Southern India’s gunpowder mix is our new favourite pantry staple. It’s easy to make, it stores for months and it adds colour, flavour and texture to everything from dosa and idli to vegetables and fish.
Unlike many spice blends which are cooked into dishes, gunpowder, also known as milagai podi or idli milagai podi, is often sprinkled on cooked dishes, or mixed with ghee or oil to form a vibrant condiment.
There are many variations, but the common ground is a mixture of roasted dal, chillies and spices. And while, as the name suggests, it can be very hot, you can customise it to suit your heat tolerance.
“Gunpowder is a spicy and flavourful powder which is normally used with the breakfast dish called idli, the steamed rice and lentil cake,” explains Vijayan Ramasamy, the co-owner and chef of Sydney Southern Indian restaurant Dhakshin. Born in a small town in southern India, he did his early training in Chennai before work took him to Australia, then London, where he worked at the Michelin-starred Tamarind, before returning to Australia in 2006.
“That’s how it gets the name idli milagai podi,” he explains, “because it popularly goes with idli. You can also call it milagai podi. Milagai mean dry chilli and podi means powder.” Often, milagai podi is mixed with unflavoured sesame oil or ghee before it’s eaten.
At Dhakshin, gunpowder mix appears on the menu with dosa (crisp lentil and rice pancakes): as a condiment, and also sprinkled inside the spicy Mysore masala dosa.
“The dosa are very popular!” Ramasamy explains. “For plain dosa, marsala dosa, [it is served] separately, with powder and sesame oil. For spicy mysore masala we sprinkle it inside and then drizzle them with the ghee, so that it's moistened. And also we serve them with little bit extra, too.” (That is, more on the side, for those like things really spicy!)
As a breakfast dish, idli aren’t on the menu at the restaurant, but they are a regular for him at home. And gunpowder too, especially for a quick breakfast. “Every week, two three times, we make it [idli] at home. And sometimes we eat it with coconut chutney, with sambal. But one thing with gunpowder is it's very handy. When you make this powder, you can store it for a minimum three months in an airtight container. So, you have a dish ready, you don't have to worry for the side dishes, you can just mix gunpowder with ghee or oil and eat with that quickly. It’s a handy kind of pantry stuff. So, if you've got a batter ready you come and make few pancakes and eat with the gunpowder. Ready! Your breakfast is finished! In our home we don't always make all the full dishes like sambal and different chutneys, we make one dish, along with that [gunpowder].”
Ramasamy makes his own gunpowder, and the recipe is simple. “A few people add a few other ingredients to flavour extra, but the basic gunpowder has got five ingredients,” he says. “Generally, it is made with two kinds of lentil, channa dahl and urad dahl. Channa dahl is split chickpeas, and the other is split black gram dal. And then it’s very hot, so we use, say, about one kilo of split black gram, with that we use half a kilo of channa dal, so one kilo and half a kilo. And for that one and a half kilo lentils, I use half a kilo of dry chilli. So, so much chillies in that! And then we flavour with hing. Hing is like a substitute for garlic. Hing is not a spice, it's a flavouring agent that’s taken from trees… it is also known as asafoetida. We don’t use the powder, we use the bar, a proper gummy one. And then salt. So five ingredients. And we roast them gently. All the lentils have to be nice and golden brown, and chilli just to warm it up, and then with the hing you fry them and then you mix it with that and leave it for two hours to dry, and then you grind them together, not very fine not very course, it's a medium, little bit coarse powder.”
You can see Ramasamy making his gunpowder mix on his YouTube channel, where you’ll also find a list of ingredient quantities for his version (his extensive video library also includes several for idli, including rava idli for a quick breakfast dish).
It’s a spice blend that’s been garnering attention beyond Indian cooking too.
Adam Liaw creates his own version of gunpowder in the Spice episode of The Cook Up with Adam Liaw, using it in a dish of crisp, deep-fried Brussels sprouts. His recipe includes sesame seeds, curry leaves, cumin and turmeric alongside the dal, chilli and powdered asafoetida. His tip: make sure you cool the dal after toasting. “That's a really important step because the oils in the dal will clump together, if you're trying to blend this up together while it's still warm.”
And in the 2020 edition of their annual Flavour Forecast®, international spice brand McCormick tipped gunpowder as one of the likely stars of an emerging ‘sauced and spiced’ trend (try their recipe for hot gunpowder spice here).
We can see why. Not only does it bring colour, flavour and texture, as Ramasamy says, it’s so handy. “You make it, you store it and then whenever, you put couple of spoons in [oil or ghee] and mix it and it's ready to go!”