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.)
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Place the rava in a dish and dredge each cake so you have a light coating on each.
Heat the oil in a cast-iron or nonstick skillet and add the oil, spreading it evenly in a thin layer.
Pan-fry the cakes, about two to three minutes each side, or until a golden-brown crust forms.
Serve hot with the gotsu (recipe below) or with chutney.