Pongal, celebrated by Tamils in India and Sri Lanka (as well as in the US, UK, Canada, Singapore and everywhere else where you have a Tamil community) is a winter harvest festival that occurs around January 13-15 of each year. A time to give thanks to the sun for the bountiful harvest, Pongal is celebrated in villages and urban areas alike with the cooking of pongal, a dish made with milk, rice and jaggery (unrefined whole cane sugar) and topped with cashews, brown sugar and raisins. As the milk and rice boil over the pot (pongal literally means "boiling over" or "spilling over"), symbolizing material abundance for the household, everyone gathers around the stove and shouts "pongallo pongal! pongallo pongal!".
Other special Pongal traditions include the drawing of kolams (elaborate designs of rice powder which are drawn by girls and women outside homes and temples in the hopes that they will bring prosperity), going to the temple and doing special pujas (prayers), as well as decorating and paying reverence to cattle for their role in the harvest on the day after Pongal, known as Mattu Pongal. In other parts of India, the harvest festival is known as Makara Sankranthi and is marked by other special rituals.
|Photo courtesy of Trek Earth|
Even though my urban life in Paris precludes me from drawing kolams and decorating cows (imagine!), we decided to celebrate Pongal anyway this year and I set out on making a dish of pongal, armed with instructions from my mom. Pongal can be made in either the aforementioned sweet variety or a savory one. I've always had a preference for savory pongal (a hearty mix of rice and green gram lentils, tempered with curry leaves, peppercorns, cumin and ginger), and in following my mom's recipe, I discovered that it is as easy as pie! No wonder its eaten as a breakfast food or tiffin (snack) item all year round! The secret to making a delicious pongal is in generous use of ghee (clarified butter). If you would prefer a healthier version, feel free to substitute canola or vegetable oil for some of the ghee, as does my mom and as I did as well. Enjoy the dish, and happy Pongal to you all!
SAVORY (VEN) PONGAL
1/3 cup green gram lentils (mung dal)
1 generous tablespoon ghee
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
2 tablespoons ginger paste
2 sprigs curry leaves, washed
1/4 teaspoon hing (asafoetida powder)
1 cup rice (I used basmati, but regular long-grain rice is just fine)
3 1/3 cups water
Salt to taste
4-5 tablespoons ghee and/or canola/vegetable oil (I used 2 tablespoons ghee and 2 tablespoons oil)
2 tablespoons cashew nuts
1. Wash and soak the lentils for at least 10 minutes.
2. Heat 1 tablespoon of ghee over low to medium heat in a pan. Add cumin seeds. Once they start popping, add black peppercorns. Then add ginger paste, followed by curry leaves and hing. Saute all together until fragrant. Remove from heat.
3. In a large pot, add the rice, water, salt and 4-5 tablespoons of ghee and/or oil. To this mixture, add the spice mixture which you have just tempered. Bring to a boil.
4. Reduce heat to slow, cover with a lid and cook. Since you have a large quantity of water, the pongal will take at least 20 minutes to cook. You'll know that it is done once the mixture is soft and creamy but not mushy. Feel free to mash a little with a potato masher as I did.
5. Heat a very small quantity of ghee in a small pan. Add the cashew nuts and roast until golden. Add these to the pongal and mix everything together. Done!
NOTE: Serve with the vegetable curry and/or chutney of your choice (I love it with tomato chutney).