Venn Pongal (South Indian Rice & Split Lentil Risotto) With A Simple Coconut Chutney & Tomato Gojju/ Ghotsu for Makara Sankrathi/ Thai Pongal
It is also the first day of the Tamil month of “Thai” (pronounced short to rhyme with “thigh”) hence the name Thai Pongal. “Pongal” means to “boil/ spill over” and in Tamilnadu, this day is typically started with heating milk in a auspiciously decorated clay pot until it boils and spills over. This is supposed to symbolise the beginning of a warmer weather and a hope that the coming year would “overflow” with peace and prosperity.
In Tamilnadu, Pongal is actually celebrated over 4 days. The first day is celebrated as “Bhogi”. A sort of ritualistic spring cleaning is done and all old and useless things in the house are cleaned out and piled outside. Homes are painted and decorated. Even domestic cattle (usually cows) have their horns painted in beautiful patterns. Early in the morning on “Bhogi”, everyone gathers around and the mound is lit into a bonfire.
The second day is “Thai Pongal” (which is today) when milk is ritually boiled and spilt, and rice and split moong lentil dish cooked with milk is prepared in two versions – sweet and savoury. The sweet version is Chakkarai/ Sakkarai Pongal (cooked with jaggery) and the savoury one is called Venn Pongal.
The fourth day is “Kaanum Pongal” and is a day for family get-togethers and reunions or visiting family and friends. “Kaanum” means seeing and traditionally it was a day for the farming families (especially landlords) to thank all who would have helped and supported them through the harvest, with gifts of clothes, money and food.
We don’t do the ritual boiling over of milk but we make Pongal, the sweet and savoury rice and lentil preparations, and offer it to God after which the family enjoys it for breakfast.
We also celebrate “Maatu Pongal” the next day. Traditionally, when keeping cows at home was a part of life, they were washed, decorated and fed Pongal and bananas. Since cows are not a part of urban life, we only do the ritual feeding of crows with rice (cooked the previous day) and yogurt, coconut, jaggery and banana, with some turmeric and betel nuts, all placed on pieces of banana leaves in the backyard. This is done early in the morning, only by the women and girl children of the house.
Ven Pongal is very popular in Tamilnadu even on non-festive days and often served as breakfast. It is not a spicy rice preparation and pairs well with any gravy dish that’s a bit spicy and tangy. Traditionally, it is usually served warm with coconut chutney and sambhar (a tangy vegetable and lentil curry) or a similar gravy dish that is tangy. Here however, I’m serving mine here with a non-traditonal (for us) Gojju/ Gotsu.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind while cooking Pongal, whether sweet or savoury.
- Use a short or medium grained raw rice (not boiled or parboiled) to make Pongal. Sona Masuri is good variety of rice to use. Do not use Basmati or any long grained or aromatic rice to make it. There is a misconception amongst people who are not familiar with Indian cooking that Indian rice dishes need to be made with Basmati rice for authenticity.
You will rarely find Basmati rice used in South Indian cooking except for Biryani, Pulaoor perhaps Phirni.
- Pongal, when it is cooked, resembles Italian risotto. It should be moist, but not wet and definitely not dry. If your cooked rice and lentil looks dry, you can add a little milk to make it moist.
- These are celebratory dishes and so use quite a bit of ghee. A little skimping on the ghee is fine, but if you don’t use enough, it will make a difference in the taste, and texture. There is also no tempering with mustard seeds here.
- You will find a lot of variation in the recipes for Ven Pongal all of which are probably authentic but differ depending on who is cooking them. However all will have rice, split moong lentils, cumin, black peppercorns and ghee.
- This version is the one that my mother, and her mother before her, cooked. In this version the peppercorns are usually left whole but you can coarsely crush them open if you prefer. Keeping them whole means your Pongal will not be too spicy, and those who don’t want the “fire” can pick them out while eating.
- Traditionally, the only fat in this dish is ghee. In Tamilnadu, I have eaten this many places with lots of ghee which is not a great way to eat this dish, but it seems to help keep the “moist” texture of the dish.
A better way to cook Ven Pongal is to add a little ghee to the rice and lentils while they’re cooking. This helps the sticky rice from clumping together when cold. The best way to eat Ven Pongal is warm as soon as it is cooked.
- Heat the 1 tsp of ghee in a pan and roast the split moong lentils, over medium heat, stirring constantly until the lentils give off an aroma and start turning golden brown. Do not brown the lentils. Take this off the stove and cook the roasted lentils and rice together with the milk, water and salt either on the stove-top, MW or in a pressure cooker until they’re well cooked and bit mushy. If your rice-lentil mixture seems a little dry add a bit of milk to make it moist.
- Traditionally, freshly harvested rice is cooked for Pongal. New rice requires more water than aged rice. So the amount of water needed to cook your rice will depend on the variety of rice and its age.
- In a small pan, heat the ghee (do let it become smoking hot), and add the cumin seeds. Stir a couple of times and add the asafoetida powder and black peppercorns. Stir once and turn off the heat. Add the curry leaves. Stir once or twice and once they crisp up, add this seasoning to the rice-lentil mixture.
- Mix well, and do not worry if the rice looks mushy; it’s meant to be that way. Serve hot with Coconut Chutney and Gojju/ Ghotsu or Sambhar. This recipe serves 3 to 4 when served with other accompaniments.
A Gojju is a side dish from the Indian state of Karnataka. It is a dish of vegetables in a gravy and a nice blend of spicy and tangy from the tamarind used in it, with just a hint of sweet. Gojju is made with vegetables like okra (vendakkai), bitter gourd (parikkai/ pavakkai,) capsicum/ green bell peppers, onions and even pineapples among others.
This is a Tomato Gojju and requires no tamarind as the tomatoes themselves provide the tang here. You can also add onions to this dish for a twist, but we don’t use onions in festive cooking so I’m leaving it out in this recipe. You can also run the tomatoes in a blender so that you have chunky tomato pulp which cooks faster. Do not purée the tomatoes.
2 tsp oil
1 tsp mustard seeds
1 1/2 tsp split black gram lentils (urad dal)
1 1/2 tsp Bengal gram lentils (chana dal)
2 sprigs curry leaves
1/4 tsp asafoetida powder
1/2kg ripe tomatoes, chopped
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp chilli powder
2 tsp Rasam powder (or 1 tsp of Sambhar powder +1 tsp of coriander powder)*
1 tbsp powdered jaggery
Salt to taste
2 to 3 tsp chopped fresh coriander for garnishing
*You can use commercially available Rasam powder or Sambhar powder for this.
Heat the oil in a heavy bottomed pan. Add the mustard seeds and stir. Once they splutter, add the black gram and Bengal gram lentils and stir occasionally, over medium heat, till they start browning. Now add the asafoetida powder and curry leaves. Stir a couple of times and add the chopped (or chunky) tomatoes.
Turn up the heat a little and add the turmeric and chilli powders, and the salt. Also add about a 1/4 cup of water and once everything comes to a boil, tuen the heat down to medium-low. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally until the tomato is cooked, and the liquid has come down by half.
Add the powdered jaggery and the Rasam powder/ Sambhar + coriander powder. Stir well and cook for another couple of minutes, then take it off the heat. The finished Gojju/ Gotsu should have a semi-solid consistency.
Transfer to a serving bowl and garnish with chopped fresh coriander and serve. This recipe will serve 3 with other accompaniments. You can serve this also with Indian breads like chapattis and parathas, and dosas.
Coming from a part of India where coconuts are very much a part of the landscape, it is little wonder that we use a lot of coconut in our traditional cooking. In the good old days before the advent of high-rise living, every self-respecting Keralite has at least half a dozen coconut trees around his house. Many of us may no longer have the convenience or even luxury of a home grown coconut, and have to buy them at the market or store.
3 cups fresh grated coconut
3 green chillies (or to taste)
Salt to taste
1 1/2 tsp coconut oil (or flavourless cooking oil)
1 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1 1/2 tsp split black gram lentils (urad dal)
2 red chillies, each broken into two or three
1 sprig of curry leaves
Put the coconut and chillies in the bowl of your mixer/ grinder/ blender and grind to a smooth paste with a little water at a time(not too much) to a smooth paste. Transfer this to a serving bowl.
Heat the coconut oil, add the mustard seeds and let them splutter. Then over low heat, add the lentils and let them become a golden brown. Add the broken chillies, stir once or twice and turn off the heat. Add the curry leaves and once they crisp, add the seasoning to the chutney. Mix in and serve.
This recipe should serve3 to 4.