Monday, May 25, 2009


PONGAL — OH! PONGAL

On a rather cool December evening, in the Tamil month of Karthikai, I exited my house with the intent of having a cup of tea at a tea shop. Bang opposite the tea shop is the Ayyappan Temple — the most happening place as hordes of devotees throng the place to wear the ‘mala,’ the beads to herald the period of penance before they undertake an arduous pilgrimage to Sabarimala, the hilly abode of Lord Ayyappa.

It was an evening as usual, except for the fact that a long queue had formed near the northern gate of the temple. This gate is usually closed — open only when prasad is distributed, so that devotees can form a line, partake of the prasad offered in leaf plates and leave the temple. I espied from the corner of my eye to find out what was on offer. It could have been anything like curd rice, puliotharai, sweet pongal, sundal and so on. Not being able to sight anything, I crossed the road to the other side and without even a pretence of embarrassment, peered into a devotee’s leaf plate, only to find ambrosia in his hands. I immediately rushed into the temple, said a cursory prayer, hands acting out the folded posture, more eager to open out to hold the leaf plate. I joined the rather small queue, but only after making an offering into the temple hundi.

My turn came in about a couple of minutes. Going by the crowd, the prasad still left was large in quantity. The persons in charge of the distribution forced two leaf plates — one in each hand of the devotees. They dished out two generous dollops of the prasad into each leaf plate. I was happy, not that my prayers had paid off; not that the offering made in the temple was worth its last paisa; but because what I rather gingerly held in my hands was a ghee dripping, well cooked and great looking ambrosia.

It was a struggle to reach the hundred odd metres home from the temple and set the leaves on the dining table. The entire house erupted in jeers at my act and my narration of the act. They chided me for being so mean as to walk in to a temple and make an offering just because I liked what was on offer. I had shed any pretence of being embarrassed in front of others, and what was there to feel ashamed of in front of my own? I settled down to the table with a spoon and enjoyed every morsel of the wonderful ambrosia.

Well, what was that in the plate? It was Pongal, called the Venn Pongal, and it was not the sweet variety. That is heavenly any time of the day. The first enquiry as the waiter approaches my table is ‘Pongal’? at any time of the day. Some react with shock, some say it only available in the mornings for breakfast, and some blurt out the scripted line: ‘Poori, dosai, masala, rava dosai, uthappam, parotta, chappathi . .’

It was really one of the best Pongals I have ever tasted in my life. Later that evening, my friend Rajaram also confirmed this. Slippery with loads of ghee, the right taste of salt and all other ingredients, the Pongal just slithered down the tongue into our insides. It was rather difficult to savour the taste slowly, and that explains the rather large quantity that I had to myself that evening. The smooth journey of the Pongal was, every now and then, broken by the presence of rightly fried cashew nuts. This only added to the heavenly taste.

Tamil Nadu has a lot of Pongal fans. Most of the Chennai based members of IRFCA are Pongal fans too; so is my closest friend Rajaram. In fact, most of our Chennai IRFCA meetings are called Pongal vadai meetings if held in the mornings. We make it a point to assemble and talk over a plate of Pongal and vadai at the VLR stall at Chennai Egmore. Another close friend who I can never forget, more so in the context of Pongal is Simon, working with Southern Railways, now at Chennai Central. We both quip to our friends that, given a choice, even at midnight, we would always look out for Pongal to satiate our hunger!

For the uninitiated, Pongal is a dish prepared from rice and moong dal, both boiled together with that wee bit of extra water to make it ultra soft like a very solid paste. It is garnished with curry leaves, whole black pepper, cumin seeds, grated ginger and cashewnuts — all fried in ghee. Some prefer mixing all the ingredients into a cooker and pressure cooking it. Others cook the moong dal and rice and then add the cooked mixture into a kadai that contains the garnishing and mixing them up.

Whichever way, Pongal is best with a spicy coconut chutney, sambar or gothsu. The recipe for Pongal and its accompaniments is available here.

There is also a sweet version of Pongal, called the Chakkarai Pongal. Chakkarai is Tamil for sugar, though chakkarai Pongal is made from jaggery or vellam, also known as gur in the northern parts of India. Arun, if you are reading this, can you recollect the name of the restaurant where we dined in Bengalaru, a few years ago? It was a restaurant at the far end of MG Road, in a tall building. That was the best chakkarai Pongal I have ever tasted in my life!

10 Comments:

Blogger Krishna Kumar.S said...

Nice writeup! Nice description of Pongal.

21:56  
Blogger Vrij said...

Add one more to the list of Pongal fans! I prefer the non-sweet variety and one of the best places to have the same is the VRR at SA. Can't beat the Pongal and idlis there!

22:47  
Blogger rajaram said...

even if you had got the dates wrong here, i can never forget the moment of hot pongal slithering into my throat. No wonder i am now an Ayyappa devotee. it is only because of the distance between the place where i reside and the temple, i could taste it only twice or thrice a year.
For a pongal fan, i suggest a visit to Murugan Idli kadai...it is also known for its good pongal!

14:56  
Blogger datta said...

hi
nice n sweet description of the pongal.good experience during the period if rcession
thanks with regards
datta

15:24  
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12:05  
Blogger Ranganath Eunny said...

Chakara pongal in bengaluru...was that restaurant Kadambam by any chance? It is in Dickenson Rd off MG road. An Iyengar speciality eatery. Great pongal!

Or it must be the resto in the public utility buildingon MG road whose name i cannot recollect

20:59  
Blogger nomad said...

Add me to the top of the Pongal lovers' list !! The best Pongal I knew was made by this elderly mami back in NLR who sadly is no more.

Also, piping hot Pongal Vadas on a winter morning as the TN climbed the Dharakhoh ghats is a combination hard to beat.

17:59  
Blogger satya narayan iyer said...

nice description on pongal and going green sir..

00:02  
Blogger Pawan Koppa said...

One more die-hard Pongal fan can be added to this list! I have been accosted with the same reactions when I have asked for Pongal in TN at any time of the day. The common excuse is "available only in the mornings!" with a look which seems to mock "Don't you know that!". That apart, Pongal is my all time favorite breakfast dish. Whichever customized variety I can lay my hands on in Bangalore, I jump at it! But there are a few eateries in Bangalore which can match the authentic Pongal taste! For chakkara Pongal, the best I have tasted is the paid prasadam you get inside the vicinity of the Ranganatha temple in Srirangam.

09:48  
Blogger Sridhar Joshi said...

@Pawan: My vote for the best chakkarai pongal outside TN goes to Kadambari - is it still there? At the end of MG road (in Dickenson Road) in a high rise.

21:21  

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