The month of ‘’ occurs between 15 Dec-14 January, according to the Tamil Lunar calendar. Next to summer, this is the best time to be in Southern India. Why? Apart from being the coldest month, it’s the religious fervor that prevails throughout. worship start as early as 4:30 in the morning. The streets are adorned with big, bright (drawings made with rice flour), decorated with squash blossoms; groups of devotees rally through the streets singing hymns; treat our ears and souls with music that has lived through centuries. The air is cool, crisp and fresh.
Kolam - drawn using rice flour, adorning the entrance of our house, back at the village
I vividly remember my early morning walks to the temple, while I was a teenager. I would walk slowly taking all this in, as much as I can. Getting up early never seemed dreary, as there was enough motivation. The hymns that are sung by all of us in the temple, still seem to reverberate in my ears. My friends and I, used to giggle and sing as loud as we can. More than devotion, it was the energy that attracted me toward this practice, in that age.
And then there is the food. Obviously, why would kids go to temple at such an early hour. Pongal, a soft, smooth and luscious rice-lentil dish, specked with black pepper, cumin and cashews, and a rivulet of ghee is served at temples during this season. Once the worship is done, steaming hot pongal will be served in dried banana leaves that are molded into cups (bio-degradable, ahem). One can barely hold the screaming hot pongal, but it has to be gobbled hurriedly. Because, some one is always eying your pongal, and you may loose it, just like that.
Even though the recipe is simple with only a few ingredients, pongal served at the temples is always special. It may be the mass production, or the ghee that the cook pours with his eyes closed. There is something special about it.
In a humble effort, I make this quite often at home. Next to , pongal is the second most consumed breakfast in Tamil Nadu. Add a couple of and coconut chutney to the plate, I am sold. There are two types of pongal, the off-white savoury kind (Ven pongal, meaning white pongal), and the golden sweet kind made with Indian jaggery (Sakkarai pongal, meaning sugar pongal ).
The key to a good pongal is its texture. Smooth like butter, it should reach the stomach directly, without any effort to chew. It should neither be too thick, nor runny. The rice and dal must be cooked until very soft. I use a ratio of 1:6 for rice: water, and it always turns out perfect.Ven Pongal
(serves 2)IngredientsRice – ½ cup
Moong dal – ½ cup
Peppercorns – 20
Cumin seeds – 1½ tsp
Ginger – 1 tbsp, finely chopped
Curry leaves – few
Ghee(clarified butter) – 2 tbsp
Salt – ¾ tspMethod
Pressure cook rice and moong dal with 3 cups of water for 5 whistles. Alternately, rice and dal can be cooked in a pot until soft. After the pressure in the cooker has subsided, heat ghee, and roast pepper, cumin, followed by ginger and curry leaves. Add this seasoning to the rice and dal mixture along with salt. Mix until the salt, seasoning and rice are combined thoroughly. Add hot water if the pongal is too thick. The final consistency should be like a pudding or risotto, soft and velvetty. Serve hot with gosthu, and/or chutney.
There are quite a few variations while making pongal. What you see above is the way I like. You can try these for slightly different versions.
- Make the rice : dal ratio 2:1
- Roast dal before cooking
- Add a pinch of turmeric to rice and dal before cooking
- Coarsely grind pepper and cumin seeds, instead of using 'em whole
- Use oil instead of ghee for a vegan version. But let me tell you, the pongal is never the same without ghee.
Gosthu can be roughly translated into ‘spiced lentil-vegetable gravy’. But so is . There are only slight differences between a sambar and gosthu. The type and quantity of dal and the various vegetables used, sets the two apart. Eggplant is a must for making gosthu. Even if you don’t have other vegetables, don’t skip the eggplant. Pongal and gosthu – complementary and comforting, but always winning.GosthuIngredients
(serves 2)Moong dal – ¼ cup
Mixed vegetables (eggplant, carrot, potato, chayote squash, peas, etc) – 2 cups, cubed
Onion or shallots – ½ cup, sliced
Tomato – 1, chopped
Tamarind – 1 tbsp
Jaggery – 1 tsp
Turmeric powder – 1 tsp
Mustard seeds – 1 tsp
Curry leaves – few
Cilantro – 2 tbsp, chopped
Oil – 1 tbsp
SaltSpice MixtureCoriander seeds – ½ tbsp
Chana dal – 1 tbsp
Dried red chillies – 4Gram flour or rice flour – 1 tsp, if needed
Roast all of the above in a tsp of oil until aromatic and lightly browned. Cool and grind to a paste. Alternately you can also use 1 tbsp of sambar powder.Method
Pressure cook moong dal until soft. This can be cooked along with rice and dal for the pongal.
In a sauce pan, heat oil, splutter mustard seeds. Add onion and tomato along with curry leaves, and sauté for about 2 minutes. To this, add tamarind paste, turmeric powder, jaggery, salt and 2 cups of water and stir until the tamarind paste is completely dissolved in the water. If you are using sambar powder, now is the time to add it. If you are making fresh spice paste, wait until later. To the tamarind mixture, add the vegetables and allow to cook through. While the vegetables are cooking, tamarind also loses its raw smell.
Finally, add the cooked dal, ground spice mixture to the vegetables and mix thoroughly. Bring it to a brisk boil and simmer for about 3 minutes. If gosthu is runny, dissolve rice flour or gram flour in ¼ cup of water, add to the gosthu, and boil for additional 2 minutes. This will thicken the gravy. Garnish with cilantro and serve hot with pongal, upma or even idli and dosa.