Food historian and raconteur Rakesh Raghunathan, the host of shows like Dakshin Diaries and 100% South Indian, has fond memories of Pongal. “It is always around food, around people coming together,” remembers Raghunathan, adding, “We still celebrate Pongal in a big way.”
This year, Pongal kicks off on January 14. In an interview with Lounge, he talks about his fascination for puliyodharai, describes the food that was served at the festival and shares memories of his mother feeding him a bowl of ghee-laden pongal before his early-morning maths tuition class.
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What is the most prominent food memory of your childhood?
I think it is the puliyodharai or tamarind rice. I have very fond memories of being in the kitchen and watching my grandmother and mother make this dish as a child. It was a laborious process. We always lived in a large joint family. We would use age-old heirloom traditional vessels that were really large.
Making the puliyodhorai involved a 3–4-day long process. It begins with getting the vessels from storage and polishing them. Another day, she would plan to fry something; the oil used to fry crisps or papad is used in puliyodharai since it infuses that flavour into the dish. Then, she would roast and grind the spices for the spice powder, make the tamarind concentrate, boiling it for hours into a molten mass. Even today, a whiff of those familiar smells takes me back to my childhood
She would layer it like a biryani—add the rice first, spice powder, infused oil, tamarind concentrate, and nuts. As she was doing that, I would sit with her, taste every layer, and tell her whether it needs more concentrate, spice or salt. She would talk to me about her own childhood memories of growing up, how it was back then, how she liked cooking--all of that.
How was Pongal celebrated in your own house?
We lived with our grandparents in Chennai. We were a large family, and this would become a hub. All the other family members would end up coming here. The day of Pongal would invariably be only us—my parents, sister and I and my grandparents. Ven pongal, the savoury version of pongal, and sakkarai pongal, the sweetened version of pongal, was made typically. And any sweet to go with them. The dishes are mainly rice-based because it was the festival of harvest.
The day after, something called kanu is celebrated in some homes. It is essentially the sisters praying for the welfare of their brothers. All my aunts, my father's sisters, would come here.
On that day, they would make a lot of variety rice—coconut rice, tamarind rice, lemon rice and more. We would make chips at home—potato chips, sweet potato, and raw banana chips. There was also a particular bean-based kozhambu or curry called the avaramani kuzhambu paired with the tamarind rice. It is very peculiar to our household and the recipe's roots can be traced to our ancestral village Kethandapatti in Tamil Nadu.
The third day of Pongal is usually spent recovering from all that eating (laughs).
What is your most prominent memory of cooking or eating Pongal?
The month preceding the festival, margazhi, is believed to be the sacred month. Generally, women in the household—not to stereotype—wake up early, have a bath and put rangoli outside their home, placing a small ball of cow dung and a red pumpkin flower in the centre of it. My mother has been following this practice for a very long time.
She would then make ven pongal. She makes it every day that month and still does. When I was young, I had tuition classes very early in the morning. I would cycle and go to maths classes at 5.30 am, and she would insist that I eat this pongal and go. So I would wake up at 4.30, brush my teeth, have this pongal and cycle to class. So whether I learnt math or not, I got a lot of sleep (laughs). That is my memory of pongal: going to my tuition having this bowl of pongal filled with ghee and nuts.
What does using the clay pot for cooking do to the dish's flavour? Do you still use this for cooking in your home?
In terms of taste, one may not really know—unless you cook it on a firewood stove, the smoke kind of adds to it. The innate properties of the minerals used to make the terracotta ware is known to neutralise pH levels because the pots are alkaline in nature and therefore interact with the acidity in the food. My aunt uses traditional cookware to make pongal on the day of the festival. My mother, however, has found an easier, less messy option: the pressure cooker.
What is your comfort food and why?
For me, it is a good bowl of rasam-sadam. It may seem like a simple dish but making a good rasam isn't easy. It hit me in the US, where I studied when I was trying to cook it. I had everything—the tamarind, the rasam powder, the lentils—but to make it like my mother was very tough. I didn't know it was so complicated. Even today, people judge wedding caterers based on the rasam they make.
Are we going beyond the idli-dosa-sambar cliché? Do you feel the narrative around South Indian food is changing and what is driving it?
There has been a great shift. I think the micro cuisines of every region is catching on, particularly in South Indian food. Also, people want food presented more aesthetically, thanks to shows like MasterChef and so on. Otherwise, South Indian food has just been this huge mountain of rice with rasam and sambar or chicken or fish curry.
I remember curating a food festival for The Park called Annam to Arancini, which was about reimagining our grandmothers' kitchen, heirloom recipes presented in a very contemporary aesthetic way. For instance, usually, puliyodharai is paired with applams, avaramani kuzhambu and buttermilk. I made an arancini ball with the puliyodharai, coated it with applam and deep-fried it like a patty. I then put it on a bed on avaramani sauce, drizzled some buttermilk and put microgreens on it. When I served it to people they didn’t know it was—it looked very funky. But when they ate it, it took them to their childhood.
Raghunathan's recipe for ven pongal
1 cup rice
Half cup moong dal
6 cups water
1 tsp ginger, chopped
2 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp whole pepper
Half tsp asafoetida
10 curry leaves
1 tsp oil
3 tsp ghee
Salt to taste
1. Mix rice and dal together. Wash under running water and strain.
2. In a pressure cooker, add the rice dal mixture along with 6 cups of water.
3. Also add one teaspoon cumin seeds, chopped ginger, asafoetida, curry leaves, salt , oil and a tsp of ghee and pressure cook for cook four whistles.
4. Remove the cooker when pressure settles down.
5. In a separate wok, mix oil and ghee and heat until hot.
6. Add one teaspoon cumin seeds and whole black pepper. Allow to splutter.
7. Add cashews and roast till golden brown.
8. Add curry leaves and pour the tempering over the molten pongal.
9. Drizzle more ghee on the pongal.
10. Serve hot with sambar and/or chutney.
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Inheritance of flavours is a series with chefs, restaurateurs, hospitality experts and professionals about food memories and tastes of home.