Now, I love festivals and celebrations because…well, because they mean great food.
Let’s admit it: most of the fun in any event really lies in the food, doesn’t it? Celebrations around the world center around food, and we Indians are no different. Every festival in India has dishes uniquely associated with it, and on festival days, I remember, the women of our family would spend hours in the kitchen turning out lip-smacking goodies.
They would make luscious Shrikhand -Puri for Gudi Padva (the Maharashtrian new year) and whisper-soft Puran Polis for Holi, a raucous festival where everyone douses everyone else with colored water and powders. Diwali, the festival of lights and the mother of all Hindu celebrations, was a smorgasboard of so many sweet and savory treats, it makes my head spin and my stomach growl just to think of them. Ganesh Chaturthi, the birthday of Ganesha, the beloved elephant-headed god of Hindus, was about five days of feasting on the most delicious food imaginable.
After marrying a Tamilian, I inherited more festivals and therefore more occasions for great food. Of these, Pongal is just about my favorite.
Pongal is a day for the people of Tamil Nadu to elebrate prosperity, and it is a day to cook two of the most amazing dishes I’ve ever tasted: Venn Pongal and Sakkarai Pongal.
Both dishes start out with a similar base of rice and mung lentils, but one is mixed with jaggery, an unrefined sugar, to make the sweet or Sakkarai Pongal, while the other is flavored with a few simple spices like pepper, ginger and cumin seeds to make the savory version, or Venn Pongal.
Today, to go with my Venn Pongal, I made some Aviyal. a South Indian stew made with coconut milk and vegetables, and flavored with coconut oil.
I had already posted a recipe for Venn Pongal in the past, so I am not going to repeat it here, other than to give you the link. But here are my recipes for Sakkarai Pongal and Aviyal.
One quick note: both Pongals use ghee liberally, and ghee, or clarified butter, as you know, is a no-no in my kitchen. For the Sakkarai Pongal I used canola oil and almond milk and stirred in some vegan butter (Earth Balance) at the end. It was creamy and delicious.
Sakkarai Pongal is great with some pachchai karpooram, or edible camphor, which gives it a unique flavor. I’ve never been able to find any at my Indian grocery store, so I went without, but add a pinch if you can find it.
Happy Pongal, everyone! And, for my Tamil readers, Pongal Vazhthukkal (Desi had to write that for me)
3/4 cup rice
1/4 cup mung lentils or mung dal
Boil the rice and mung dal together, preferably in a pressure cooker, until really soft. I added about 3 cups of water to the pressure cooker, which gave me the right consistency.
Add 1 cup almond milk to the rice-mung mixture and set it on a low flame.
Add 3/4 to 1 cup grated jaggery and stir well.
Cook on a low flame until the raw jaggery smell has dissipated. This took about half an hour for me. The pongal should not be dry, but creamy and slightly fluid. If it gets too dry, add some more almond milk.
Heat 1 tbsp canola oil
Add 1 tsp powdered cardamom seeds
10-15 cashew nuts, broken into pieces
1/4 cup raisins (I used the dark ones, but golden raisins are better)
Toss until the nuts are lightly browned. Add to the rice.
Stir well. Serve warm or at room temperature.
4 cups of mixed veggies (I used potatoes, green beans and pumpkin, but you can add sweet potatoes, carrots, colocasia, plantain, eggplant, green peas…most veggies would be great in this)
1 cup coconut milk
1 tsp cumin seeds
3 red chillies
2 tbsp bengal gram dal
2 tbsp grated ginger
1 tsp canola oil
1 tbsp coconut oil
1 sprig curry leaves
Heat the canola oil and add the bengal gram dal. Stir until lightly browned, add red chillies and stir for another minute.
Put the bengal gram dal in a blender along with the ginger, coconut milk and cumin seeds. Blend to a smooth paste.
Cook the vegetables with some water until almost tender.
Place the vegetables in a saucepan with 1 cup water, the ground coconut-cumin paste, salt and turmeric.
Bring to a boil, lower heat and cook for another five minutes until the vegetables are quite tender.
Heat the coconut oil in a separate pan.
Add the curry leaves, stir for a minute, then pour into the aviyal.
Stir in and turn off the heat. Check salt and add more if needed.
Serve hot with venn pongal or even plain boiled rice.