A fine harvest: The story of Pongal

A return to roots has set the tone for how we eat and where we source our produce, for much of the past 10 years.

Published: 13th January 2020 08:51 AM  |   Last Updated: 13th January 2020 08:51 AM   |  A+A-

Tamil Nadu rice variants like Thooyamalli, Mapillai Champa and Ajara Ghansal from Maharashtra are great grains for Pongal

Express News Service

As we approach the first harvest of a new decade, we hop on a bullock cart back in time to the villages of yore, sugarcane stalks in tow, to remember where it all began. Jumping colourful kolams, skidding through giddy scenes of music and dance and stopping squarely centre stage, in front of that clay pot that overflows with tradition, we unpack centuries of history; all distilled down to one glorious ghee-laden spoonful of Pongal. 

But before we head out, here are a few thoughts to lead the route. A return to roots has set the tone for how we eat and where we source our produce, for much of the past 10 years: whether you look at buzz words like organic vegetables or farm to fork. So, even though Pongal is a few days away, you might say we’ve been reaping a wholesome harvest for a while now. As a ‘mattu’ of fact, stepping into rural landscapes is simply a reminder of what is already deeply ‘ingrained’ with the Pongal tradition – celebrate your yield, gather and feast and always, give thanks. 

Ven Pongal began

In order to revisit where it all began, we reach out to food historian Rakesh Raghunathan, who has been known to steep himself in research around temple cuisine in South India (pongal is a much looked forward to prasadham) as well as the origins of dishes by way of sacred and culinary texts. Some 4,000 to 5,0000 years ago, Rakesh takes us back, “Ancestral worship meant giving thanks for a harvest with indigenous ingredients that were aplenty and back then there were over 250,000 grains to choose from.” Moong dal, the second primary ingredient of the Pongal dish was likely chosen because, he tells us, certain ingredients were known to be avoided, especially in the Tamil Brahmin community. This included toor dal, asafoetida and even ingredients for spice and flavour like red chillies. “The ancient Ayurvedic texts refer to spicing with one main ingredient, black pepper,” he recalls from research, and so we have the three foundational tenets of the original Pongal recipe – cooked in a clay pot, all those years ago. One could logically attribute the coinciding of this celebration and the Margazhi month, according to Rakesh, with some simple reasoning. “In winter, people needed a meal to keep them warm and this was the perfect one-pot solution, especially for temples, with a surplus in their granaries and queues of volunteers.” 

Seize the clay

Of course, much has changed over time. Today, there are variations that have evolved based on geography (khichdi up North), nutrition and superfood trends (swapping out rice for millets) and of course, innovation (Ven Pongal arancini, anyone?) But one non-negotiable aspect has remained, century upon century: the traditional clay pot. Nostalgia apart, when it comes to the preparation process of Pongal.  it is perhaps the only constant that is agreed upon as symbolic and upping the ante on flavour, whether you are in conversation with a rice expert, a farmer, a chef or a housewife. 

Rice of the heritage grain

As for going back to our roots, in terms of the best suited indigenous grain for the preparation of Pongal, we consulted with Spirit Of the Earth – an initiative by the NGO AIM For Seva, in pursuit of popularising heritage grains. “We love our Tamil Nadu rice variants like Thooyamalli and Kichili Champa and Mapillai Champa (red rice)  for Pongal,” shares Jayanthi Somasundaram of Spirit of the Earth. She elaborates that there are indigenous grains from other states as well “like Ajara Ghansal, a delicate, fragrant brown rice from Maharashtra,” that works just as well. Whatever you do, don’t use Basmati – is the only hands-in-the-air protest we get from the grain fraternity. For one thing, it largely changes the flavour of the dish and second, as one might imagine, its reputation is simply too refined for a wholesome, rustic meal such as this one! One chef who did not wish to be named actually called Basmati Pongal, blasphemy!

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