Winters in Tamil Nadu are pretty mellow, and unless one finds oneself on elevated terrain or an especially rain-lashed region, temperatures here rarely fall below 25 degrees. And yet, the cold season is a welcome respite from the sweltering heat that grips the state the rest of the year.
One can feel the seasons shift around mid-November, as the Northeast monsoon arrives, bringing with it a glorious, foggy chill in the early hours of the day. The Tamil month of Margazhi begins around mid-December, setting off the seasonal festivities: among Hindus, the women rise before dawn, decorate the front of their homes with elaborate, sometimes colourful, kolams, and visit the local temple to recite hymns dedicated to Lord Shiva and Vishnu.
The best part of the season, for a lot of us, is the piping hot pongal that is served as prasadam at the temples. Ven pongal is the savoury version made of rice, moong dal, jeera, whole pepper and oodles of ghee, while sakkarai pongal is sweet and made of rice, moong dal, jaggery, elaichi, cashews, raisins and again, oodles of ghee.
Steaming dollops of the dish are ladled into palm-sized donnais (single-use cups made out of sal leaves) and handed out to visitors at most temples at this time. Its delicious richness, enhanced by the sharp taste of peppers and the crunch of ghee-roasted cashews, feels like a warm hug on chilly mornings. It is not uncommon for people, young and old, to scarf it down in a couple of bites and go back for seconds.
So integral is the dish to the month and all the festivities that it entails that the first hymn of Andal’s book of hymns Thiruppavai is humorously rephrased as: margazhi thingal, madi niraya pongal (The first day of Margazhi, a belly full of pongal). It might well be the promise of a belly full of pongal that gets one out of bed on chilly December mornings.
On the full moon day of Margazhi, however, the offering is different in communities that center Shiva in their religious practice. The festival of Thiruvadhirai is celebrated on that day and the tradition in many households involves the preparation of a sweet rice-based dish called kali and an elaborate seven-vegetable curry called thalagam.
Seasonal tubers such as senai kizhangu (elephant foot yam), seppan kizhangu (taro root), siru kizhangu (Chinese potato) and sakkaravalli kizhangu (sweet potato); beans such as avaraikkai (broad beans), pacha mochai (field beans), butter beans and green peas; along with pumpkin, carrots, plantain and brinjal are diced, steamed and cooked in a mixture of grated and roasted coconut, roasted sesame, toor dal, dried red chilli, hing and rice, along with tamarind.
A chunk of jaggery and bitter gourd can also be added to this concoction. Most of us may not like the bitter intrusion, but the elders recommend it, as bitter foods are believed to boost the immune system so the body can fight off infections in the cold weather. The end result is thick, spicy gravy full of nutritious winter veggies that makes for a balanced meal in itself.
When served with the kali—which is essentially ground rice roasted and cooked with jaggery, ghee and cardamom—the dish presents a veritable explosion of tastes, flavours and textures. In many households, the kali and thalagam end up being eaten for every meal, because it’s that good! Side note: the thalagam, which has many variations and is known as ezhu-kari kootu, yericha kootu and thiruvadhira puzhukku in different subcultures—tastes even better later in the day, as the softened veggies and the flavours blend into each other over time.
There is nothing like homemade traditional food to nourish the body, mind and soul, but it can get a little boring after a point. For street food lovers, this season has much to offer. The winter months are when mushrooms are in surplus around here. Aside from recipes you can try out yourself, the roadside mushroom or kalan dishes come highly recommended. Push carts and stalls across the state serve up a spicy, saucy preparation of mushrooms that are mixed with chopped cabbage and corn flour and deep fried. An ideal snack for drizzly, cold evenings, it may just give your palate the zing it craves.
If you’re looking for a sweet treat, the Tamil-equivalent of the Western hot chocolate if you will, there is the delicious paruthi paal, or cottonseed milk. While cotton seeds are available throughout the year, they’re known to be harvested in this region between the months of January and March, making this the perfect season for the hot, sweet beverage. It is made by soaking cotton seeds and rice overnight and grinding them into a smooth paste, which is strained to extract the milk. This milk is then boiled with jaggery, cardamom and dry ginger powder, mixed with thick coconut milk and then served. Paruthi paal is rich in antioxidants and is known to improve gut health, circulation and overall health.
Come mid-January, the winter chill begins to wane with the arrival of the Tamil month Thai, post which it gets progressively warmer. The harvest festival of Pongal is celebrated at this time, again with an offering of sweet and savoury ghee pongal along with turmeric roots and sugarcane stalks to the Sun god. Knowing that the delicious chill of season is retreating and won’t be felt again for another year makes the sweet festival a touch bittersweet.