The essence of Pongal

From a ritual gruel to the culinary highlight of the Sangam-era winter harvest festival once called ‘Indra Vizha’, there are many facets to the harvest special of Pongal.
The harvest festival in tamil nadu is marked by the making of pongal
The harvest festival in Tamil Nadu is marked by the making of Pongal

“No dry fruits, no spices, nothing, but simple unpolished rice, jaggery, ghee, cardamom pods (just two of them) and a bit of milk,” says Chef Vijaya Baskaran as he expertly ladles the briefly soaked ponni rice into the mun pandam (clay pot) kept over a portable chullah facing the east side of the kitchen. Once done, he carefully places a wooden ladle on the side and lets it cook on a low flame and exclaims, “It is now that we would chant ‘Pongal’ three times facing the sun with our hands folded, and then wait for the dance of the froth to continue for some time more or till the Pongal is cooked. Once ready, it becomes this thick, gloopy, porridge.”

Chef vijaya baskaran follows his family recipe diligently when making pongal
Chef Vijaya Baskaran follows his family recipe diligently when making Pongal

Chef Baskaran, who follows the family ritual to the letter, recalls how excited yet surprised he was as a kid when this ritual was performed. In fact, the process of making Pongal had continued to befuddle him for a long time. As chefs, continues the General Secretary of the Indian Federation of Culinary Associations, “we are habitual of stirring our dish constantly, but in the case of a good Pongal, it is the other way round. Here, patience and understanding of the grain and restraint in using the ladle is the key to a delicious porridge.”

In fact, says Chef Kasiviswanathan Muthuraman, Director, F& B, Radisson Blu Atria Bengaluru, “that is the reason that Pongal making, which needs the understanding of the rice varietal and how it would respond to a certain style of cooking, was often left to the women of the house, especially the matriarchs of the house who were adept of this subject — and would often set the tone of the recipe in each household.”

According to chef kasiviswanathan muthuraman, a knowledge of rice varieties is essential to a successful pongal
According to Chef Kasiviswanathan Muthuraman, a knowledge of rice varieties is essential to a successful Pongal

In Chef Muthuraman’s family, for instance, Pongal is made with Pacharisi rice, which goes through a process called kaikuttu arisi, where the rice grains are removed from the husk by hand pounding before it is cooked in an earthen or beaten copper pot in equal quantities of water and milk — “else it wouldn’t boil over” says the Chettiar specialist. Once it is close to ready, ghee and cardamom are added to give Pongal that rich, velvety taste and that “soulful” mouthfeel. In Chef Baskaran’s family, however, the selection of rice is often determined by the harvest of the season; though ponni rice is preferred, he says, “because of the high starch quality that helps in giving Pongal its trademark porridge appearance and taste.”

“That hyperlocalisation of the dish,” says Chef Muthuraman, “is one of the reasons that Tamil Nadu itself would have quite a few variants of Pongal, each with its unique characteristics thanks to the rice variety used in making it. Otherwise, the process of making it, which involves the mandatory boiling over that is a sign of abundance of harvest and in life, is the same everywhere.”

Each Pongal preparation is similar in every household in Tamil Nadu, adds Chef Baskaran, “with the prep work starting an evening before the second day of Pongal. As part of the Bhogi Pongal, the household is cleansed of all old things and is marked with two interesting traditions: first, a bonfire that symbolises the letting go of the past (things and feelings); and two, the creation of the space where Pongal will be cooked for the next day.”

The pongal pot must spill over, signifying abundance
The Pongal pot must spill over, signifying abundance

Traditionally, Pongal — rather the sweet Pongal — is prepared in the open as it is customary to chant ‘Aditya Hrudayam’ and do Surya Namaskara every time the froth overflows the rim of the clay pot. Back in the day, a part of the courtyard facing east would be cleaned and prepared for this ritual with the Pongal Kolam on which the aduppu(mud stove) would be placed, along with leaves where rice balls would be offered as gratitude to the birds for their role in a good harvest.” 

It is, recalls Chef Baskaran, “on this spot that the entire family would gather, thanking the Sun God and Indra for a good harvest and wishing for another. In fact, among the other ingredients that are part of this ritual are sugarcane, turmeric, ginger and coconut.”

Once the ritualistic offering of the prasad is over with, says Chef Muthuraman, “Pongal is distributed amongst everyone in the family and neighbours. In fact, for the entire Surya Pongal, the sweet porridge is the staple of all the meals including snacks and is usually had with this tangy spicy stew called Ezhu Thaan Kootu. Made with seven seasonal native vegetables, it is one of the accompaniments aside from the rice chakaliadhirasam (which is a close peer of the arisa pitha of Odisha), vada and Sukku Panai Vellam ‘coffee’ comprising of dried ginger and jaggery that adds to the charm of Sakkarai Pongal.”

Which brings us to the question: What is it about Pongal, the recipe — which as per Chef Shetty, “has had newer additions but not changed since the Sangam era when Pongal was celebrated as Indra Vizha around the port-city of Poompuhar during the Chola reign” — that makes it so fascinating?

For this, continues Chef Shetty, “one needs to look at Pongal, which is one of the finest edible timelines to not just the kind of food had during the time, but also gives a peek into the science behind culinary composition in that period.”

Chef shetty calls pongal, which dates from the sangam era or even beyond, an "edible timeline"
Chef Shetty calls Pongal, which dates from the Sangam era or even beyond, an “edible timeline”

According to most historians and Tamil epics like the Silappadikaram and the Manimekhalai, the celebration of Pongal — known back then as Indra Vizha as propitiating the rain god was crucial to a good harvest — dates to before the Chola kings, although the latter dynasty is credited with giving the harvest festival its grandeur. Story has it that the famous sage Agastya once helped the people of Poompuhar during a period of drought. The knowledgeable sage advised the Chola king Todittol Sembian to dedicate the festival to Lord Indra to please him and then only would Indra bring rain to the city. According to Manimekhalai, the king heeding Agastya’s advice arranged a big festival for Lord Indra, and was blessed with good rains and a bountiful harvest. It was a tradition that successful kings followed by granting land to the temple so the festival could continue. The festival became a significant part of the royal celebration, especially after an incident when King Nedumkilli couldn’t celebrate the festival on one occasion and as a result the rich port of Poompuhar was lost forever. Since then, successive dynasties continued the practice by adding more traditions to Pongal to give it the grandness of a state festival — one such tradition of “Jallikattu”. 

The one aspect that didn’t change even as Indra Vizha became Pongal was the celebratory dish of Sakkarai Pongal or sweet Pongal. Incidentally, continues Chef Shetty, the tradition of sweet dishes in the ancient Tamil kingdom, as was the practice elsewhere, was reserved for special occasions, be it festivals or a good harvest celebration. In fact, the tradition of the four-day Pongal is dedicated to every single aspect important to an agrarian society. Like the third day of Pongal is dedicated to the cattle that are allowed to graze freely on the harvested land. 

Sakkarai pongal is the sweet version of pongal
Sakkarai Pongal is the sweet version of Pongal

As for the porridge-style making of Pongal, adds Chef Shetty, “it dated back to a time when gruel like today’s kheer was a staple form of cooking given that it was a functional way to make food that was filling and nourishing and yet needed little tending to.” 

In fact, if the Indus Valley excavations are anything to go by then gruel much like kheer today formed the basis of much staple food — including the celebratory dish. 

Of course, another reason for choosing this style, says Chef Baskaran, “was also the ease with which everyone could have the prasad. This could also be the reason that it was adopted by the temples where Pongal, a frugal dish of the farmer, rose to become the main prasad

But the brilliance of Pongal, says nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, “is in its composition. While by appearance, it may look like a dish that pays tribute to the new harvest and the local produce of the time, in essence it is a superbowl of good starch and nutrients, especially fibre, calcium, iron and B vitamins. These rev up the body’s gut flora and aid its ability to take in a good amount of fat, protein and other nutrients. These are then harvested by the body and shield it from two things: the vagaries of weather change since Pongal also marks the progression to summers; and the body’s ability to tweak itself to the changing diet that would come along with it. But most importantly the combination of milk and rice that creates glutamine turns the wheel of seasonal stress to joy by calming the nerves.”

It is a feeling that we most identify with that ‘umm’ feeling that indicates not just that delicious taste of Pongal but also the satiation that comes along. And since, continues Bhassin, “the change happens around the main day of Makar Sankranti or second day of Pongal, having the sweet Pongal works best.” 

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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