Being a south Indian, it is not an overkill to say that good food in akin to religion, next to cricket, of course!
Nothing is more satisfying than a simple, homemade meal prepared by our mothers with a dollop of ghee, and a dash of love. This is exactly the kind of food that can make even a MasterChef go weak in his knees. Everyone has their own favourite dish, and for me, it is the holy trinity of south Indian breakfast dishes of Idly, Vada, and Pongal accompanied with a scoop of spicy Chutney and yummy Sambar. Enough has been said and written about Idly and Vada, and that leaves us with Pongal, which is my all-time favourite.
The word Pongal is actually a Tamil word that literally means “boiling over”. It is a dish that shares it name with its namesake festival – Thai Pongal, which is a festival of thanksgiving to the nature Gods and the farm animals, thanking them for a bountiful harvest.
My early memories are of the festive atmosphere all around, on the day of Pongal festival – the cold, misty mornings of the “Marghazi” month, tall sugarcanes that seem to dwarf the kids, freshly picked turmeric and ginger roots, coconut leaf and flower decorations called “Thorans”, adorn every household and temples and everyone are dressed at their finest.
New clay pots decorated with traditional patterns called “Kolams” are kept on a wood fire in courtyards facing East, to honour the Sun God, at an auspicious morning hour. A mix of newly harvested rice and moong dal, washed and measured to specific proportions, will be added to the boiling water in the pot. A mix of spices comprising of whole black pepper, cumin, crushed ginger, along with a dash of asafoetida will be tempered in ghee and added to the boiling Pongal. A sprig of curry leaves thrown in during the tempering will take the flavour to the next level. When the dish gets ready, it will froth and boil over, and everyone will cheer with a loud “Pongalo Pongal”, meaning let prosperity and good things overflow in our life! One is expected to ideally fast until the time Pongal is prepared and prayers are offered. After the offerings are made to the God, it is consumed as a Prasad.
But, for a kid like me who is made to fast, sitting next to the pot and witnessing the whole magic, it will be pure torture not to steal a hot morsel. The simple combination of rice and dal and the heady addition of spices, served with a topping of ghee, can be heavenly.
Ideally, 2 variations of Pongal are prepared on the day of the festival – the salt and spicy Ven Pongal (white Pongal – aka rice and dal one) and the sweeter version of Sakkarai Pongal (Sweet Pongal) among a whole host of other dishes like Sambar, Rasam, Curry, Vada, Payasam etc.
Sakkarai Pongal is a similar mix of rice and moong dal, to which grated jaggery and sometimes coconut milk, is added and is tempered with cashews and finely chopped dry coconut pieces sautéed in ghee. A final pinch of powdered cardamom added to the mix is bound to bring the Gods down from heaven for a tasting. Apart from just the day of Pongal festival, Pongal also is an important traditional part of Hindu temples during any kind of festival celebrations. It is a common sight to see women preparing Pongal on earthen pots in open yards in front of the temples during the festival days.
Speaking in terms of culinary anthropology, rice has been around for ages. From being a wild rice plant, it has evolved into many different species and varieties and finds a prominent place in different cuisines all over the world.
Rice has been one of the staple grains, once early man figured how to farm and raise crops. When man began to experiment food combinations, somewhere along the way, one of the trials of adding lentils with rice and cooking them together, evolved into our current avatar of Pongal. The Tamil Diaspora across the different continents led to various versions and adaptations of our dear Pongal. There are dishes remarkably similar to that of Pongal in many cuisines and each has its own unique cultural identity in different cultures - like the creamy Risotto of Italians, or a similar concoction with the addition of red wine by the Greeks or the rice- lentil porridge of the Europeans and the ones prepared by our neighbouring Srilanka.
Mythology has it that once Shiva had instructed his bull, Nandi, to go to earth and tell the people to anoint oil and bath every day and eat once a month. But Nandi, by mistake, announced that everyone should eat daily and have a bath once a month. This infuriated Shiva, who cursed Nandi and exiled him to live on earth. He had to plough the fields and produce more food for the people. This is probably the folklore behind why cattle is given so much prominence on the day of Pongal. Traditionally Pongal is prepared using only the newly harvested grains and on earthen pots. Nowadays, it is practically impossible to do so and people must make do with Pongal prepared on pressure cookers on top of gas stoves in their kitchens, and with the rice grains they already have.
My recipe for Pongal is pretty simple. For one measure of raw rice, take a ½ measure of moong dal which I slightly roast and cool. They are washed, rinsed and soaked together for 15 mins in 5 cups of water. Now add a pinch of salt and Hing and pressure cook it for 3-4 whistles. In the meantime, crush ½ inch of ginger and 2 green chillies together. Once the pressure is released, lightly mash the dal-rice mixture and add required salt. Take ghee in a tempering kadhai. Add a spoon of whole black pepper, a spoon of cumin and the crushed ginger and chillies. Now add 4-5 cashews, broken into small pieces, and a handful of curry leaves and add the tempering to the Pongal. Stir a couple of times. Yummy, tasty Pongal is now ready. My favourite side dish to this is either piping hot Sambar or peanuts Chutney. Wouldn’t mind a crispy Vada though ☺
Pongal is not just a comfort food but is also a very healthy and nutritious food. A complete balanced meal by itself, it is a perfect combination of carbohydrates, protein, fat and fibre. The spices added to it in terms of asafoetida, pepper, cumin, ginger and curry leaves, stimulate and promote digestion as well as increase bioavailability. The ghee in which tempering is done is good for the bones and is a healthy fat that promotes metabolism. Pongal is easy on your stomach and a lightly prepared version is the most preferred food when one is recovering from an illness like the fever. The best part about Pongal is, it needs few ingredients that are commonly found in any kitchen. It is also a versatile dish that can be eaten either for breakfast or dinner.
Pongal is actually a one pot meal and its ease of cooking makes it a favourite amongst bachelor’s and for girls who are starting to learn their cooking. Many variations of Pongal exist – Milagu (pepper) Pongal, Rava(sooji) Pongal, Karkandu (crystal sugar) Pongal, Puli (tamarind) Pongal etc. Nowadays, healthier versions of Pongal can be prepared with Oats, Quinoa etc. For the diet and health conscious ones, you can add a load of mixed veggies and temper in olive oil. You can even prepare Pongal with brown rice or millets for added health benefits. The intangible link of Tamils with Pongal Pongal is a comfort dish, like the paruppu sadam or a dal chaval, a child grows with. In fact, it is given for growing children as the next step to introduce new flavours and tastes after the plain tasting paruppu sadam. Tamils are well known for their rich culture, heritage and hosting skills. It is the meal a good Tamil would serve his important guests and is also a prominent dish that is served in many weddings too. Pongal is not just an essential part of the whole Tamil culture, but with time it has spread its roots to the neighbouring states of Andhra, Karnataka and Kerala where it enjoys a strong following too. For travellers and tourists visiting Tamil Nadu, it is a must-have experience to have piping hot Pongal served on banana leaves with a ladle full of Chutney, Sambar and Gothsu and a crispy Vada as accompaniments. Every walk of a Tamils life – be it an everyday food, recovery comfort food, healthy food, festival food or an important meal – Pongal covers it all, and in a true style typical of the culturally rich Tamil Heritage. Pongal is an important part of not just every Tamil’s kitchen, but also their celebrations, their prayers and temple rituals too. It is interwoven closely into the culture and is an important part of the very identity of a true Tamil!