You might have noticed is that I haven’t been very regular with my posts in the past few months, and I am assuming that an appreciable number of you spend a little more time here reading all that I write. I most especially appreciate all of your comments on my posts because I haven’t been returning the favour, nor have I been able to follow my favourite blogs and posts despite very good intentions and resolutions to find the time to do so.
The posting irregularity isn’t because I have bloggers’ block or that I have been too busy with things, though there are days when I am happy enough that the day is done and I can just go to sleep. I also haven’t been taken any food photos recently and even these photographs of the Carnival happened only because I had an hour’s time to kill while waiting to pick up my daughter from her classes!
Life has a tendency to throw a few spokes, some small and some big, in the wheel of life and I’ve had to deal with some of those spokes recently. Sometimes, I tend to get a bit overwhelmed and at these times writing a reasonably informative/ researched post or cooking-plating-composing-shooting a photograph for a post just seems like too much effort. So what I am saying is that I might be a bit irregular with my posts but I am definitely not taking a break or disappearing from food blogdom, even if it might seem so at times.
And so on to the subject of this post. We celebrated Pongal about 2 months back and the pictures I took of the “Chakkara Pongal” (a sweet rice and lentil pudding) have been waiting patiently in their folders. Pongal is a word that describes food as well as an Indian festival and its follows that the dish is specially made for this festival. Celebrated in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Pongal (or Thai Pongal as it is also known) usually falls on the 13th/14th/ 15th of January every year on the first day of the Tamil month of “Thai”. Please note this not the same as in Thailand, and is pronounced as a short “thai” unlike the longer “thaai” in Thailand.
Pongal, celebrated over 4 days traditionally, is a celebration of Makara Sankranthi which marks the northward movement of the sun and the beginning of warmer and longer days. This is celebrated all over India but by different names depending on where you are from. Pongal is also a harvest festival and celebrates the new harvest season. In Tamil Nadu, Pongal is typically celebrated with boiling milk in an earthenware pot and allowing it to overflow signifying prosperity and a hope that the coming year will “overflow” with good luck and tidings.
Since as Palakkad Iyers, our roots are Tamil though we belong to Kerala, Pongal is one of the festivals we celebrate but perhaps with not as much fervour as in Tamil Nadu. We celebrate Pongal over 2 days, the first day being Pongal itself and the next day is Kanu. For Pongal, we don’t follow the tradition of boiling milk till it overflows. Instead, apart from ritual baths and all the other things we do for all festivities, we make Chakkarai Pongal and Venn Pongal (a savoury rice and lentil dish) which are traditionally made using freshly harvested rice. These days our rice for Pongal comes from the grocers or the supermarkets!
And on the next day, Kanu, the married women and young girls in the family each place small servings of rice cooked the previous day mixed with yogurt, some small pieces of coconut, a small piece of turmeric, bits of jaggery and banana pieces all placed on a piece of banana leaf. This is offered to the crows in the belief that we’re making the offerings tour ancestors. This is one of the few rituals (or the only one perhaps) which we perform before having a bath or offer food that is not freshly cooked.
Chakkara Pongal (the chakkara part means sugar or sweet) can be best described as a rice and lentil pudding which is sweetened with jaggery and flavoured with cardamom. A bit like this Nei Payasam (another jaggery sweetened rice pudding) but nowhere as rich, the consistency of Chakkara Pongal is somewhat sticky (not glutinous) and almost mushy but not quite. Pongal is always cooked using raw rice (not boiled, par-boiled or steamed) and if you can find the unpolished variety which is traditionally used to cook payasam (kheer) in Kerala, then your Pongal will be even more delicious. Basmati rice is never used in any of our traditional rice based dishes, sweet or savoury.
The lentils used for this Pongal are moong or yellow lentils. The colour of the Pongal (and taste) would depend upon the colour of the jiggery you use, but a dark brown coloured one is usually the standard. I typically get a pale yellow coloured jaggery here, so that is why my Chakkarai Pongal looks a little anemic rather than the full bodied and gorgeous brown it should be.
This recipe is my mother’s and part of a collection that she sent me when I first got married and didn’t have too many clues about traditional festive cooking. As with all traditional recipes, the proportions are open a slight change either way where required to be changed to taste.
I’m sending this off to MLLA #33 which is being hosted at Ammalu’s Kitchen this month.Chakkara PongalIngredients:1 1/2 cups raw rice1/4 cup split green gram lentils (moong dal)2 to 3 tbsp ghee (clarified butter)2 tbsps broken cashewnuts2 tbsp golden raisins1 cup milk1 to 1 1/4 cup powdered jaggery (according to sweetness desired)1/4 cup freshly grated coconut5 to 6 pods cardamom, powderedMethod:Heat the ghee in a small pan and fry the raisins till they puff up, then remove and keep aside. Now fry the cashewnuts till golden in colour. Remove from the ghee and keep aside.To the remaining ghee, over low heat, add the lentils and fry till they give off an aroma and just start changing colour. Do not brown. Remove the lentils to a plate.In a large pot or pressure cooker, cook the washed rice and the fried lentils with the 1 cup of milk and enough water till very well done but not mushy.The rice I use usually needs about 2 1/2 cups of water for every 1 cup of rice so here that would mean 1 cup of milk + 2 3/4 cups water. If you’re using the rice used for payasam you would need more water per cup of rice. If you find, after the rice has cooked well, that there is a little extra water with the rice and it is a bit wet that’s alright. You can cook it off later.Take a large heavy bottomed pot/ saucepan and put the jaggery and about a 1/4 cup of water in it. Cook this over medium heat, stirring frequently, till the jiggery has dissolved and becomes a bit thick and syrup-like. Add the cooked rice-lentil mixture and stir well. Cook this over medium heat, stirring again to make sure it doesn’t stick at the bottom, until it becomes thick and there’s no visible liquid but is till moist.Add the coconut and stir a couple of times and then add the cashewnuts, raisins and the powdered cardamom. Mix very well and take it off the heat. You can add a teaspoon of ghee at this point if you want and mix it in. The Chakkara Pongal is ready to be served. As with all traditional cooking,especially festive fare, this is offered to the Gods before it is served.This recipe serves about 4 to 6. Chakkara Pongal is traditionally not served as dessert but along with breakfast and sometimes lunch.