Wishing you abundance and joy as new harvest is celebrated all across India. They may have different names… Makar Sankranti, Pongal, Maghi Bihu, Uttarayan, Lohri and others, but the intentions are the same. It’s a celebration of nature’s bounty and to her show gratitude. It also marks the sun’s transit to Capricorn, hence marking the end of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Needless to say, it’s the perfect time to release everything from the past and welcome a new decade by setting new intentions!
I’m immersing myself into every new experience that I can get in my new adopted home, Chennai. Nothing can be better than a festive season or a celebration to learn about it’s cuisine and culture. Ideally, I’d visit local markets, explore back alleys, try out popular casual eateries alongside the long-standing finer restaurants. I love meeting cooks and chefs of both restaurants and family kitchens, listening to their food stories and food memories. The last year has been quite different in that sense … I haven’t been able to embrace new people in their kitchens and homes spontaneously and without any fear, unlike other times.
I wanted to learn to make a few dishes that are cooked for Pongal so that we could have a special Pongal lunch at home (below) along with the Z-Sisters. During this time of the year, Bengalis celebrate Makar Sankranti. The harvesting season calls for Notun Gur, the season fresh jaggery and different kinds of pithes, a kind of dumpling made with rice dough and filled with fresh coconut and jaggery. I will not be making pithes this time or be able to visit our Bengali friends in Dubai, some of who would invariably make pithes at home… but I can proudly say that I have learnt to make the Sakkarai Pongal, the special Pongal dish cooked with newly harvested rice, moong dal and sugarcane jaggery. I also learnt a few other regional dishes followed by a hearty breakfast with this wonderful family who opened up their traditional home kitchen for me. Yesterday felt extremely special, as after a long time I went into the homes and kitchens of two wonderful families in our community ~ Veni and Subha. Of course, with my mask and social distancing protocols in place.
Adda with Veni and digging into her Kolkata konnect
When I met Veni, we hit off instantly. She is a Tamilian from Kolkata, hence an honorary Bengali by her own admission. I caught Veni chatting voraciously with a few other residents of the community one evening, about regional sweets. I am not sure whether the discussion had a probable sweet inclination because of the Kolkata influence in her or was it me lurking in the background trying to get a confirmed place in my new friendship circle and manifesting a topic that I could partake in effortlessly. Did Tamilians, like Bengalis, discuss sweets for hours, I wondered! Veni and her family – her husband Swami, their two cute little boys and her parents, welcomed me wholeheartedly into their home when she heard I wanted to learn how to cook the Sakkarai Pongal. This was a special sweet cooked with newly harvested nice, moong dal and sugarcane jaggery. Traditionally, it was cooked in an urli or a claypot in the courtyard, the sun god being a witness. The idea was to have the porridge overflowing as that heralded an overflowing abundance while everyone shouted Pongalo Pongal… may this rice boil over!
I had to reach at 7:30 in the morning as Veni’s mother planned to cook a few dishes for breakfast. Veni had already mentioned that her mother didn’t follow the traditional method of cooking sakkarai pongal in the urli and used a pressure cooker instead, to fast track the preparation. Aunty reminded me of my mum-in-law… very hands on and at the helm of their kitchen. Their kitchen was a cleverly revamped space that combined both modern aesthetics and regional cooking requirements. Aunty spoke to me in Bengali and rebuked me occasionally “eyije dekho” / look here, instructing me to bring back my attention to her cooking rather than chat away with Veni. Along with the sakkarai pongal, our breakfast menu consisted of the savoury vadas and ven pongal to be served with sambar, coconut chutney and multiple refills of filter coffee. Aunty shared her culinary wisdom with me – how to use the grated jaiphal and the edible camphor to sakkarai pongal sparingly or to mix a bit of regular sugarcane jaggery to the special sugarcane jaggery to sakkarai pongal as the latter could lend a salty taste at times. While Aunty was occupied with stirring and “steering” the preparation of the dishes by standing infront of the gas stove, Veni provided prompt assistance in clearing away pots and pans, or whizzing away fresh coconut in the mixie to make the coconut chutney. I learnt that Aunty’s family had been settled in Kerala and her cooking was occasionally influenced by the Malabari style of cooking. Like every family recipe, each family had their own tweaks to the same recipe. But I guess like all mothers’ cooking, Aunty’s preparations too, won the hearts of everyone in this family. Veni’s husband Swami, loved his mum-in-law’s version of sambar. Post my cooking session at Veni’s, I was contemplating whether I should include sambar in my lunch menu at home with a store bought sambar masala that was already there in my pantry. I was advised not to fuss so much about whether I had certain vegetables at home. Any vegetable that was stocked in the refrigerator, could easily go into the sambar, only once in while.
Veni addressed me as “Didibhai”, an endearing term for an elder sister in Bengali and her two little boys had something or the other to share every few moments, with their new found friend “Ishita Aunty”. To my utter surprise, each boy sang two Tagore songs… Rabindrasangeets, for me… “ami chini go chini tomare, ogo bideshini” and “jodi tor daak shune keu na ashe, tobe ekla cholo re”. Their Bengali pronunciation and renditions were perfect as though they were thoroughbred Bengalis. Veni apparently sung these to the boys as bedtime lullabies! Every artwork in their house had some story and as we had a long adda at their long dining table, even the dining table seem to have a story. The wooden top was recycled out of Kilpauk post office and all the wood that was used in their house was recycled. I felt very much at home and welcomed with a lot of affection and warmth. Inspite of that, I wanted to know whether traditional Pongal meals were a family affair or whether the celebrations called in for bigger gatherings like other Indian festive celebrations, for example Diwali or Eid. Families celebrated Pongal at their respective homes, although Veni and Swami celebrated with guests when they lived in Mumbai. They were very happy to have me, the first guest at their home during Pongal after three years. In fact, Swami shared how he missed out on Pongals all these years, as he was usually in Dubai on work at this time of the year. And guess which was his favourite restaurant ? Ravis’s ofcourse… much like the Bearded Biker!
Once Aunty finished cooking, an assortment of prasad, an offering went directly off the gas stove to the deities in their prayer room. Veni pampered me with a platter and guided me to the best spots in her dining room and in the garden for natural lighting. She seemed to be an Instagram pro, appearing enthusiastically in my video and presenting the platter with a Pongal greeting. While we all ate together, much like most mums, Aunty didn’t join us and was busy serving us. Each dish was delicious. The vadas were undoubtedly one of the best I’d ever tasted, incredibly soft and fluffy from the inside and at the same time deliciously crispy from outside. The sambar tasted very different from the ones I had tasted before in most of the South Indian restaurants in Dubai. I think, it was the variety and freshness of vegetables and Aunty’s secret which probably did the trick. A take away parcel of the sakkarai pongal accompanied me back home, which led to a bit of change in my menu plans… all for good!
A glimpse of tradition at Subha’s
I had also wanted to witness the traditional preparation of sakkarai pongal, the overflowing of milk as the rice, dal and jaggery slow cooked on fire in a pot. Subha came from the Chettiar family and for them the celebration of Pongal as a festival was huge. She and her family celebrated Pongal in the traditional way. I had reached out to her and although I had an open invite, I missed out on the timing and the actual ceremonial preparation. The kolam, the traditional floor artwork done with rice powder in Subha’s kitchen was intricate and beautiful. There were two pots in which sakkarai pongal had been cooked ~ one by her and the other one by her husband. Subha explained the process and showed me how she had offered prasad. She led me to their beautiful puja room, which was adorned with deities created in Tanjore artwork. She served the food on banana leaf which was then placed on the traditional weaved tray that was used to clean the rice. Subha welcomed me to join them for lunch, saying that the food was very different and extremely authentic. As much as I was enticed with her lunch invite, I was too full from the breakfast. Although my heart said that Subha’s invite was too good to miss, my brain guided me elsewhere… to my home to prepare lunch as it was already noon.
When a burst of colours hit the roads and floors
I took a small detour to the local market just outside our community gate. There were many vendors selling sugarcane plants and turmeric plants – the Pongal tradition called for decorating the entrance with both these plants, the sugarcane and turmeric representing sweetness and savoury respectively. Both in food and life, I guess! On my way back, a quick walk around the community presented me with an array of different kolams that adorned the entrance doorways. There were pulli kolams, the dotted designs as well as some colourful ones. A few #fromwhereistand shots for my Instagram were ready and I scooted home to don my apron for downloading my morning’s culinary knowledge at the earliest.
Embracing the sensory overloads of Chennai wholeheartedly
The sights of flower vendors or women wearing brightly coloured saris with fresh flowers in their hair, I have embraced all these sensory overloads wholeheartedly. The day before moving into our new home which fell on Diwali, I stopped by the road to buy some flowers. The flower lady insisted on putting some flowers on my hair too, taking out a hair clip from a secret chamber. The Universe must have heard my heart’s desire to decorate our home with flowers on a regular basis. Lady Priya, the lovely part-timer who’s come into my life works in the temple in the mornings, setting out rangolis with flower petals and manages her sister’s flower shop in the evenings. Every Monday, she brings in fresh flowers from the local wholesale market, which she offers me at cost price. Their fragrances last for a few days, specially a variety of rose called the pannir rose. Sometimes she strings the flowers into garlands or sets them on silver plates. We place them all around the home, sprinkling a bit of rose water. When she is lucky enough to catch hold of a bounty from the flower market, we decorate a large uruli with flowers and tea lights floating in water. Every time we do that, the traditional uruli, a family heirloom from Bearded Biker’s side, or our Jordanian ceramic bowl adorned with silver filigree, acquires a different dimension altogether rather than lying on the coffee table as mere showpieces. Even the Royal Jasmine, one of the many varieties of jasmine, blooming in our garden or Rangana, the geranium gracing our community gardens are subtle reflections of nature’s colourful bounty that surround us in our new home.
Finally at home for Sappadu
My initial plan for our lunch menu was to make the chakarai pongal at home. I had instructed our wonderful cook Lady Priya accordingly, to make a vegetable dish the day before. It was to pair with steaming hot rice and ghee and I intended to serve on banana leaf. Aunty’s parcel of sakkarai pongal acted as a boon in disguise. I cooked a quick sambar and the savoury ven pongal that I had learnt in the morning. The kāykaṟi kirēvi, or a vegetable gravy cooked in a claypot by Lady Priya, added a rustic charm to our lunch set up. Aunty’s sakkarai Pongal deserved special spotlight, hence I took out the silver spoons and bowls from my treasured collection. I also placed sugarcane sticks and turmeric plants in front of our puja room and offered a prasad of the ven pongal that I had cooked.
Festive celebrations mean a lot to me. I don’t believe much in rituals but I believe and respect the immense faith that brings people together. Whether it is Bijoya Dashami or Christmas, we have always celebrated them at home so that the Z-Sisters may have some special memories that will anchor them in their respective journeys in life. All these months, I have missed being with my parents and parents-in-laws, so learning to cook with Aunty and chatting with Veni’s father as we celebrated Pongal over breakfast, felt indeed very special. Pongal is celebrated over a few days, each day marking something special. I may or may not be able to learn any more new dishes, or visit another home… but this memory will last me a lifetime. May all the seasons continue to overflow with abundance and give us many reasons to smile!
Unblogging it all… Ishita
Some posts from my recent Chennai Chapter: Finally calling Chennai home Homemade spicy Chicken 65 Chicken Chettinad cooked in a claypot
Disclaimer: This isn’t a sponsored post, nor are there any affiliated links for any of the brands that may have been mentioned in this blogpost. The subject, story, opinions and views stated here are my own and all images are from my personal album. While you enjoy reading my posts with lot of visuals, please do not use any material from these posts.
* The recipe is guided by Aunty’s home style cooking of Sakkarai Pongal, that I had jotted down.
1 cup rice (new harvest rice Pongal raw rice is available in stores. Aunty used Gobinbdobho, a special rice that Bengalis use for making payesh)
1 cup moong dal
¼ cup sugarcane jaggery, powdered
16 cardamoms, powdered
jaiphal or nutmeg, grated (a pinch)
½ cup milk
1 cup cashews
¼ cup raisins
4 tbsp ghee
1 cup rice (new harvest rice Pongal raw rice is available in stores. Aunty used Gobinbdobho, a special rice that Bengalis use for making payesh)