India is country of great diversity. Over a billion people speaking hundreds of recognized languages, not to mention several dialects and various versions of “Inglish”; worshipping in temples, churches, mosques, gurdwaras, and synagogues, amongst other places; attired in several dozen unique outfits; and eating their ways through an equally diverse cuisine. In fact, India is the only country that I can think of that boasts a different staple food in different parts of the country. In Northern India, wheat is the predominant grain in the diet, consumed mostly in the form of unleavened flat breads like naan and rotis. In Southern India, rice is the preferred staple, and we South Indians simply love rice. When I was living in Japan, I used to think that the Japanese are unrivalled in their pursuit of this monocot, since even South Indians don’t eat rice for breakfast! But upon closer inspection, I find that I am wrong, yet again. We South Indians do eat rice for breakfast in the form of idlis, dosas, and the subject of today’s post, pongal.
Pongal, a dish made with cooked lentils and rice as the base, gets its name from the harvest festival of the same name, when it is generally prepared. Literally translated, Pongal means boiling over, and the harvest festival is given this name in order to denote an abundance of wealth; it is analogous to the Biblical saying of “(my) cup runneth over”. In a literal demonstration of this, on Pongal day, households gather together in the morning and boil milk with sugar and spices. Traditionally, some of this milk is allowed to boil over and spill out of the pan, symbolizing the profusion and plentifulness of the harvest season. As the milk boils over, children are encouraged to gather around, clanging spoons or other metal objects onto metal plates whilst shouting “Pongal o Pongal”. I’m not sure what the origin of this latter custom is. It was probably invented to get bleary-eyed children out of bed and excited about watching a pot of milk come to boil in the wee hours of the morning. If so, it definitely worked like a charm -- we certainly looked forward to and cherished those moments of unbridled ruckus-making. Needless to say, the noise-making objects would promptly be put away by the adults once the milk-boiling was done with, so that they would not have to suffer through an entire day of excited plate-banging children, shouting “pongal o pongal” – all- day- long.
While Pongal is made in both sweet and savory versions with rice and daal (lentils), I generally use cracked wheat in place of rice to make Pongal at home. Not only is this healthier due to the higher fiber content and lower glycemic index of the cracked wheat, I also prefer its slightly coarser texture over the creaminess of pongal made with rice. However, to make a traditional version, you can simply use a medium grain rice such as Jasmine in place of cracked wheat in the following recipes. If you want to try it with cracked wheat, this is generally available at Indian grocery stores. While you're there, also pick up some jaggery and cardamom pods, as well as a handful of curry leaves. If you should be unlucky enough not to have access to an Indian grocery store, you could substitute with bulgur, which is more commonly available. (Or you could move somewhere that does have an Indian store nearby.)
As for whether or not you shout “pongal o pongal” as you’re making this recipe --- well, I’ll just leave that up to you.
Heat a pan and add 2 T ghee (clarified butter) to it
As ghee heats up, add 10 coarsely chopped curry leaves and let splutter.
Grind 3 T black peppercorns with 3 T cumin seeds
Add curry leaf mixture and peppercorn/cumin mixture to 3C cooked wheat/daal
Add salt to taste; serve hot with a teaspoon of ghee drizzled on top.
Go shopping for some jaggery , a concentrated cane juice, which doesn’t have the molasses separated from the sugar crystals. It’s easily found in Indian grocery stores and its deep, flavorful sweetness is absolutely required for the following recipe.
Melt ¾ C grated jaggery in ½ C milk in a pan.
Add 3 C cooked wheat/daal
In a separate small pan, heat 2 tsp. Ghee and add 1T golden raisins, 1 T chopped cashews, and ground cardamom from 2 cardamom pods
As raisins start to swell up and cashews start to brown, add ghee mixture to the sweetened wheat/daal mix.
Check the sweetness, adding more jaggery, if required. The consistency of this dish should be on the order of a thick oatmeal. You can thin it out if required with some milk.
Serve hot, drizzled with 1 tsp. of ghee.