Pongal Treats

  • Pongal Treats

    Photo Credit: Visi Tilak

Sweet Pongal, Savory Pongal and Vadais

A few years ago, in honor of the Pongal Harvest Festival,  I wrote a piece for the Boston Globe titled, “Rice Pudding Worthy Of The Gods.”  I feel like this is an apt story to repeat right now, not to mention the recipe.

Boston Globe – Boston, Mass.

Date: Jan 11, 2006
Start Page: C.2
Section: Food
Text Word Count: 766
Document Text

Even though we’re in the throes of the cold months here, Indians worldwide are getting ready to celebrate the three-day Pongal harvest festival that marks the end of winter in India. Also known as Makara Sankranti in central India, the festival, which begins Friday, follows the winter solstice and marks the beginning of longer days.

Each of the three days in the festival has a different tradition. In the southern state of Tamilnadu, the first day is called Bhogi and is marked by cleaning the household and lighting a bonfire that night to burn the rubbish. Farmers anoint their ploughs and sickles with sandalwood paste before cutting the newly harvested rice. Rice, turmeric, and sugarcane are brought in from the fields and during the festival are used to make the traditional dish, called sweet pongal.

On the second day, this rice pudding is simmered as an offering to the gods. If the milk and the rice in the pot boil up over the pan, so, too, will lives overflow with abundance of food, wealth, and happiness. (The Tamil word “pongal” means to overflow or to boil over.) Using rice flour, women of the household draw designs on the ground near the entrance of the house.

Before the rice is set on the stove to simmer, an earthenware or brass pot is cleaned and the leaves from the turmeric plant are tied around the rim. As the rice and milk boil over, everyone in the family watches and shouts “Pongal O Pongal.” Before the sweet pudding goes onto the table, a bowl is offered with prayers to the gods.

The third day of this festival is Mattu Pongal (“mattu” means cow in Tamil), to honor the animals that till the soil. Early in the morning before sunrise, the women of the house offer pongal pudding to the crows; the birds are considered messengers of ancestors.

Today, unless you live in a farming community, fresh rice is practically unheard of, so everyone uses rice from a grocery store. But pongal pudding is made more frequently than once a year. The key ingredients are long-grain white rice with mung dal or yellow split beans. You also need jaggery, a coarse, unrefined sugar made from sugarcane juice, which is turned into a syrup. Jaggery is most often available in cake form; it is known as panela in South America and piloncillo in Mexico. The texture ranges from fairly crumbly to nearly rock hard. Milk and ghee (clarified butter) round out the confection. The pudding tastes best piping hot. Just before serving, sprinkle roasted cashews and golden raisins on top.


Serves 6


2 cups crumbled jaggery (or use panela or piloncillo)
3 tablespoons water, or more if necessary
1 teaspoon ground cardamon
1/4 teaspoon saffron threads

1. In a saucepan, combine the jaggery, panela, or piloncillo and water. Set over low heat, and add more water, if necessary, so the mixture melts. Strain it into a clean saucepan.

2. Add the cardamom and saffron. Bring to a boil, and let the mixture bubble steadily over medium heat until the syrup thickens to the consistency of honey. Remove from the heat and set aside.


1/4 cup mung dal or yellow split beans
1/2 cup long-grain white rice, rinsed
1 1/2-2 cups whole milk
1 cup water
3 tablespoons ghee or butter
1/4 cup roasted unsalted cashews, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup golden raisins

1. In a large dry skillet, toast the mung dal for 3 minutes, stirring constantly, over a low flame. It should not brown.

2. In a large saucepan, combine the dal and rice with 1 1/2 cups of the milk and 1/2 cup of the water. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, cover the pan, and simmer for 30 to 45 minutes or until the rice and lentils are tender. If the mixture seems too thick, add the remaining 1/2 cup of milk and remaining 1/2 cup water, a little at a time, until the mixture is the consistency of mashed potatoes.

3. Over medium heat, stir in the jaggery syrup, and continue stirring until the pudding is blended. Remove from the heat.

4. Add 1 1/2 tablespoons of the ghee or butter and stir well. Add the remaining ghee or butter and stir again. The pudding may look runny, but it will thicken as it cools. Garnish with cashews and raisins and serve. Or transfer to a container and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days; serve cold. To reheat: Microwave the pudding, stirring several times, until it is hot.

Visi Tilak

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