Today is the 14th of January, 2013 and a very auspicious day that is much celebrated across most states of India. Depending on where it is celebrated, this festival is known as Lohri, Bihu, Makara Sankranthi and Thai Pongal
Astronomy and astrology is an intrinsic part of Hindu life and important astronomical events are woven into Hindu celebrations and festivities. This day, Makara Sankranthi, marks the beginning of the Sun’s transit from the Tropic of Cancer northwards towards the Tropic of Capricorn (Makara) or from the “Dakshinayana” to the “Uttarayana”. This day (from the 13thto the 15th of the month in other parts of India) is celebrated as the end of winter and beginning of warmer days in the North. It is also a celebration of the winter harvest and a Thanksgiving of sorts.
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 third day is celebrated as “Maatu Pongal”. “Mattu” refers to cows and they were considered not only very important in an agricultural society where they not only provided milk and organic fertilizer (cow dung which was also dried and used to burn in fires)) but were used on the farms and in the fields. They were the wealth of the farmer. The cows are decorated in bright colours and flowers, and ritually honoured. In the countryside, this is day for cattle races and “Jallikattu” which is bull taming sport.
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.
As PalakkadIyers, we celebrate Pongal but a lot differently from the way it is celebrated in Tamilnadu. We celebrate only the Makara Sankranthi day and it is a simple affair. Makara Sankranti is also a time to remember departed ancestors, so all male members in our community who have lost one or both parents perform the “Tharpanam” which is a ritual remembrance of ancestors.
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.
Here is my recipe for Ven Pongal, and if you scroll further down you’ll find the recipes for the coconut chutney as well as the Tomato Gojju/ Ghotsu. You can find the recipe for Chakkarai/Sakkarai Pongal (Rice and Lentils Cooked in Jaggery and Ghee) here
Venn Pongal (South Indian Rice Split Lentil Risotto)