India is a giant storehouse of flavors and every regional cuisine is a treat to your taste palette. The large diversity of the Indian population has resulted into this festival of culinary bliss. Even though some typically North Indian dishes like Tandoori chicken or Naan are the most referred to Indian food in International pop culture, the flavors of South India are a unique journey of their own.
Each state has a distinct culture and socioeconomic circumstances, the food reflecting the heritage and history of each community. One such community is that of the Tamil people. And no, the people in Tamil Nadu do not mix lassi in coconut. Literally nobody does that, maybe except Honey Singh himself. What they do really love to eat however, and the most popular dish of this community, happens to be something called Pongal.
However, apart from Tamil Nadu, Pongal is a very common dish in Andhra Pradesh, Telengana and even in Sri Lanka. This quintessential Tamil dish, essentially using rice and lentils as the basic ingredient, also has a festival named after it!
Traditionally Pongal comes in two kinds: Chakkara Pongal and Venn Pongal
Let’s take a detailed look at these two varieties of this very staple of a significant part of South India.
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Chakkara Pongal, also known as sakkarai Pongal, literally translates to “sweet pongal”. It is usually made in temples as the food offered to the deity which is later distributed among the devotees, i.e. asprasadam. It is also a common practice to prepare this sweet dish during the festival of pongal or makarsankranti, when the harvest of crops is celebrated through ritualistic festivity. The traditional recipe calls for jaggery to sweeten the dish and give it its beautiful brown hue. But nowadays people do replace it with white sugar to save themselves the trouble of grating, melting and filtering the jaggery. But I believe if you are going for the culinary experience, commit to it completely, at least once, before settling for easier alternatives. Other ingredients include coconut, rice and moong beans. The ideal texture of this dish is gooey, though it is preferred to be made a bit dry especially when it is supposed to be served to guests.
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Venn is the old Tamil word for white. Venn pongal is typically served as a breakfast meal in a lot of South Indian households. It is made from clarified butter and the taste is predominantly salty. Apart from the very obvious rice and moong lentils, the dish incorporates very simple ingredients, which include: Ghee, Ginger, spices like asafetida, curry leaves, pepper and cumin. The texture of the dish is sticky and moist but not too watery. It’s best served with a side dipping or chutney.
As VikramVenkateswaran said in his article How We Got Pongalifying – The History of Pongal is Very Very Rice!: “It [Pongal] is the one dish that is soaked liberally in cow ghee, Tamil mythology and undeniable historicity, not necessarily in that order.” The existence of pongal, according to Venkateswaran, can be traced back to as far as the 5,000 BC, when “…some genius of a cook ‘accidentally’ boiled rice and Moong dal together, to create the Pongal”.
Today the dish has many a varieties and aliases like Avalpongal, Kalkandupongal or Wheat pongal, but as Venkateswaran puts it, nothing quite hits like the real deal.
Are you aware of more such traditional and lesser known dishes from your state? Comment below to share them with our readers!