At the same time as I was in Rome, my extended family in India were celebrating a harvest festival called ‘Pongal’ (pronounced ‘pon’ as in pontiff and ‘gal’ as in seagull) in the state of Tamil Nadu and ‘Sankranti’ (pronounced ‘sun’ + ‘kra as in kraal+’ n’ + ‘thi’ as in ‘thick’) in the state of Karnataka. This festival marks the end of the winter and the beginning of the new harvest season in these parts of the country.
Wikipedia explains quite nicely how the festival is celebrated in the state of Karnataka http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Makar_Sankranti#Karnataka and in the state of Tamil Nadu http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Makar_Sankranti#Tamil_Nadu. Since both my parents grew up in Tamil Nadu but my sister and I were brought up in Karnataka, we grew up celebrating both versions of this harvest festival. The Tamil version involves the preparation of this rice and lentil porridge called ‘Pongal’ where the festival gets its name from. It is a dish that I fondly remember from my childhood days and is a recipe I learnt from mum who learnt from her mum. It comes in a sweet version – Sakkara pongal (meaning sugary pongal) and Venn pongal (meaning savoury pongal). I will share recipes for both dishes with you in separate pages to make reading easier and the next time I make them at home, I’ll put up a picture or two.
Venn pongal (Savoury pongal)
Ingredients (serves 4 and can be quite heavy):
2 cups of short grain white rice
1 cup moong dal
1 and 1/2 teaspoons black peppercorns (use less/more depending on how spicy you’d like it)
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 sprigs curry leaves
2 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter) or unsalted butter
2 tablespoons whole cashewnuts
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
salt to taste
1. The rice and lentils needs to be cooked together – thoroughly and to a mush. I use a pressure cooker for this step and it takes ~ 20 minutes (4 whistles) to get to that stage.
2. If you are using a pot, I would recommend being generous with water (use 3 times the amount of rice and lentils) and make sure that the rice and lentils are soft and mushy before you declare them done. If there is still some excess water, don’t worry about it as the next stage will take care of the moisture.
3. Coarsely grind the peppercorns and cumin seeds and set aside. I use a spice blender but a mortar and pestle should do the trick.
4. In a large wok ( or deep pot) on low heat, add butter/ghee and allow to melt.
5. Add the cashews to the butter and roast until golden. Once golden, set them aside on some paper towels to drain off the excess butter/ghee.
6. Add turmeric and curry leaves to the hot butter and as they start to sizzle, add the ground pepper-cumin mixture. This is spicy so stand a little distance from the wok as the spice might sting your eyes.
7. You should smell the spices as they toast in the butter – a typical pongal smell which will fill your house.
8. When the cumin starts to go a little brown, add the rice-lentil mixture, salt, a cup of water and mix until evenly combined.
9. Heat the porridge until the spices are evenly spread through the rice and lentil mixture and the whole thing starts bubbling.
10. Turn off the heat and serve hot with some extra melted butter or with Vathakozhumbu (a tangy, tamarind based sauce whose recipe I will post soon).
Tip: If you are a vegan, then substitute the butter/ghee with vegetable oil or dairy-free margarine. It will work just as well.