Pongal, the festival and the dish
Pongal, the harvest festival celebrated particularly by the Tamil community honours freshly harvested produce and gives thanks for the abundance. The dishes prepared for the pongal festival, therefore, mainly involve freshly harvested rice, dal and jaggery (from sugarcane).
Fresh turmeric with the leaves attached is tied around the neck of the traditional bronze or clay cooking pot. Kolams are drawn of the sun god as a mark of thankfulness for the harvest. Freshly harvested sugarcane is also placed as an offering as a part of the ritual. A mix of new rice, milk and jaggery is cooked in these pots to prepare the pongal, which in Tamil means ‘to overflow’ signifying abundance and prosperity.
Pongal, as we know, has both sweet and savoury versions. The sweet version, also called ‘chakkarapongal’ - or sakkarai pongal - has a mix of yellow moong dal, new rice and jaggery. It also has plenty of ghee. Cashew nuts and raisins fried in ghee and touch of powdered green cardamom add decadence to this rustic simple dish.
The savoury version is called venn pongal, which is a mix of rice and yellow moong dal cooked to a porridge consistency with salt. A generous tempering of cumin seeds, crushed black pepper, curry leaves and cashew nuts fried in ghee add a punch of flavour to an otherwise mild dish.
To prepare pongal, use new (freshly harvested rice) as this will break down on cooking giving pongal the right consistency. Aged rice tends to remain fluffy with the grains separated even on cooking and is not suitable for making a good pongal. Use unpolished moong dal such as Tata Sampann Moong Dal that retains the natural goodness of dal and has a better nutritional value. Soak the dal and rice in a 1:3 ratio (eg: ⅓ cup dal for 1 cup rice) for 30 minutes. Drain and cook with salt and 4 times the water in a pressure cooker or on stove top until the dal and rice is completely cooked to a mush. Mash this with a ladle to ensure the dal and rice is mixed well together. Prepare a tempering by frying crushed black pepper, cumin seeds, curry leaves, finely chopped ginger and cashew nuts in ghee. Transfer this over the pongal and serve while it is piping hot. Being a very simple dish with minimal ingredients, the end result depends on the quality of ingredients used and cooking the dal-rice mixture to a perfect consistency.
Pongal can also be prepared with other grains like bajra (millet) (choose foxtail, proso or little millet for this purpose), and prepare similarly like you would with rice. This pongal will have a little more texture and chewiness as compared to that made with new white rice.
The amino acids present in dal and rice combine in this dish to provide all essential amino acids. This makes pongal a source of complete protein which is great for vegetarians and vegans. For a vegan version, substitute ghee with virgin coconut oil.
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