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The many flavours of Makar Sankranti in South India

The festive platter sparkles with regional diversity; from pongal to sesame-based food items and comforting stews

The Pongal spread at the pop-ups by Southern Food Trail, Mumbai.
The Pongal spread at the pop-ups by Southern Food Trail, Mumbai.

Suggi habba in Karnataka, Pongal in Tamil Nadu and Pedda Panduga in Andhra Pradesh, the harvest festival—that falls on January 15 this year—commemorates the northward ascent of the sun. It marks the end of the reaping season, and is celebrated as a festival of harvest abundance. Aromatic and freshly reaped rice is a star ingredient, accompanied by seasonal specialities with jaggery and sesame.

Tamil Nadu’s Pongal menu

Celebrated over three-four days, Pongal calls for an array of dishes. Rice items abound and the most significant dish, pongal, borrows its name from the festival and comes in two versions: sakkare (sweet) and ven (savoury).

Mumbai-based Tamil home chef Sai, who hosts pop-ups with his brand Southern Food Trail, says pongal isn’t the only dish. In his home, a festive meal with a variety of items is eaten on a banana leaf, similar to a saadya. “There’s kootu (stew) prepared with ash gourd, yellow pumpkin, dal, coconut and a spice paste; the tamarind-based arapuli kuzhambu with red or brown gram and elephant yam; and a tomato rasam completes the meal. Also, there’s tamarind rice, lemon rice, coconut rice and curd rice, paired with ericha kootu, a medley of kootu, arapuli kuzhambu and rasam, boiled to a dry consistency,” he says.

One can now sample Pongal specialities in Chennai's restaurants. There's Prems Graama Bhojanam in Adyar and Annalakshmi Restaurant in Ramanathan Salai.

Championing sesame in Karnataka

Farmers in Karnataka joyfully celebrate Makar Sankranti as Suggi habba (harvest festival) announcing the end of the reaping season.

The one dish that takes centre stage is the dry preparation named ellu-bella, a mixture of sesame, jaggery, roasted peanuts and chana dal.

Also read | Know your tur dal from your chana dal

“Consuming ellu-bella is important on Makar Sankranti, as both the main ingredients, jaggery and sesame seeds, are winter foods. Jaggery provides energy, while sesame gives warmth,” informs Mandaar Sukhtankar, corporate chef, Oota Bangalore. He adds, ellu is sesame in Kannada. It’s used to make ellu unde (laddoos), ellu chikki and ellu-shenga holige (sesame peanut puranpoli).

Meeting relatives and exchanging sweets is common and home-made ellu-bella is distributed, says Suresh DC, Brand chef, Hosa Goa, who hails from Karnataka.

According to Sukhtankar, Makar Sankranti begins with ellu-bella and is followed by an elaborate vegetarian meal for lunch where seasonal produce and vegetables dominate. “Hesaru kalu (green gram), avare kalu (hyacinth bean), leafy greens, like sorrel leaves, are prepared.”

Desserts are sweetened with sugar cane jaggery. The mainstays include godhi huggi which is broken wheat payasa; sihi huggi, a rice and moong dal payasa; chakkara pongal or rice jaggery kheer; and a stuffed roti named maadli that’s made with sesame, poppy seed, jaggery, whole wheat, gram flour and semolina.

Savour an elaborate vegetarian Makar Sankranti thali at Oota Bangalore by Chef Dinesh Poojary, for lunch between January 15-31.

The feasts of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana

Sankranti is the biggest festival in Andhra Pradesh, and is celebrated over three days. The first day is called Bhogi, the second day is Pedda Panduga or big festival, and the third day is known as Kanuma or Pasuvula Panduga. This year, the festival runs from January 15 to 17.

Mumbai-based home-chef, Sumitra Kalapatapu of Sumi’s Kitchen shares details of the various food items cooked on each of the days. On day one, the menu features Pulihara (tamarind rice), gutti vankaya koora (stuffed brinjal) and palakura pappu (dal with spinach), papad, coconut chutney, rasam and curd. Seasonal vegetables are a mainstay on day two; and mukkala pulusu (vegetables cooked in a tamarind pulp and jaggery) is prepared, accompanied by a plain pappu (dal) made with tuvar. On day three, vegetarians eat medu vada with sambar, while non-vegetarians relish kodi kura chitti gare (medu vada with a spicy chicken curry).

Dessert includes sweet pongal, payasam and boorelu which is a deep-fried sweet dumpling filled with boiled chana dal, jaggery, elaichi and ghee, coated in rice flour batter.

In Telangana homes, sakinalu (deep-fried concentric circles made from rice flour dough) is a Makar Sankranti speciality. “Made with freshly ground rice, sesame and carom seeds, many families even add spices like red and green chilli paste. In a new bride’s parental home, sakinalu, is prepared on Sankranti and distributed to the entire village,” shares Executive Chef of Hospitality Group, Nir Advisors, DVS Pavan Kumar, an Andhraite.

Ariselu, a sweet made with rice flour, jaggery, sesame seeds and ghee, is a must-have. Other sweets include, sunnundalu (sweet dumplings of urad dal, ghee and jaggery), kajjikayalu (deep-fried dumplings stuffed with coconut and jaggery) and nuvvula laddu (sesame and jaggery laddoo).

If you are not preparing these, order online from the food delivery service Godavari Vantillu that specialises in sweets, pickles and Andhra condiments. Those visiting Hyderabad or Telangana, must go to G Pulla Reddy Sweets and Vellanki Foods to sample regional sweets and snacks.

Also read | The vibrant legends and folklore surrounding Makar Sankranti

Kerala’s satvik affair

In Kerala, Makar Sankranti coincides with Makaravilakku. It is an auspicious day, when devotees flock to Sabarimala’s revered Ayyappa temple, atop a hill in Ranni-Perunad village, for an annual pilgrimage to see the Makara Jyothi (holy light). Pilgrims begin preparations for the Makaravilakku on the first of the Vrischikam month (mid-November).

“From mid-November to Makaravilakku, vegetarian food is consumed, adhering to satvik principles of a pure diet without onion and garlic, for spiritual well-being. The specific foods vary, based on personal preferences and regional culinary traditions. Common items include puzhukku (made of tapioca, yam, banana, purple yam, green lentil), semolina or broken wheat upma, broken wheat kanji, poori, chapati, dals, vegetables. Rice is eaten once a day. Fresh fruits, milk and dairy products are also eaten,” explains Selvaraj N, Chef de Cuisine, Grand Hyatt Kochi, Bolgatty.

A runny, semi-solid, aravana payasam of dried red rice, jaggery and coconut milk is consumed as prasadam by the pilgrims at the Ayyappa Swami Temple,

Those who do not go on the pilgrimage, also follow strict dietary regulations on Makaravilakku. “Freshly cooked vegetarian food without onion and garlic is consumed, within three hours of preparation, after bath and prayers. Breakfast is usually skipped and lunch ends by noon. Processed food is avoided and people don’t eat out,” shares Nitin Sumitran of Mumbai’s Home Kitchen Appam Stories which specialises in food from Kerala.

Mini Ribeiro is a food writer and consultant based in Goa.

Also read | Makar Sankranti recipe: How to make sweet pongal like a chef

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