be appreciated by those who have experienced it themselves.
Sometimes the churanwala sprinkles a charcoal-hued grit called Current (citric acid-laced black salt that delivers a jolt to the tongue) on the churan and makes it burst into flames with the touch of a stick – turning his trade momentarily into performance art. If the powdered churan does not entice, he has other wildly addictive offerings, such as anardana golis made with dehydrated pomegranate and spices, soft and fudgy tamarind and jaggery balls infused with churan, churn-laced dried fruit, and churan balls in sugar casings in vivid colours.
Nobody is immune to the lure of churan, although it is often dubbed as a feminine indulgence. There is a renegade pleasure in its explosive flavours and the voraciousness with which it is consumed that subverts all established notions of feminine propriety. “Churans and chaats are the touchstones of boyishness or untamed femininity, offering the possibilities of lives lived differently – on one hand, nostalgic and conservative, on the other, virile with heterotopic possibilities,” wrote food historian Krishnendu Ray. Anything could happen over churan.
For chef Manish Mehrotra, the boldness and rusticity of churan was one reason for injecting it into artsy platters of gourmet food. At his award-winning restaurant Indian Accent in Delhi, he paired the stridently French foie gras with pomegranate and churan to give it a distinctly desi flavour. Between courses, his diners are served an anardana churan sorbet popsicle, an interpretation of the anardana goli, as a palate cleanser. “I wanted to introduce the goodness of churan to newer generations in a more appealing format while triggering nostalgia at the same time,” said Mehrotra. “Besides, churan is originally meant to aid digestion and work up an appetite.”
The popularity of most commonly-consumed churans is rooted in their power to aid digestion. As writer Sudhir Kakar observes in his book The Indians: Portrait of a People, “The most common pan-Indian preoccupation with food relates to its digestion…” Churans aren’t random mixes of salts, spices and sours. They are carefully constructed with ingredients that possess medicinal properties. The underlying principle is to strike the right balance of the six rasas or tastes – sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent – that is imperative to stimulating the digestive fire.
The word churan is a colloquial distortion of the Sanskrit churna, which means powder. The ayurvedic tradition of churna kalpana involves mixing and grinding herbs, spices and salts in different permutations to make medicinal powders. The Charaka Samhita, an important work of classical ayurveda, expounds on numerous formulations of medicinal churna. For instance, to treat respiratory tract diseases, it recommends sitopaladi churna, a powdered mix of ingredients like sitopala (sugar candy), tugakshiri, pippali (long pepper) and brihat ela (black cardamom). For treating abdominal diseases, it prescribes patoladya churna, which is made by combining the extract of patola with herbs and spices like kaampillaka (rottlera), vidanga (embelia ribes), trivrit (Indian Jalapa) and triphala (a mix of amla, haritaki and bibhitaki).
Millenia after Charaka Samhita was written, many churnas mentioned in it and other classical works of ayurveda continue to be prescribed by ayurveds. Some have even become home remedies for cold, cough and, more commonly, indigestion and flatulence.
Across communities, traditionally, making churan at home has been a highlight of the culinary calendar. Shared with family and carefully packed for loved ones leaving the comfort of home, churan has been a token of domesticity and familial affection.
Growing up in Uttar Pradesh, food blogger Anjana Chaturvedi closely followed her mother’s biannual ritual of making churans. “It was a long-drawn process spanning several days,” said Chaturvedi. “It started with making an elaborate list of ingredients to be purchased from the grocery store. The ingredients would be sorted and cleaned meticulously. After that, the herbs and spices would be mixed by hand and set out to dry. The whole house would smell of churan for days.”
On her blog, Chaturvedi documents some of these family recipes, such as the efficacious hing harad churan, which harnesses the virtues of asafoetida and myrobalan, combining them with cumin seeds, carom seeds, dried ginger, black cardamom, peppercorn, cloves, long pepper and a combination of salts. The ingredient list also features nausadar, or ammonium chloride, used in many ayurvedic formulations and tatri or nimboo phul, which gives the churan its acidic tang.
Chaturvedi moved to Dubai nearly four decades ago, but making churan for her family has been a “ritual she has held on to”. One of her personal favourites is the ajwain and aloe vera churan. “It is cumbersome to make,” she said. “Carom seeds are soaked in lots of lemon juice, gel-like aloe vera pulp along with spices, and then allowed to rest for days before being thoroughly air dried. It can be eaten as is or ground up into a fine churan.”
In Sindhi homes, food blogger Alka Keswani says, new mothers are traditionally given a digestive churan called fakki. To make it, a long list of ingredients is pounded together and mixed with pounded mishri, including fennel seeds, dry ginger, shah jeera, green cardamom, liquorice, peppercorns, fenugreek seed, peppermint tablets, almonds, vavding and tabasheer.
A Tamilian equivalent of fakki is angaya podi, a spice mix made with black pepper, cumin, coriander, curry leaves, turkey berries, neem flowers, among other ingredients. Traditionally given to lactating mothers, the angaya podi is good for anyone looking to improve digestion.
Over in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, the Indian jujube or ber is used commonly to make churan. Specifically, “in the Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh, a powdered mix of dehydrated ber and salts called birchun is immensely popular,” said food researcher and TV producer Ruchi Srivastava. Next door, in the Malwa region, it is jeeravan – the spice blend that gives Indori poha its distinctive flavour and doubles up as a churan – that finds favour.
It is believed that Malwa inherited its fondness for churan from Marwari traders, especially from the Jain community, who settled there. But if Malwa adores its churan, Gujarat loves it with an unmatched zeal.
“In any Gujarati home, you are likely to find a smorgasbord of churan and mukhwas (mouth fresheners),” said culinary consultant Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal. “It is not only a mandatory postprandial ritual but also something people, especially women, bonded over.” Ghildiyal remembers, as a child, watching elders make churan at home or getting their stock from trusted travelling churanwalas. “My absolute favourite is the kharek – dried dates stuffed and coated with churan,” she said.
Food blogger Sheetal Bhatt shares Ghildiyal’s passionate love for kharek. A resident of Ahmedabad, Bhatt buys her kharek from Kali Topi Lambi Muchh, a city institution that is famous for serving it with a chutney and more churan. At her home, she says, there is always some churan in the pantry. Hing di vati and drakshadi vati (pellets made of churan-laced raisins) are two of her staples, along with amboriya (mango kernels chopped, dried and mixed with spices).
Bhatt bemoans the fading tradition of making churan at home. “Modern lifestyle and vertical living don’t afford the time and space to engage in these culinary rituals,” she said. Luckily for everyone, across the country, churan shops provide an assortment of products that not only promise the flavours of homemade churans but also their efficacy.
At the iconic Ram Lubhaya & Sons in Amritsar, for instance, the star of the store is aam papad, but it wouldn’t shine so bright without store’s unique churan. “Our aam papad is top class, but it’s only complete with a generous sprinkle of our limbo masala churan and pudine ki chutney. It can help digest the heaviest of meals,” said Vikram Kumar, whose father started the shop decades ago. Its Ram laddu – sweet, spicy, tangy balls of tamarind pulp, sugar and churan spices – is fortified with the goodness of tamarind seeds.
Across the country, in Kolkata, the 100-year-old Jain Silpa Mandir, a veritable institution, is iconic for its churans and pickles. The Jain family, which owns the store, migrated to Kolkata from Firozabad in Uttar Pradesh nearly 150 years ago and eventually set up its business in the city’s north. For a loyal patron of Jain Silpa Mandir, it is hard to miss its churans. Its recognisable flat-bellied glass bottles hold everything they cherish: from churan-laced chhuhara, ginger and amla to churan goli and digestive Vaskar Lavan (a mixture of ingredients like amla, harad, bahera and rock salt).
It is the ajwain goli, though, that is synonymous with the shop. “In Kolkata, our ajwain goli is referred to as Jaino goli,” says Anup Jain, the fourth-generation owner. “Our greatest joy is in how the taste of our churan is entrenched in people’s memories as a reminder of happy times. Many come to our shop and recall how as children they accompanied their grandfathers or fathers to our shop and keep coming back for the flavours of childhood.”
Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a food and culture writer, based in Kolkata. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Food Writings for 2022.