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Pongal: Indian Comfort Food For A Cold Day

Pongal is a typical Indian food made with rice.

Pongal is the ideal comfort food for chilly nights. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

There’s something particularly delicious about humble ingredients cooked together in a pot and served up. All it involves is mingling an eclectic collection of ingredients, transforming their texture into something smooth, thick, creamy and comforting, and digging in. We all have beloved foods that typically remind us of a happy and carefree time in our lives. As the temperature plummets to the teens on cold winter days, the comfort foods I crave are venpongal — rice, mung dal, milk, and water cooked over a slow fire to a creamy polenta-like consistency and seasoned with ghee, black pepper, cumin seeds, asafoetida and curry leaves and its sweet counterpart, chakkarai pongal, in which the hot spices are replaced with golden brown jaggery and sweet cardamom.

These are not dishes that were traditionally made at our home, but gifts from our friendly neighbors, Tamil Brahmins settled in Kerala. Every year in mid-January, when they celebrated pongal festival, they sent us these delicious pongals packed in fresh banana leaves. On cold January days, I enjoy cooking and savoring these delicious recipes of our neighbors.

Ancient agrarian practices of India depended solely on the movement of the sun. The beginning of the sun’s northbound journey, utharayana, on the 14th of January is celebrated with different rituals and names — Pongal, Lohri, Bihu and Makara Sankranthi — all over India. In Hinduism, utharayana is considered auspicious, and it symbolizes nature’s regeneration, fertility and bounty, and is believed to usher in prosperity.

Overflowing with good tidings

This festival is celebrated as Pongal in Tamil Nadu to mark a good harvest. The name of the festival and also the dishes made to celebrate, pongal, come from the Tamil word pongal, meaning to boil over. Rice is boiled in milk in an earthenware pot and allowed to overflow, signifying prosperity and hope that the coming year will overflow with good luck and good tidings. In Tamil Nadu, Pongal is celebrated over four days. For Pongal, the people of Tamil Nadu who have settled in Kerala generally do not follow the custom of boiling milk till it overflows, but prepare venpongal and chakkarai pongal at home.

There are many versions of these popular recipes for venpongal and chakkarai pongal. However all will have rice, mung dal, milk, cumin seeds, black pepper and ghee for venpongal and rice, mung dal, milk, jaggery, ghee and cardamom for chakkarai pongal. Pongal, when it is cooked, should be moist, but not wet and certainly not dry. If it looks dry, stir in a little boiled milk to get the right consistency. Use short- or medium-grained raw rice to make Pongal. You will rarely find Basmati rice used in South Indian cooking. Ghee is the only fat traditionally used in pongal dishes. Without ghee, pongal wouldn’t taste as good as it should.

These are comfort foods, and comfort foods are ideal winter foods. They translate into easy, effortless cooking and delicious results that reheat well. Following are my neighbor’s recipes.

Venpongal

Venpongal is a popular breakfast dish in Tamil Nadu even on non-festive days. Traditionally, it is served warm with coconut chutney and sambar. If you prefer the heat of black pepper, crush them before adding. Otherwise leave them whole for a milder taste.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1/2 cup mung dal

1/3 cup plus 1 teaspoon ghee

1 cup short to medium grain raw rice

1 cup whole milk

2 to 3 cups water (amount of water needed to cook the rice will depend on the variety of rice and its age)

Salt to taste

1 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

8 unsalted cashew nuts cut into pieces

1 1/2 teaspoon whole black pepper (or coarsely crushed)

1/8 teaspoon asafoetida

A few curry leaves

Directions

1. Heat one teaspoon of ghee in a frying pan over medium heat and roast the mung dal. Keep stirring constantly until the dal turns golden brown. Remove the pan from the stove. Combine the roasted dal and rice together in a pot along with the milk and water and cook over medium heat. Stir often and if the mix looks dry add some more milk and stir well. When it is almost cooked, add salt and stir well. Remove the pot from the stove when the cooked rice and dal mixture has a soft, risotto-like consistency.

2. In a small pan, heat the remaining ghee and add the cumin seeds and cashew nuts. Then stir in the asafoetida powder and black pepper. Stir once and add the curry leaves and remove from the stove. Combine the seasoned spices with the cooked rice and dal and mix well. Serve warm with fresh coconut chutney.

Chakkarai Pongal

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1/2 cup ghee

1/2 cup mung dal

1 cup short to medium grain raw rice

2 1/2 cups crushed jaggery

2 cups whole milk

2 to 3 cups water (amount of water needed to cook the rice will depend on the variety of rice and its age)

1/2 cup coconut milk

10 unsalted cashew nuts cut into pieces

1 tablespoon raisins

1 teaspoon crushed cardamom seeds

Directions

1. Heat one teaspoon of ghee in a frying pan over medium heat and roast the mung dal. Keep stirring constantly until the dal turns golden brown. Remove the pan from the stove. Combine the roasted dal and rice together in a pot along with the milk and water and cook over medium heat. Stir often and add the coconut milk to the pot. If the mix looks dry, add more milk and stir well. Remove the pot from the pan when the cooked rice and dal mixture has a soft, risotto-like consistency.

2. Make a syrup by boiling jaggery with 1/3 cup of water for five minutes. Strain the syrup into the cooked rice and dal mix. Keep the pot on low heat and stir well until the syrup is absorbed and then remove from the stove. Heat two tablespoons of ghee is a frying pan and fry the cashews and until they begin to turn golden brown. Stir in the raisins and they will plump up. Remove the pan from the stove and add the fried raisins, nuts and crushed cardamom to the rice mix. Add the remaining ghee to the mix a little at a time and stir well to combine. Serve warm.

 Main photo: Pongal is the ideal comfort food for chilly nights. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran



Zester Daily contributor Ammini Ramachandran is a Texas-based author, freelance writer and culinary educator who specializes in the culture, traditions and cuisine of her home state of Kerala, India. She is the author of "Grains, Greens, and Grated Coconuts: Recipes and Remembrances of a Vegetarian Legacy" (iUniverse 2007), and her website is www.peppertrail.com.

2 COMMENTS
  • Julia della Croce 1·22·15

    Ammini, this is so-o-o beguiling.I flirted with Indian cooking many years ago when I cooked in a galley kitchen for boat charters (!). It was the perfect food for sailing on brisk days. I was younger then, or maybe I’m too immersed in Mediterranean sensibilities now. I wish I was your next door neighbor!

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