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Tamil Ven Pongal - Peasant but Divine :)

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Pongal is a harvest festival celebrated in Tamil Nadu and dedicated to the Sun God. Intrinsically pagan, it is a four day festival that marks the celebration of everything related to agriculture - a day to get rid of the old and welcome the new, a day for the harvest, a day to thank the beasts that tilled the land and guarded the land even and a day to picnic and enjoy the labors of the previous six months. The day celebrating the harvest itself is celebrated throughout the country but the other days are unique to the Tamils. The word ‘pongal’ means boiling over and many of the offerings of this festival involve just that - from milk to new rice.

For me, this festival basically meant two things - a new dress (1 of the 3 I was allowed every year) and stalks of sugar cane chewed on with the juice running down the arms and being sticky and happy! I grew up in a large city, so the importance of a harvest date meant little to me. Yet, in the irony of India, old agrarian traditions live on even when their meanings don’t have the same resonance. Besides, it is a multi-day holiday for schools and work. What is not to love about that?!

I remember each year, in the week prior the markets would swell with tall purple stalks of sugar cane topped with the green long leaves. You would bring a couple, whom am I kidding, a few sugar cane stems, place it as the sides of the outdoor altar (it was sun offering after all), go through the formalities of praying (for what in the city? perhaps, low inflation!) and then pounce upon the sugar cane with gusto. It was cut into manageable slices with an aruvall, a kind of sickle that pretty much every Tamil family, even in the city, kept at home. {In tamil movies, set in rural landscapes, this was the weapon of choices of warring families with crossed love interests…🙄}. Then you would tear at the outer hard shell with your teeth and chew on the syrupy inside. Yes, it was pure, unrefined sugar. It was delightful! Oh the joy of it!

I still miss that simple pleasure! No fancy candies; no contests of GMO or organic shite; no political agendas.. Just pure, unadulterated SUGAR!

Anyway, it has been many years since I had sugar cane itself. And this festival has also thusly faded away from my life. Until this year. I decided I need to bring some traditions, the fun ones, back from the snooze. But, I’d would have to create a new experience around it, because… no sugar cane stalks in the US and even if there were, I would hesitate to chew on them, because read previous para.

I decided to gravitate around the literal name of the festival. You see, while a kid enthralls in the sugar, the real point of the festival was to honor the sun god with offerings of the harvest, which is primarily rice in the South. Boiling over is generally a form of well-wishing visited upon the start of any new project. It is usually milk, and for this festival, also, new, raw rice. New rice is soft and cooks very easily and so ‘boils over’.

We typically make sweet and savory offerings to our Gods and on this day, it is typically two different rice dishes, akin to sweet and savory puddings/porridge - chakkarai pongal (jaggery-rice pudding) and ven pongal (white pongal or rice-lentil porridge. I don’t much like the sweet version because most I have tasted are cloyingly sweet. The savory version though, I love! Ven Pongal is made at other times, as well, with regular rice. It is often served as Sunday breakfast and even as a after school snack. Yet, it is best with new rice to get that perfect creamy consistency from all the starch of unhulled rice.

The traditional way of making this dish would be in an earthen pot with a lot of water and then allowing it to boil over. Who does that these days?! I made my offering with regular rice and just cooked it in an instant pot, a little longer and with more water than usual. {whoa! my first instant pot recipe here!!!! }. Anyway…. the best thing about the dish is the flavoring (I stayed true to this!), mainly ghee but also the toasted cumin seeds and whole peppercorns. It is simple but packs a fair punch. And, it is utter comfort food!


Ven Pongal ( Rice + Lentil Porridge)

The ghee is very, very important. This dish is obviously starch loaded and if enough fat is not added, it will congeal when cool. Err on the side of more, the dish is only enhanced.

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1/2 cup raw rice

1/2 cup split moong dal (mung dal)

3-1/2 cups water

salt as needed

for the seasoning {tadka}

2 tsp cumin seeds

2 tsp whole peppercorns

4 T ghee

1 T cashews (optional)

2 T coriander, chopped

If you plan to use a regular pot, simply bring the rice, dal, water and salt to boil and continue cooking till it is a creamy porridge.

In the instant pot, cook for 5 minutes in low pressure. Leave the steam in for 5 minutes before releasing. When you open the lid, stir gently to mash a bit of it and make it creamy.

While the pot/cooker does its job, heat ghee in a pan till warm and temper the cumin and whole peppercorns till their aroma is released. If using cashews, gently roast them in the hot ghee till golden.

When the rice is cooked. Stir through the seasoning and add the chopped coriander in the end. Serve immediately.

This is a dish best eaten warm, straight out of the pot. I do not recommend leftovers but if you should find yourself with some, add more ghee before refrigerating.


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