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.