World of Mouth: Pongalo Pongal!

The column that brings you festivals from around the world; this week how do the people of the Tamils in India and Sri Lanka celebrate the harvest?

January 11, 2011 11:45
4 minute read.
Chakkara Pongal

Chakkara Pongal 311. (photo credit: Courtesy of Madhuri Kumar.)


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Johanna Bailey is a blogger, freelance writer and student at the Hofmann Culinary School in Barcelona, Spain.

Although I have no proof, I would venture to guess that paint stores in Southern India do more business every January than at any other time of the year. Check out this commercial from the Asian Paint Company which features a man returning home to find his happy family and even more importantly, a freshly painted house.

The joyous (and at least in this commercial, paint-soaked) occasion is Pongal, the annual harvest festival of the Tamils in South India and Sri Lanka which takes place for four days starting on January 14. In addition to being a time to celebrate the annual harvest, it’s also a time to clean up and re-paint the house. Savvy marketing Asian Paint Company!

The festival has astrological significance and marks the day when the Sun purportedly shifts northwards. It is seen as a time to thank both the sun and the livestock for the year’s bounty. This cartoon sums it all up nicely in that it contains sun, cattle, family and of course, house painting.

You may have noticed that both of these videos have one particular thing in common - a bubbling pot that boils over. This is the famous “Chakkara” (or “Sakkarai”) Pongal, a sweet rice porridge made with rice, moong dal (small split yellow mung beans), jaggery (unrefined whole cane sugar), ghee (clarified butter), cashews, and raisins. Traditionally the dish is cooked in an earthern ware pot over a wood fire and it is customary to allow it to boil over at which point everyone shouts "Ponggalo Ponggal!" The word “pongal” means “to boil over” in Tamil and allowing the porridge to do so is meant to signify abundance. Often the Sakkarai Pongal is served alongside other typical South Indian dishes such as “vadas” (sort of like small savory donuts) or coconut “sambal” (coconut chutney).

Although sweet pongal is especially prepared for the Pongal festival, there are other types of pongal which are prepared and eaten by Tamils throughout the year. One of the more popular ones is called “Ven Pongal,” a spicy version containing ginger, whole black peppercorns and sometimes green chilies. There is also “Puli Pongal” which has tamarind, turmeric and mustard seeds.

Both kids and adults are sure to love this delicious Chakkara Pongal recipe from Madhuri Kumar of the food blog Cook-Curry Nook.

Chakkara Pongal

-1 cup uncooked rice
-1/4 cup moong dal (can be found at Indian/Southeast Asian groceries)
-3 ¾ cups water
-1 cup jaggery (unrefined whole cane sugar) broken into small bits.
(If you cannot find jaggery, brown sugar may be substituted)
-100 grams red sugar crystals (for coloring, optional)
-2 ½ cups water
-1 cup ghee (clarified butter- you can make it easily by melting unsalted butter and cooking it over gentle heat until it turns lightly brown - it will have a slightly nutty aroma and the milk solids will separate out. Remove milk solids by straining it with a cheesecloth).
-one pinch cardamom powder
-one pinch saffron
-Dried fruits to garnish (such as raisins and cashews)

1. In a pot, fry the moong daal (without any oil) on a low flame until it begins to release its aroma (for about 3-4 minutes). Remove from heat.
2. Combine the rice and the fried moong daal and add the 3 ¾ cups wate
3. Simmer in a covered pot until the rice and dal are cooked.
4. In the meanwhile, heat the 2 ½ cups water in another pot and add the jaggery (or brown sugar) and the red sugar crystals (if you are using them).
5. Allow the jaggery and red sugar crystals to dissolve completely.
6. Now, strain the jaggery syrup to ensure no dust particles are retained in the syrup (not necessary if you are using brown sugar).
7. Clean the pot, and put back the jaggery syrup. Add half the ghee (1/2 cup) to the syrup and allow to boil.
8. Once the syrup starts boiling, add the cooked rice+daal mixture and the remaining ghee. Allow to cook on a low flame for a few minutes.
9. Once the sweet pongal starts leaving the sides of the pan, add the cardamom powder and saffron. Remove from heat.
10. Garnish with dry fruits (such as raisins and cashews) and serve hot!

Read more of Johanna's thoughts on food at:

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