Let your taste buds take a dive into this quintessentially Tamil comfort food, and soak in the mouthful blend of subtle flavors…be Pongalifyed to believe!
As I grew up in the north and in a predominantly Bengali household, I didn’t know much about south Indian festival foods. It all started with my tryst in the South. Out of the 12 years that I lived in Southern India, I spent half those years in the cosmopolitan Bangalore. Though Bangalore has its own unique cuisine, people from all cultures and across geographies bring along a medley of culinary fusion with them here. The city being located close to Chennai also explains the co-existence and prominence of Tamil foods and its influence alongside.
Among many beautiful things, Bangalore brings me such fresh, fond, food memories. Once upon a time, many many years back, I had fallen in love with Pongal at first bite in one of city’s most popular local food joints. That porridge could be served at breakfast and that I would like eating it in the morning had never occurred and wasn’t realized before that day. But oh boy, this one was so comforting, soulful, had a well-balanced overall natural flavor, with just the right notes of peppercorns and curry leaves that your taste buds would relish at the start of the day. I loved Pongal for all these reasons. It’s very savory and fulfilling, without an overdose of spice and fat.
Pongal eventually became my favorite brunch-food and the most sought-after take out until that one day when I learned how to make it at home! I was at work and it was just another business-as-usual day. It had been only a couple months that I had left my first employer to join this new company.
I was loving my new office and meeting new colleagues. The girl-next-cubicle was a beautiful Tamil girl. She always wore a puja kumkum on her forehead and her best smile to work. Her generally oiled, thick black hip-length hairs were neatly braided and tied at the end. She wore crisp starched cotton salwar-kameez with a neatly folded and pinned dupatta, and carried a tote bag to office everyday. She was quiet, humble, spoke softly, and always smiled. Off work, she was a devout mom of a beautiful little girl and an ardent wife. She spoke less, but when she did if was mostly about her little baby or food. She often brought a steel lunch box full of amazing food to work, and it smelled great at lunch time when she’d eat at her desk.
One winter morning in January, she got talking about Pongal with another colleague and friend who had just dropped in at her cubicle to say hello. Did someone just say “Pongal”? I turned towards her, pushed back my mesh high back swivel chair and popped right into the conversation uninvited. She said she brought us some extra Pongal for lunch too. That was very thoughtful of her and I was delighted. Couldn’t wait for my lunch break and sneaked in my index finger slyly into the little snack box she had got for me. My finger picked up some Pongal on it’s way back out of the box that I gladly licked. It was SO good…warm, fresh and very scrumptious.
She then happily gave me a quick 5 minutes overview of the Pongal festival. That Pongal (Thai Pongal) is a Tamil harvest festival that coincides with Makar Sankranti and that the day is dedicated to thank Sun-God for all the crops and prosperity that year. That there are many kinds of Pongal dishes…chief 2 among them were: a sweet Chakkara Pongal that’s ceremoniously cooked on Pongal-day and the savory Khara or Venn Pongal, the one I loved eating for brunch. Khara Pongal is a favorite breakfast in Tamil Nadu and is commonly prepared in Tamil kitchens all year through. “Pongal” in Tamil literally translates to “cook till it overspills”. So, if you were to make Pongal the traditional way, you would boil a mixture of newly harvested rice and split moong dal with enough water and watch it boil and overflow out of the pot when done. During the Pongal festival, in rural Tamil Nadu, they’d cook “Pongal” ritualistically in earthen pots over fire, out in open on their porch or backyards and shout “Pongalo Pongal” at the first sight of the overflowing fully cooked Pongal porridge. In urban Tamil households like hers, she’d clean and cleanse her gas-stove and kitchen counters early on the Festival morning. She’d take a bath and worship. Then do that little customary puja for the new decorated Pongal-pot or a vessel and adore it with kumkum and sometimes tie a small piece of banana leaf or mango leaf around its neck, before cooking Pongal in it. She said, “Mark of a good Pongal is when you can’t tell the cooked rice from the dal – they both must be beautifully combined.” Wow, that was quite some knowledge and I haven’t forgotten any of this learning, you see!
Then came my million dollar question…how do you make it? It was simple she said. Nothing fancy and no overdo of spice. Plain soulful Pongal cooking consisted of 2 steps: of boiling the rice-moong mixture and then tempering them with a handful of flavors. The tempering part was key, and the taste of Pongal almost solely rested on what you used to gently spice-up and how you did it. She said she always used 6 ingredients to temper and followed a sequence in what she added after what. And this she believes was the taste enhancer!
I have religiously followed her recipe since many many years now and have always been in awe with it’s taste. It has a huge fan following in my house, and is one of the most favored brunch/lunch menus. My kids, my husband, our parents love, love, love this Pongal. Khara Pongal is generally served with some humble coconut based chutney or sambhar. I have never had to serve it with anything else…most of the times. Mr. Husbandman loves to eat his with a hard boiled egg and some extra dollop of ghee (clarified butter) on his share of Pongal!
I am sharing this prized recipe with you here. I am sure you would fall head over heels in love with it too… Comfort foods like these make us believe that life is good after all and we all deserve every bit of our food for soul!
And have a blessed Thai Pongal and Makar Sankranti everyone…
Makes about 3 full servings
- 1 cup (4 oz or 110 gms) white rice
- 1 cup (4 oz or 110 gms) split moong dal
- 1 tsp cumin seeds or jeera
- 0.5 tbsp whole peppercorns or sabut kaalimirch, pounded once or twice to crush a few
- About 10-12 Cashew nuts, halved
- 3 Indian hot green chillies, each divided into 3-4 slices or sliced lengthwise (adjust the number of chilles per your taste preference)
- 2 tbsp grated fresh ginger root
- Handful of fresh curry leaves
- About 3 tsp ghee or clarified butter
- Salt to taste
- About 3-4 cups water for cooking
- Rinse the rice and dal together and transfer to a pressure cooker or rice cooker or a dutch oven with lid.
- Add 3 cups of water. If using a pressure cooker, cook on high heat for 3 whistles, open, stir the contents, add another cup of water and cook on high heat for another 2 whistles, then let the pressure release by itself. If using a rice cooker or a dutch oven, cook till the rice and dal are done till mushy. Stir or add water in between as necessary. (Please note: If you do not prefer your Pongal porridge all mashed up and blended, then cook only for 3 whistles in a pressure cooker and only cook the rice-dal mixture till done in the rice cooker or dutch oven.)
- When the porridge is cooked completely, take off from stove. Add salt to taste and use a ladle to mix up the cooked rice and dal to mash and roughly blend them up together.
- In a frying pan, heat about 3 tsp ghee and let the cumin seeds splutter.
- Immediately add the cashews in the pan and fry them only till slightly reddish. (Don’t overdo the cashews at this stage or they’ll begin to burn until you’re done with all the tempering!)
- Add the curry leaves next to the pan and then throw in the green chillies.
- Follow by adding the peppercorns into the frying mix and then add all the grated ginger. Fry on medium-high for a few quick seconds and take off the tempered mix from stove.
- Transfer the ghee-tempered spice mix straight into the rice and dal mixture and mix them all together.
- Serve the Khara Pongal immediately topped with some more ghee for added yum! Serve alongside some chutney or sambhar or a spicy gotsu.
[When serving left over Pongal later, add some water and heat them together and serve topped with some ghee!]