Easy to make and even easier to customize, pudla are India’s answer to the omelet. That is, an omelet without eggs.
Three Decembers ago, I found myself in a sparse café in the extremely vegetarian city of Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat in western India. I was at lunch with my aunt and uncle, a busy doctor who marvels at food almost as much as I do. The café, dotted with white plastic chairs, served an intense assortment of sandwiches and dosas, giving those with decision fatigue intense paralysis. But it wasn’t the pizza dosa, or the dosa stuffed with Maggi noodles (India’s answer to Top Ramen), on the menu that caught my eye. I couldn’t get over the fact that I could order an “eggless omelet.”
My brain zigzagged through all possible options: Had tofu become big in India? Is this some magical yogurt-based creation? Was it just an overly clever name for a plate of stir-fried omelet fillings? My aunt noticed my contorted face and laughed before revealing that the so-called eggless omelet was something I’d had a million times before, just under a different name: pudla.
Though it’s known by many names—people in northern India might better know it as chilla or chela, while in southern India, it is often referred to as pesarattu—the dish is one of the few that is eaten throughout India. Pudla are simply thin pancakes or crepes made most commonly with besan flour (also known as chickpea or gram flour). Simple, flavorful, and deeply nourishing, pudla exemplify Indian home cooking at its best.
The “eggless omelet” moniker is a playful dig at India’s complicated relationship with eggs. Although the country has a strong canon of beloved egg recipes, such as akoori, or spiced scrambled eggs, and egg biryani, many strict vegetarians consider eggs to be a “non-veg” item, meaning real omelets are a no-go. Such is the case in Ahmedabad, a city so vegetarian that instead of offering veg and non-veg menus, like most restaurants in India, eateries in the city offer not one, but two types of vegetarian menus (the first type being a regular vegetarian menu, and the second a Jain vegetarian menu—catering to the stricter Jain community which also omits dishes with onions, garlic, carrots, or potatoes, in addition to meat and eggs).
And while they contain no egg whites or yolks, at the end of the day pudla are not all that different from omelets. Thanks to a spoonful of turmeric in the batter, they take on the ebullient yellow of perfectly scrambled eggs. Fold the cooked crepe over itself and it looks awfully similar to a thin omelet.
Although the majority of my pudla consumption happens in the form of a quick, painless dinner that I can cook in hunger-driven fugue state after a long day at work, the crepes are most commonly eaten at breakfast—just like an omelet. “My mother would make them for breakfast, and they were always served with a spicy chutney or sometimes even spicy potatoes,” says legendary Indian cookbook author and actress Madhur Jaffrey. While Jaffrey eats hers with chutneys and pickles, I take a more roadside-diner approach and drag each bite through a pile of Heinz ketchup.
The similarities don’t stop there. Pudla taste great when sandwiched between toast, but they can also handle a variety of fillings, like any good omelet. I’m partial to adding julienned baby spinach to the batter (it’s my favorite way to use up those just-about-to-wilt leaves), alongside some diced onions or tomatoes. Jaffrey is adamant that a good pudla should also have a bit of chopped green chile pepper (I personally like serrano peppers) in the batter for moxie. And though I haven’t tested this theory to its limits, I imagine any good omelet filling, such as mushrooms, bell peppers, and even cheddar cheese, would also be great stirred into pudla batter.
On top of the convenience of never having to have an abundance of eggs in the fridge, pudla are also incredibly healthy. They’re gluten-free and vegan without trying too hard, and high in protein and fiber from the besan flour. Plus, you get a serving of turmeric without having to knock back any bitter turmeric elixirs. “It’s a very important part of the Indian diet,” notes Jaffrey.
If you can flip a pancake, you can make pudla. And unlike their popular sibling, dosas, pudla require no fermentation period. Just mix together chickpea flour, turmeric, some chile powder, and water, and you’re good to go. The batter lasts in the fridge for around a week. Jaffrey adds that pudla batter actually gets “more silken” over time, so she likes to let her batter rest before she makes a batch. I personally like to whip up a quart container of batter on a Sunday night so that I can cook up a stack in pudla in less time than it would take me to order delivery, or make, say, an egg-filled omelet.