As a South Indian born and raised in North India, I did not pay much heed to the festivals of my native place. We celebrated them all, but I was unable to distinguish between many of the traditions and rituals (and there's not been much improvement on that front). Even with a memory as weak as mine, there was one festival that I looked forward to each year. In the mornings, the cocktail scent of sweet and spice wafting into my room would wake me up to our family's Pongal celebrations.
A three-day festival — Bhogi Pongal, Pongal and Kannum Pongal — this harvest celebration is believed to be nearly 2,000 years old. Evidence has been found of its existence during the Chola empire's reign.
During the festival, various items are cooked in an earthen pot that is surrounded by sugarcane in a teepee-like formation. Houses are decorated with leaves of banana and mango. Intricate rangolis made of rice flour deck the entrance. While I understood all the spiritual and religious connotations, unfortunately my feeble brain could not think much beyond the delicious food that was served. I've come to realise that my North Indian friends were unaware of what they were missing out in this festival, food-wise. It is my strong belief that these 6 Pongal delicacies must be tried by everyone:
The star of the show, this dish is made on the second day of Pongal. This sweet dish is traditionally made in a pot over a fire. A concoction of rice, milk, moong dal, jaggery and ghee, this is brought to a boil and allowed to spill over. An enthusiastic “Pongal O Pongal” chant fills the air with festivity. This delicious food is offered to the gods and then consumed by the people. Sweet and hearty, the dish is a winner for those who enjoy rich desserts. Sugarcane is often also consumed as it is a part of the tradition.
Ven Pongal/ Khara Pongal
The savoury counterpart of Sakkarai Pongal is no less than the latter. While the core ingredients (rice, moong dal and ghee) are the same, sweeteners are replaced with spices. A combination of rice, moong dal, black pepper, green chilli, curry leaves and cashews make this a lip-smacking dish. It is also a common breakfast food in Tamil Nadu, often eaten with sambar or chutney.
The South Indian brother of kheer, payasum is a dish for all celebrations. A traditional sweet made with milk, jaggery/ sugar, and typically semolina, this dessert is ideal to end any meal, more so a festive one. There are many variations of the dish. Some use moong dal, rice, sooji or other millets to create the base of the dish.
Everyone knows that people from south India love coconut-based dishes. Dals, desserts, meals — we like adding coconut to it all. Coconut rice is a much-loved meal, often made during Kannum Pongal (rice dishes are a highlight on the third day of the festival). Fresh coconut and spices are added to rice, along with curry leaves and ginger. The sweetness of the coconut with the spices is a palate-pleasing combination. We have it served with different curries.
Another rice dish made for Kannum Pongal is lemon rice. Slightly sour and tangy, it is a comfort food and one of the most popular dishes from southern India. Fresh lemon juice is added to rice along with spices and curry leaves. It is often eaten with curd or pickle.
Other popular rice dishes served during Kannum Pongal include curd rice and til (sesame seeds) rice.
Everyone loves a crunchy, golden, piping-hot vada. The crispy, dense donut-shaped dish is a common snack in the south, made with urad dal or chana dal batter. It is mostly eaten with sambar or coconut chutney, and accompanied with a glass of evening tea or filter kaapi (coffee).