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In a country as diverse as India, it is often land and its bounty that unites us all. In spite of India's growing prowess in IT and manufacturing, it is conclusively an agriculture-sensitive economy. Therefore, the celebration of harvest is almost universal, cutting across our vast subcontinent, undeterred by heterogeneity in language, religion and culture. Makar Sankranti, Lohri and Bihu are celebrated at same time of the year; for Tamil Nadu of course, Pongal is its greatest festival.
The Khichdi connection:
You might have wondered if Pongal, the dish, is linked with Pongal, the harvest festival? Pongal draws a parallel with its better-known cousin – khichdi. Mentioned in the Mughal era Ain-I-Akbari, championed as the original Indian comfort food, and even exported to Britain as kedgeree; khichdi is essentially a harvest dish created out of deference and ingenuity.
Author and food writer Anoothi Vishal confirms that in Uttar Pradesh, Makar Sankranti also goes by the name Khichri Parv. Anoothi says that the festival marks an end of the bitter North Indian winter, signalling a renewal of life-giving sunshine in the agrarian cycle. It is easy to connect the dots when you consider that pongal (and presumably khichdi as well) was originally made with newly harvested grains. The new grains, rich in moisture, saturate and burst to release starch which turns the dish gluey; same reason why the Japanese treasure newly harvested shinmai rice. Add lentils, ghee and some condiments to a squishy rice dish and you have ven pongal (ven means white in Tamil, compared to the turmeric-tinged khichdi). The sweet version - chakkarai pongal is made with jaggery (or sugar) instead.
The Celebration of Pongal:
Pongal derives from the Tamil root-word pong, which roughly means to 'boil/spill over'. In 2002, at the height of LTTE conflict in Sri Lanka, Tamilians boisterously celebrated their cultural heritage under Thamizh Pongal in Jaffna, signifying Pongal's importance to Tamil culture. The festivities are usually spread over four to five days, and the three major ones are:
Thai Pongal (January 14th): Marked by preparation of the ceremonial chakkarai pongal in clay pots under sunlight (in deference to Surya), it is considered auspicious to witness the mixture boil over while bellowing "pongalu pongal". Though the practice is hard to spot outside rural Tamil Nadu these days, you can get a whiff of tradition with pookollams flanked by sugarcane stalks at Pongal lunches across popular South Indian restaurants in the city. See below for our recommendations.
Mattu Pongal (January 15th) : Mattu translates to cow, and this is the day to honour and adulate cattle. Cows are hand-fed balls of ven pongal besides being anointed with turmeric oil and their horns, decorated. This is also the day for the bull taming (now-controversial) sport of Jallikattu.
Kannum Pongal (January 16th): Also called Uzhavar Thirunal (literally, the farmer's festival), it is the busiest day of the lot. Kannum (which means 'to view') Pongal is a day for mingling outdoors with family and friends. In Chennai, the iconic Marina Beach swells with families soaking in a resplendent January sun. If you are planning to dine out, it is great idea to book your tables right away!
Where to feast on Pongal:
Southern Spice at Taj Coromandel and Dakshin at Crowne Plaza have been the fine-dine flag bearers of South Indian cuisine for decades and will host Pongal-themed menus with the works. For a great mid-range option, Annalakshmi restaurant in Egmore has a fantastic reputation. If you do not mind a tight space, then Prems Graama Bhojanam is a genuine ode to rustic millet-based cooking before the domination of white rice. Finally, you can savour both chakkari and ven pongal at the venerable Rayar's Mess and Mami Mess in Mylapore or at outlets of Murugan Idli Shop spread across the city.