Crispy Pongal Cakes With Sweet Potato Gotsu: Revitalizing a South Indian Classic

Pongal Cakes
Pongal cakes

I am too lazy easygoing to keep tabs on when Indian festivals come and go, but thanks to our families back home it is impossible for us to ever miss one.

Every year, just before Diwali, my dad on the phone from Goa starts counting down for my benefit the days leading up to this mother of all Hindu festivals. Patiently (and probably concerned for my agnostic soul) he will explain to me what each day of Diwali signifies and the traditions to be observed for each of those days.

“On Narakchaturdashi, get up early and have an oil bath,” he will direct.
Dad, I am NOT smearing myself in oil early in the morning– or anytime of the day. (Italicised, because these answers are strictly in my head. For his benefit I mumble something incoherent.)

Sweet Potato Gotsu
“Don’t forget to light lamps around the house for Dhanatrayodashi,” he will go on.
Oh, gee, whatever happened to those colorful little earthen lamps I picked up at the Indian store 10 years ago and never saw again?

“And be sure to place a lamp and some flowers before a picture of Laxmi for Laxmi pooja.”
Picture of Laxmi? Maybe I can light a candle before the carved-wood statue of an unidentified Indian goddess that sits in my living room –strictly as an objet d’art — although Desi might kill me. 
It’s the same thing all over again with Desi’s relatives and Pongal.
Last weekend, on the phone from Pune, Lalitha Manni, my sweet but ever-zealous sister-in-law, reminded me that I should cook Venn Pongal and Sarkarai Pongal on Monday, to celebrate the coming of the Tamil new year, also called Pongal. She went on to tell me how much Desi loves both– never mind the fact that by now I have a pretty good idea of what Desi loves.
“I am not making any pongal for you if your relatives don’t stop hassling me,” I threatened Desi afterwards.
“Well, maybe she still thinks that since you’re the only non-Tamil in the family she has to make an extra effort.”
“If she comes here maybe I could teach her a thing or two in the kitchen,” I shot back.
Truth is, though, it is hard to annoy me out of an opportunity to make Pongal, both the sweet and savory kind, because this is exactly the kind of food I love cooking and eating. The most magical thing about Pongal is its simplicity: both the sweet (Sarkarai) Pongal and the savory (Venn) Pongal start out with the same, rather unglamorous base of mung dal and rice. But the alchemy of just a few different ingredients added to each transforms them into two totally different, totally sublime dishes.
Because I usually enjoy cooking more when I can change things up a bit, I decided to give my Venn Pongal a delicious twist: I shaped the Pongal into little cakes, coated them with some rava or sooji (the Indian answer to breadcrumbs), and then pan-fried them so they developed a crispy skin while remaining soft and gooey on the inside. Kinda like risotto cakes, because Venn Pongal has the same consistency as a risotto. I then served my Pongal Cakes smothered in some vibrant, gorgeous Sweet Potato Gotsu, another twist on the dal dish typically served with Pongal and usually made with eggplant and green peppers. I’ve shared that version earlier and you can find it here.
The Pongal Cakes are delicious: it’s like comfort food wrapped in a warm blanket and fuzzy slippers. Best part is, it is still a healthy dish: there is very little oil in this recipe, and — bonus– we leave out the artery-clogging ghee in our vegan version.Here’s the recipe. It’s also a great way to revitalize some leftover Pongal. My next post will be about the other Pongal– the sweet one– also with a slight variation on the original.

A happy Pongal to all the readers of Holy Cow!

Pongal cakes
Crispy Pongal Cakes
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
A fun and tasty way to enjoy leftover pongal
Recipe type: Snack
Cuisine: Tamil
  • 1 cup rice (I used Basmati but use any kind, medium being the best choice. You want your Pongal, like your risotto, to be starchy so that it ends up being nice and gooey)
  • ½ cup mung dal (the yellow kind)
  • ¼ tsp turmeric
  • 2 tsp cumin seeds, coarsely pounded
  • 1 tbsp grated ginger
  • ¼ cup cashew pieces, broken into small bits
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp oil
  • Salt to taste
  • ½ cup rava or sooji
  • About 1 tbsp canola or other vegetable oil to pan-fry the cakes.
  1. Cook the rice and dal together until very soft. I usually do this in a pressure cooker (I add four cups of water and let the cooker go for five minutes after it reaches pressure). But you can also do this on the stovetop. It will take much longer, but it will get there. Make sure you monitor it, like you would a risotto, and add water if it dries up. Pongal by itself can be more gooey, but because you want to shape this into cakes you want  a slightly firmer (albeit not dry) consistency.
  2. Heat the oil in a skillet. Add the cumin, pepper, ginger and cashew and stir until the cashew pieces just start to turn golden. Add this to the rice-mung dal mixture and stir it in until everything's well mixed.
  3. Once the mixture cools, start shaping your cakes. I press them into balls and then flatten them on the palm of my hand. You don't need a separate binder-- the dal and rice are glutinous enough to hold firm.
  4. Place the rava in a dish and dredge each cake so you have a light coating on each.
  5. Heat the oil in a cast-iron or nonstick skillet and add the oil, spreading it evenly in a thin layer.
  6. Pan-fry the cakes, about two to three minutes each side, or until a golden-brown crust forms.
  7. Serve hot with the gotsu (recipe below) or with chutney.

 sweet potato gotsu


Sweet Potato Gotsu
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
Sweet Potato Gotsu is a delicious and healthy spin on a Tamil classic
Recipe type: Curry
Cuisine: Tamil
  • ½ cup mung dal
  • 2 sweet potatoes, chopped into ½-inch dice
  • 2 tsp oil
  • 1 tbsp grated ginger
  • 3 medium tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 tbsp rasam powder
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 green chillies
  • 1 sprig curry leaves
  • 1 tsp mustard seeds
  1. Heat 1 tsp of oil and add the onions.
  2. Stir-fry until the onions start to soften, about 2-3 minutes.
  3. Add the curry leaves, tomatoes and sweet potatoes and stir. Add the ginger, green chillies, and rasam powder and stir together for another 2-3 minutes.
  4. Add the mung dal and stir well. Now add enough water to cover the dal, season with some salt, and  pressure cook or let it cook on the stovetop until the dal and vegetables are really soft.
  5. Mash the dal with the back of a ladle. Add water if the mixture is too dry.
  6. Heat the remaining tsp of oil and add the mustard seeds. When they sputter, add the curry leaves. Stir for a few seconds and then add this tempering (or tadka) to the dal mixture.
  7. Add more salt if needed. Serve hot.

This lentil entry goes to The Well-Seasoned Cook’s My Legume Love Affair, the wonderful — and healthful– event created and hosted by Susan.

This regal bird was taking a break on our backyard fence one fine morning last week. She’s long flown on to greater adventures, no doubt, but Desi trapped her forever in these gorgeous shots.

(C) All recipes and photographs copyright of Holy Cow! Vegan Recipes.

Get new recipes by email. Sign up below.


  1. says

    I like smearing myself with a little oil for Diwali, my Mom also reminds me of it and every year, I can hear my Dad in the background, grumbling about it, loud and long! He *hates* oil, he has a psychological allergy to it!

    I LOVE the idea of pongal cakes / tikkis and I cannot tell you how glad I am that eggplant (shudder) has been replaced in the gotsu. Thank you :)

  2. says

    Love, love, love this twist on the classic. Especially because you are not the types to fuss around with your recipes (did I get that right?), this one comes as a lovely surprise. Like when someone who never puts on make-up shows up with eyeliner at a party and looks even more gorgeous. What is the point I am making? You probably get it. :)

    • says

      ET, I get it! And yes, you’re right– no fuss, no muss is pretty much my mantra in the kitchen and in general. :) Although these pongal cakes might look like they are more work, it’s actually very little work for a lot of deliciousness!

  3. says

    love the banter:) and i like the idea of pongal cakes.. takes the dish to a whole new level!
    i get calls to make gond ka ladoo for every event:)

    • says

      Sra, This one’s super-easy — you can do it. The pongal should be sticky but not too runny– I make it a little dryer than I would serve it plain. That way you can form cakes easily. Leftover pongal is a little harder to shape that fresh-made pongal because it turns lumpy.

  4. says

    This dish looks incredible. Who says that vegan cooking is boring and stodgy! We have come a long way baby and thanks to people who share their amazing vegan recipes from all cultures (like you :) ) we vegans are probably some of the most worldly wise cooks around :). Cheers for this, I am certainly going to try is very soon :)

  5. Anonymous says

    Nice recipe accompanied with beautiful picture. Also in your writing, you have spoken the mind of every woman. Even after many years of togetherness, sometimes in laws tend to insists what their son/brother/grandson likes.
    I follow vegan diet while my hubby is a meat/seafood lover. So I am always a target of comments- sometimes on my face, sometimes behind the back.
    Who cares though? I am proud of following vegan diet :).

  6. Hasita says

    Growing up as a south Indian in Bombay (with grandparents living with us for good measure), we used to be coated in turmeric with every festival. Moreover, mile-long flower decorations( literally) would adorn our not so long pigtails. We were consequently the laughing stock among the kids- really funny now that I think of it!
    I made these cakes for the lunch box today and they turned out really good. I didn’t have sweet potatoes on hand so I made the eggplant gotsu instead.

    • says

      Hasita, yes– I can totally identify with the turmeric and the flowers. My mom-in-law would insist I apply sesame oil to my hair every Tuesday before washing my hair, when she would come to visit with us in Bombay. As a result I’d go to work with the residual oil streaking down my face, because sesame oil is so sticky that it’s nearly impossible to wash it off. She’d also insist I wear a bindi, which was a fashion disaster with my skirts and jeans. :)

  7. says

    Hi Vaishali
    I am a regular to your blog and you have awesome collections. Keep it up..I had some leftover pongal and made these cakes.. yummy..It is in my lunch box today :)

  8. Anonymous says

    Hi Vaishali,
    This is simply birlliant! I had some leftover methi khichdi and made these cakes..yummy. Thanks for sharing

Leave a comment!