Pongal is a harvest festival celebrated in south India, it is our thanksgiving. The word Pongal means abundance or overflow. The highlight of this festival is the delicious food we prepare to share with our family and friends. In this post I have shown how elaborate a southindian festive meal is.
What do we have in common?
Both Indian and American thanksgivings are harvest festivals. They share a common thing, that is being thankful for the abundance of food, health and family. It used to be a festival celebrated only by farmers or those who owned farmlands, later on everyone started to celebrate it. I am so amazed that there are so many similarities between South Indian and American thanksgiving, which I am so eager to share it with you all.
When do we celebrate it ?
We celebrate our thanksgiving on Jan 14 which falls on the first day of the first month (Thai matham) according to the our Tamil calendar. It is celebrated for four days, each day for a specific reason.
Why do we celebrate it ?
South Indian Thanksgiving is mainly celebrated to thank the SUN GOD for giving us a bountiful harvest. We also believe, from this point all the sufferings will end and the good times begin.
How do we celebrate it ?
A month before pongal, houses are throughly cleaned and painted. All the unwanted things are diligently discarded to give way to the new. We draw beautiful drawings on the floor in our front yard which is called kolam. It is done with colored sand. My floors are carpeted so I drew this on a side table.
In south India, Farmers light a Sacred Bonfire to burn the agricultural waste after the harvest , this ritual is called Boghi. This marks the first day of pongal. They specially do this to thank their ancestors for the fertile land and the bountiful harvest.
The role of the bird in our thanksgiving
We Indians are vegetarians so there is no turkey involved in our feast. But we give importance to one particular bird which is a peacock. It is considered a sacred bird, it freely roams in our rice fields and mango groves. To honor this bird we make atleast one drawing with peacock in it. This year my mom has done this amazing painting on the floor. Isn’t it pretty!
The role of pumpkin in our thanksgiving
Pumpkin plays an important role in our thanksgiving too. We make a special dish with pumpkin called Kootu. Pumpkin flowers are kept on this traditional South Indian drawing to invite good vibes into the house.The flowers drawn on the edges of this kolam depicts the pumpkin blossoms. It is particularly done with calcium paint (sunnambu) and accented with red mud (Kaavi). This intricate line drawing is done by my aunt.
Since all the houses look pretty with new paint and beautiful drawings, We use colorful paint to draw goofy faces on the pumpkin and keep it at the front stoop to avoid evil eyes. This is like a Jack O’ lantern for us, it is called Dirushti Poosani.
The Second day of celebration – Pongal
The word Pongal signifies Abundance. To honor the hard work of the local farmers we buy all the seasonal vegetables, grains and dairy products from them. This is my version of the cornucopia. Looks amazing right !
Vegetables that grow above and below the ground are given equal importance. Two very unique root vegetables (Siru kilangu & panang kilangu) have a special place in this festive feast. We also make good use of the freshly harvested fruits, rice, lentils, milk and ghee (clarified butter) which we get from our local farmers.
Enormous amount of sugarcane is harvested in south India during this season. Which is pressed and the juice is boiled and poured into a mould to make a special kind of sugar called Jaggery (vellam) Which is specially used in making this Sweet Pongal.
Why do we celebrate this outside?
We want this bountiful harvest to be blessed by the sun rays so this ritual is done outside the house, in our front yard. The preparations start before the sunrise.
The picture below is from my childhood home, My sister-in-law took this picture while my mom was preparing the sweet pongal. She did an amazing job capturing the essence of Pongal,in one simple click.
How do we make the sweet Pongal ?
We want the year to start with a sweet note so we make this sweet Pongal first. We make a camp fire, the pots are rested on these red bricks and it’s tied with a turmeric plant to mark the new beginning. Instead of wood we use only the dried leaves of the palm tree. The reason behind this is, the smoke from this doesn’t affect the taste of the dish.
- First we boil milk and water and it is purposely left to over flow to signify the abundance hence the name Pongal.
- Then the rice and roasted lentils are added, once it’s cooked it is mashed nicely
- Then the melted jaggery and cardamom pods are added and cooked until it’s nice and creamy.
- In the meantime cashews are toasted in ghee with some more cardamom powder are added at the end as garnish.
I cooked this sweet Pongal in my stove top and then transfered it into a beautiful copper pot.
This sweet Pongal is so creamy and delicious, the jaggery gives a very unique taste which is very pleasant, the ghee and the cardamom gives a wonderful aroma. The cashews add a perfect crunch for this creamy dessert. Look how yummy it is!
Sweet Pongal – Rice pudding
It is cooked just in time for the sunrise so that it is blessed by the sun rays, Meaning the sun has accepted your offerings. Then a little bit of cooked rice is kept in a banana leaf for the birds, which we believe are the representatives of our ancestors. We wait until a bird takes its first bite only then we are allowed to taste the sweet Pongal.
Preparations for the feast
Now that all the produce is kissed by the radiant sunlight, We bring them inside and start prepping for the big feast. All the vegetables you see here in the picture are transformed into delicious food.
I just cooked up a storm. All the slicing, dicing and seasoning ended up in a basket full of mouthwatering dishes .
Before we serve this meal, We say our thanks in the form of a pooja. Children get blessings from their grandparents and they are given money envelopes as gifts. This is called Pongapodi.
In India we sit on the floor and this delicious meal is served in a banana leaf. Forget about a spoon, it is meant to be eaten with your hands. We insist on this since your fingers can be a better guide for the temperature and texture of the food.
I can’t find banana leaves here so I served this in this beautiful platter called Thattu or Thali . Doesn’t this look scrumptious!
South Indian Lunch Thali
It’s an array of veggie side dishes and curries served with rice. Each dish is strategically placed in a special order and it is savored in a special order too. I have shown this clearly in the picture below for your understanding.
Uppu – (salt) To begin with, a pinch of salt is kept on the left corner of the plate. sounds little odd right?. Let me tell you why? we get enormous amount of salt from the sea and it signifies the abundance. Another reason, if you feel that any of these dishes lack salt you can add it yourself without hurting the host’s feeling.
Urukai – (pickle) It is made of lemons since it is available throughout the year. Mango pickle is also served if it is in season
Pongal – (dessert) In this occasion the delicious sweet Pongal we made earlier. Other types of sweets are also served depending on the occasions.
Avial/Aviyal – (stew) This is considered the star of this thali since it is made with an array of thinly sliced vegetables like Green plantain, potatoes, green beans, carrots, chayote, gourd, eggplant, in addition to this we add green peas, butter beans and slivers of green raw mango then cooked in a creamy coconut cumin sauce.
Porial/Poriyal – (sauté) which is made with a particular type of potatoes which is native to our region. It is called Siru Kilangu (small potatoes) unlike regular potatoes they are extremely aromatic and the skin is not smooth so it has to be peeled and cooked in boiling water flavored with turmeric, chili powder and salt. Once it’s cooked excess water is drained and seasoned with mustard seeds, curry leaves, grated coconut and ground cumin. This is truly a delicacy since you can’t find this after this season. We also use other veggies like cabbage, beans etc for the Poriyal
Kootu – (vegetables in flavored lentil sauce) This is made of pumpkin since it is a must have ingredient in this feast. We cook pumpkin until it’s soft then it’s seasoned with chili power, roasted coconut and black lentils and curry leaves and finished with a little bit of jaggery so it’s both sweet and spicy.
Pachadi – (creamy salad) which is sliced fruit or grated vegetables in a creamy yogurt sauce made with green chilies, salt and sugar then seasoned with mustard seeds and curry leaves. We use bananas, mangoes, Pomegranate or Pineapple. I made mine a pineapple pachadi. Veggie pachadi -We also use thinly sliced onions or grated carrots or beets to make this pachadi.
Paruppu – (mashed lentils) It is cooked with turmeric and asafetida and salt then topped with some ghee (clarified butter), it is a quintessential ingredient in our cuisine. The sweet aroma of the ghee literally enhances any dish we eat.
We believe yellow is an auspicious color, We literally begin everything with a yellow or golden color since the rice is white we add this to get the yellow color only then we add other curries to it.
Sambar – (curry) An authentic South Indian curry made with lentils, carrots, shallots, tomatoes, drumstick and seasoned with an array of spices and garnish with coriander leaves (cilantro).
Rasam – (soup) An authentic south Indian soup which is a peppery broth flavored with coriander, cumin, tamarind and tomatoes which you all know as mulligatawny soup.
Sadham – (rice) we use the unpolished red rice for this particular meal but I couldn’t find it here so I am serving white rice. The rice has to be steamy so it’s served at the end and it is served in that particular spot which is closer to you. This way it is easy to eat without spilling since we eat with our hands.
Appalam – (crackers) which is also called papad is kept near the salt. It is a type of cracker made with black lentil flour and it is deep fried.
There is a particular order in which you have to eat this meal
- We Indians always start with a dessert so you have to eat the sweet Pongal first.
- Then you should mix a little bit of mashed lentils/ parruppu and then add sambar with it, this is called sambar sadham. This goes very well with Aviyal.
- You can either sip the rasam or mix it with rice and parruppu, we call this rasam Sadham. This goes very well with Porial and Appalam.
- Kootu goes well with both sambar and rasam.
- Yogurt pachadi is often eaten as it is. It is served to cool your tongue if the food is spicy.
Finally we serve ….
Thayir – plain yogurt
We mix the yogurt with the rice and eat it with the lemon pickle, this is called Thayir Sadham. You can also eat the yogurt as it is.
Moru – spiced buttermilk.
we also offer you a glass of cool buttermilk – Moru to drink , yogurt is whisked with water and salt then flavored with asafetida, ground black pepper, roasted cumin powder, coriander leaves and curry leaves. This is served at the end so that it will ease your tummy and help with easy digestion.
This is how elaborate our authentic South Indian meal is.The next time you order a South Indian thali at a restaurant, you know exactly what to expect:)
Food Donation – Anna Thanam
Every household donates a portion of their harvest to the Temples, orphanages or homeless shelter. There, the same elaborate meal is cooked and served for the poor and the needy throughout the day.
All the leftovers are carefully packed in boxes and stored in the fridge. The next day nobody feels like cooking. So we use the leftovers to make easy and tasty meals. We have a ingenious way to use the leftovers. We put all the leftover dishes except the yogurt based pachadi in one big pan and simmer it until it comes to a semi solid consistency . It is as simple as it sounds but it tastes so delicious. All the flavors meld together and gives a unique taste to this dish, we çall this Palaya curry.
Since this day is so free of cooking we cook one more special root vegetable called panang Kilangu. It is nothing but the sprouts of the Palm tree which grows under the ground. It is specially harvested for this celebration.
It is roasted in fire or cooked in a pressure cooker with lots of water flavored with chili powder, turmeric powder and salt. While this is cooking it emits a wonderful aroma which is out of the world. We cut them into small bite size pieces and eat it with sliced coconut.
The Third day of celebration – Mattu Pongal
This day is dedicated for the farmers. It is called mattu pongal because they treat their cows and bulls in a special way, they give them a good wash decorate with colors and flower garlands. The Bulls are given complete rest from plowing. They put money in a small bag and tie it to the bull’s horn and let them loose. Young men try to tame or chase the bull to grab the money, this is called Jalli Kattu, Our version of the Rodeo.
The Last day of celebration – Kanum Pongal- visiting day
On this day people visit their relatives and friends who has come to town to celebrate Pongal with their family, no matter how far they live they always make it a point to come home. People also go to carnivals and go on picnics near river banks and water falls.
I come from a small town from the state of Tamil Nadu which is situated at the tip of south India. It is so scenic with lush farmlands, mango groves and surrounded by mountains and waterfalls. Even though we live thousands of miles away we are so happy to know that both places have some things in common, which makes us feel at home.