Pongal is a festival, and it’s also Tamil Nadu’s authentic, ancient recipe. In fact, for millions of Tamilians across the globe, Pongal – the dish – is a daily driver. It is also what oils the wheels of Kollywood – the Tamil film industry!
I bring to you its sweet and savoury variants from rural and urban Tamil Nadu, stories about ‘shooting Pongal’ and the hilarious myth behind your monthly oil bath! Take a listen.
Pongal Dubbed in Hindi is Khichdi
Now, even if you’ve lived under a rock for three thousand years, you’d still know, that Pongal is a kind of thick gruel made of rice and lentils. Yup, it’s not unlike the khichdi.
The khichdi is the watered down, Hindi-dubbed version of the Tamil Pongal.
It’s like a remake that looks like Pongal and uses the same ingredients, but isn’t quite up there in taste. That’s why it’s a much bigger hit as a breakfast in Tamil Nadu than khichdi ever was in North India.
And my choice of metaphors are cinematic for good reason. It brings us to our first stop; Kodambakkam, the birthplace of Tamil cinema, and home to AVM studios.
Pongal is Tamil Cinema’s Superstar
Typically, a movie set is like a mini factory. It takes a hundred or more workers to get everything ready for that first shot of the day. And the one thing that fuels them all, is inevitably, the Pongal.
This has been the choice of breakfast for generations of Tamil cinema technicians, who all have fond memories of the recipe, and the way it lulls them to a meditative semi-conscious state.
One plate of slightly runny pongal with sambar, coconut chutney and onion-tomato-red chilly chutney will give you the strength to stand still in the Chennai summer for five hours, until lunchtime.
The History of Pongal is The History of Tamils
The history of Pongal is the history of the Tamil people. Archaeologically, it all began in 10,000 BC when parts of the world were still in the Stone Age. Escaping mammoths, the people of the Indus Valley civilization began farming rice in the step fields near Kashmir.
But even before that, they ate wild rice. Five thousand years later, in south India, some genius of a cook ‘accidentally’ boiled rice and Moong dal together, to create the Pongal. This was such a hit that much later, around 200 BC, the ‘Indravizhya’ festival celebrated at Poombuhar came to be called ‘Pongal’.
Pongal’s Day Out
Despite most civilisations across the world being familiar with rice, lentils and the process of boiling, no one, anywhere else on the planet thought of the simple five-step Pongal recipe, except the Tamils!
In Ancient Greece, there was a Pongal-like dish, which originated after Alexander’s invasions in India, in May, 327 BC. This was the last time his soldiers fought in the subcontinent and the first time they saw rice.
In the Greek recipe, rice, lentils and beans were boiled together and finally doused in red wine. Today, the Greeks have done away with rice and use red wine vinegar. It’s called Faki Soupa in Greece. Sounds like a rapper’s pseudonym, doesn’t it?
And here are its other names: Khichdi (north India), Bissi Bhelle Bhaath (Karnataka and rest of south India), Mujadarrah (Lebanese), Kung Pao (Chinese), Koshari (Egyptian).
In Tamil Nadu, there are two versions. One is the Venn Pongal, aka the white Pongal, this is savory. The other, is the Sakkara Pongal or the sweet Pongal.
The name Sakkara Pongal is misleading because ‘sakkara’ means sugar. Traditionally though, we use jaggery.
Th Pongal begins its circuitous travel around the gut, causing a mild numbing of the senses. Much like its trajectory in our systems, the dish has meandered across country, and even the world.
As Indian food and medicine’s cultural influence spread through Greece, Rome, the Far East and European countries, it took along with it the Pongal, which today holds more aliases and visas than James Bond.
And yet, despite the similarities, there’s still nothing quite like it.