Being the ubiquitous food it is of South India coming a close second only to Idli and Dosa, it is not much of a surprise if in the name of ‘authentic’, one finds umpteen variations of Pongal. But for the most part, they cannot stray too far from a concoction of rice and lentils.
To me, Iyengar style Pongal has only one definition and one taste – the way it was made in my grand dad’s house, where I grew up eating and hating every bit of it back then. Even as a kid, I would never eat Pongal when not well accompanied by a spicy chutney or some pickle. Just cumin and black pepper wasn’t spicy enough for my taste buds which remains not far from that even today and hence this post comes with a bonus chutney recipe too.
As a little girl curious in the kitchen and keen to assist and learn recipes from my aunts, I had a long list of foods I loved that I wanted to cook in my own kitchen someday when I grew up. But, my standard statement was always “Pongal will never make it to that list”.
Irony of present times is that I make Pongal more than I could imagine as a school goer. It also happens to be his favorite and if I ever ask him “what do you want for lunch or dinner?” I am sure of his answer even before he does. It will invariably be “Pongal” and I am like “duh”
Now that I am officially making a post on Pongal, need I say my liking for Pongal turned 180 degrees?
Before making Iyengar style Pongal the traditional way, make sure you have good quality Ghee at hand. Without Ghee for the seasoning, Pongal is not Pongal in my opinion. The creamy consistency of Pongal comes from short grain rice which has the ability to absorb liquids well to release starch and also cook faster. So whatever happens, stay away from long grain or other aromatic rices similar to Basmati if you want the traditional creaminess of the dish, unless of course that is the only rice you can lay your hands on!
Even if you take away the ‘luxury’ of Ghee, Cashew nuts and desiccated coconut, authentic Pongal is characterized by turmeric, asafoetida, cumin and black pepper. And, just because cumin is called for, do not presume so for mustard seeds as well, they are a no-no.
Pongal from my grand dad’s kitchen always has whole black pepper even till today. I, however prefer to use freshly cracked pepper as I hate to chew on a whole black pepper unknowingly. I figured, Ghee and desiccated coconut must have been added to balm away any dry heat from the black pepper, other than for the divine taste of course!
Although this is how it is made in most places, it is also not uncommon to find an Andhra version seasoned with ginger and curry leaves in addition to the basic spices. If you’ve never had a taste of this creamy rice and lentil ‘Indian Risotto’, I bet the best place to begin is at a South Indian temple where Pongal is almost always part of the ‘Prasadam‘ distributed.
Etymologically, Pongal which means to ‘boil over’ or ‘spill over’ in Tamil, comes from Pongal, the harvest festival of South India (akin to Lohri/Lodi of the North). In rural parts, a pot of Rice and Lentils – the South Indian staple is boiled over typically on open wood fire as a thanksgiving to the Sun god for a good harvest.
At my grand dad’s house and my mom’s, on the day of this festival(Makara Sankranthi) Pongal is cooked in a traditional brass pot adorned with vermillion (kumkum) and turmeric root which is considered auspicious tied around the pot along with its shoots (hence symbolically in the picture above). On that day, Pongal or Venn Pongal is always accompanied by a sweet version ‘Shakkar Pongal’ or Chakkar Pongal cooked with jaggery, dry coconut and spices like cardamom and nutmeg.
I seldom make Pongal the same way every time. Most often, the kind of Pongal I make everyday is never without vegetables, which could be anything that is readily available in my refrigerator from carrots to spinach to Hyacinth beans [papdi lilva / Avarekaalu (kannada)] to edamame beans to even broccoli and okra. Tasty Vegetable Pongal, a post that I made earlier is such a variation adapted for kids especially picky eaters like my little girl.
Best way to serve hot Pongal is on a clean banana leaf. It feels like food is so much tastier when eaten from a banana leaf.
Traditional Pongal Chutney
- 1 cup short grain rice I used sona masoori
- 1/2 cup split yellow dal / moong dal
- 1/4 tsp turmeric
- 1/2 cup low-fat milk ~ optional
- 1 tsp jeera/cumin seeds
- 1 tsp whole black pepper coarsely crushed fresh
- 1/4 tsp hing/asafoetida I use SSP brand powdered asafoetida
- 2-3 tbsp copra /desiccated coconut / grated dry coconut
- 10-12 cashews broken into pieces
- 4-6 tsp Ghee
- 1 cup grated coconut fresh or frozen
- 1-2 green chillies / Thai chillies
- small handful cilantro
- almond sized tamarind
- salt to taste
- 1 tsp peanut oil
- 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
- 1/8 tsp asafoetida/hing
- Pressure Cooker
Dry roast the yellow lentils in a thick bottomed pan over medium heat until fragrant and golden brown.
Wash rice a few times until water runs clear. Pressure cook the washed rice and roasted lentils with turmeric and four times the amount of water or 6 cups or optionally 51/2 cups water and 1/2 cup milk for 2-3 cooker whistles. Alternatively, bring water (or water and milk) to a boil in an open pot and add rice and roasted lentils. Stir intermittently to avoid boiling over. When rice and lentils seem half cooked, simmer partially covered until fully cooked. Add more water if required.
In the meanwhile, grate dry coconut and ready the seasoning ingredients for Pongal and also make chutney.
Grind together the chutney ingredients with enough water to a paste. Remove into a bowl. Pour a little water into the mixer jar and wash it off into the chutney bowl and set aside.
Once the cooker has cooled, mash the lentil-rice mixture using a whisk for a uniform runny consistency and keep aside.
Heat oil in a heavy bottom pan or kadai over high heat. When oil is hot enough and shimmering, add mustard seeds. When the mustard seeds start spluttering, reduce heat to medium, add asafoetida and quickly empty it over the chutney. Wipe the pan clean with a tissue using a pair of tongs.
Heat Ghee in the same pan over medium high heat. When ghee is hot enough (add a couple of cumin seeds to check), add cumin seeds. When they start to sizzle, add cashews and fry till golden brown. Be careful not to burn them. Reduce heat to sim and add asafoetida, crushed black pepper and grated dry coconut quickly followed by the cooked lentil-rice mixture. Add salt to taste, mix well and switch off.
Serve hot with coconut chutney and/or your choice of pickle.
If you have a pressure cooker, start with the seasoning and then add roasted yellow lentils and washed rice to that and stir until rice is translucent. Add turmeric, salt and required amount of water (and milk) and close the cooker lid and whistle. Allow to whistle for 3 times before switching off. Pongal is ready when cooker cools off.
Do not heat Ghee at high heat similar to oil or it will burn.
Do not use Basmati or any kind of aromatic rice. Short grain rice similar to Sona masoori will do well.
If the cooked rice and lentil mix does not have the consistency of a creamy porridge, add enough warm water or warm skim milk to bring it to the right consistency. The quantities mentioned here serve 2-3 people. To adjust quantities as per your needs, just remember to have a rice and lentil ratio of 2:1 and 3-4 times water. Eg. 1 cup rice + 1/2 cup lentil +5-6 cups water. Some prefer to use 1:1 rice-lentil ratio as well instead of 2:1. Suit yourself after trying.
Quantity of asafoetida used is directly dependent on its potency which differs by brand. For example, SSP brand asafoetida (which I use) is strong, hence a little goes a long way while L.G hing is milder than SSP. So adjust accordingly depending on the brand of your choice.