Pongal is a happy occasion, a new beginning, an occasion to rejoice and be thankful. Rice is one of the main staple grains in South India, and this is celebrated during the harvest festival of Pongal, by making two dishes – one sweet, and one savoury, using rice and lentils. The word ‘Pongal’ literally means ‘ to boil’ or to ‘overflow’. This festival is celebrated all over India as a token of thanks to the Sun God for blessing the earth with a bountiful harvest. This also signifies the beginning of ‘Uttarayana’ which is the sun’s six month journey northwards.
At the start of the day, we draw rangoli or ‘Kolam’ outside our homes, with rice flour. The principle behind this is not just decorative, but is basically to start the day with an act of selflessness, by feeding the ants 🙂
We boil fresh milk in a new pot, where the pot is decorated with fresh turmeric root, tied with the help of a string around the pot. Once the milk boils over and overflows, we chant ‘pongalo pongal‘ 🙂
Since many readers here might not know about the festival, I thought I should also document the different kinds of food we serve during the festival, especially because this is so significant in Tamil culture and tradition. It is also an opportunity to appreciate the farmers who put food in our plates, and sincerely pray for their well being.
‘Venn Pongal’, where ‘Venn’ means ‘white’ in Tamil. This is a savoury pongal made with cooked rice, lentils seasoned with ghee, cumin, black pepper, ginger and curry leaves. This is served with a ‘thakkali gothsu’ which is a curry made with tomato, lentils and several spices. This is absolutely yummy, and incredibly sleep-inducing 😀 Try it!
The sugarcane on the left is customary during the Pongal festival. The jaggery which is extensively used in the dishes on the Pongal Lunch menu, is also a symbol of the successful sugarcane harvest, as it is made from the process of refining sugarcane juice.
Banana again, is an integral part of South Indian tradition. Here the food is served on a banana leaf on the plate, and the fruit served whole as well.
The betel nut and the heart-shaped betel leaves are hugely significant in Hinduism and Ayurvedic medicine as well. It is customary to chew ‘beeda’ or just plain betel leaves after a heavy meal, in order to aid the digestive process.
Now clockwise, the dishes on the plate:
- Avarakkai Kootu (Broad beans lentil curry): Broad beans cooked in a lentil and coconut gravy, flavoured simply with cumin and red chillies. It would be interesting to note that the avarakkai is at its tastiest best at this time of the year, because these plants tend to flourish during the slightly cooler seasons, as compared to the hotter months when there is typically very little rain.
- Parangikkai Mochai Vella Kuzhambu (sweet pumpkin and field beans gravy with jaggery) – this is a sweet and spicy gravy made with tamarind, jaggery and sambar powder, and the star of this dish is the sweet pumpkin and fresh field beans. The pumpkins and mochai are sautéed in oil and then boiled in spiced tamarind water with sambar powder. It cooks down to soft, juicy morsels taking on a golden hue. The fresh and tender mochai kottai cooks fast as well, and is delicious when added to gravies, sundals and other stir fries. All in all, this Kuzhambu is a mix of tangy, sweet and spicy flavours dancing in your mouth!
- Sweet Potato Karamadhu (sweet potato sautéed with fresh grated coconut): The sweet potato is lightly steamed until soft, and then tempered with curry leaves, mustard seeds and dried red chillies. It is finished off with salt and fresh grated coconut mixed through the curry. Very mild, devoid of spices, but bursting with deliciousness!
- Chakkarai Pongal (Sweet Pongal): Sakkarai pongal is traditionally made from freshly harvested rice, fresh ghee and jaggery. It is flavoured with spices like nutmeg, saffron and cardamom. The jaggery syrup is made thick and caramelised, until it reaches a glossy brown colour, and that lends a beautiful toffee like taste and texture to the cooked rice. Nutmeg and cardamom add heaps of complexity to the dish; the saffron lends amazing fragrance, while the addition of a pinch of edible camphor enhances the flavor of the sakkarai pongal. Heaven! 😀
- Medhu Vadai (Fried Lentil Fritters): Urad dal soaked in water and then ground with curry leaves, asafoetida, salt and green chillies. Shaped into fritters and then fried in hot oil until crisp and golden brown. Crunchy on the outside, but soft and fluffy on the inside. Yumm! 😀
And there was cooked white rice, and fresh curd on the side to balance everything out. BURP! 😀
( Nobody had any appetite or space in their tummy for dinner, after all the feasting 😀 )