Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Basic Pongal Or VenPongal (Indian Rice and Mung Bean Risotto)

Pongal is a festival in South India as well as the dish made with the newly harvested rice eaten on that day. Traditionally two types of Pongal are made - savory VenPongal and sweet Shakkara Pongal. Although VenPongal means white pongal, the dish is usually yellow because of the turmeric in it. I make sure to add the wonderful golden turmeric in our Pongal especially since it is known prevent lesions in the brain which are found in people with Alzheimer's disease. I am sure everyone has heard (as it had made headlines sometime ago) that one of the components of turmeric, curcumin, is what apparently prevents the lesions.

Turmeric is one of the spices used daily in Indian cooking as Ayurveda, the ancient science of health from India, says that it has many good health benefits (antioxidant, antiseptic, anti-lesion, etc). According to my grandmother cooking the vegetables with a pinch of turmeric prevents toxins from being formed.

I loved waking up on cool winter mornings with the fragrance of Pongal in the air not only from our kitchen but from the neighbors' kitchens too :)! It is traditionally made all over South India especially during December-January time. Warm, golden Pongal makes a very satisfying and cheery meal with its rib-sticking quality from the perfect amounts of proteins and carbs from rice with mung dal. The knowledge of the ancient sages of India who designed the way we eat are truly amazing as medical science is only now discovering the benefits of eating herbs and spices regularly.

There was just one teeny tiny problem! I would start roasting the dal and before too long the high-pitched keening of the fire alarm would announce in no uncertain terms that someone got distracted in the kitchen! Now, thanks to the oven method, fire alarms no longer jar my family out of their sweet slumber (or burn and waste good dal either :} ).

The oven makes short work of roasting the dal; .... look Ma, no stirring and more importantly - no burning! - very quick and painless indeed. Isn't the oven marvelous :)? I roast a quantity of dal and keep them in an airtight container so I can make Pongal even on a week day!

Pongal is an amazing and healthy food that requires just a few ingredients; the only spices required are turmeric, whole cumin seeds and fresh black pepper.

Rice, Roasted Mung Dal, Cumin Seeds & Black pepper

Makes 6 servings


1/3 cup yellow Mung Dal
1 cup Rice (any type)
1/2 tsp Turmeric
1 tsp Salt or to taste
1 Tbsp Ghee, oil or Butter substitute
2 tsp Whole Cumin Seeds
1 tsp Whole Black Pepper
1/4 cup to 1/2 cup Raw Cashews (Optional)


Sort the dal for stones or discolored beans. Spread in an ungreased baking pan and roast in a 350 degree F oven for about 10 minutes stirring once or twice until golden and fragrant. Remove from oven and let cool. This step can be done a few days ahead. If made ahead, keep the roasted dal in an airtight jar.

This is the time to decide if you would like the Pongal to be fluffy or soft and creamy. We like it on the soft side and some like it fluffy. It is simply a matter of the quantity - the amount of water you add and whether it is stirred a little or a lot.

Heat 4 cups of water for soft pongal ( 3 cups of water for the fluffy type) in a heavy-bottomed 4 or 5 quart (or liter) Dutch Oven or stock pot; you can add more water as required.

While the water is heating, combine the rice and roasted dal and wash thoroughly in several changes of fresh water. Drain in a sieve or strainer with fine mesh and set aside. (I use a large sieve to wash and drain rice or dal as it prevents any loss of even a single grain of either.)

When the water comes to a boil, add turmeric, salt, and the rice mix. Bring to a boil again and then lower the heat to simmer. Stir only once and turn off the heat after 15 minutes if a fluffy product is desired.

Otherwise, cook stirring occasionally until soft and creamy, about 30 minutes or so depending on the heat source and the amount of water. Add a little more boiling water if pongal gets too thick. Cover and set aside.

Crack or coarsely grind the black peppercorns and the whole cumin seeds using a mortar and pestle. Spices can also be left whole; some like to leave the spices whole. I crack them coarsely as our family likes the spices homogeneously mixed into the pongal. Break up cashews by hand into small pieces; cashews separate into halves and break easily.

Heat the ghee in a small pan and add the cashews and cook until the nuts turn pink. Remove them with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Stir in the cumin and black pepper into the hot ghee and when the spices sizzle, add to the pongal.

Stir well and let rest for about 10 minutes. Serve hot sprinkled with the cashews and an extra pat of ghee/butter substitute if desired.

Pongal is traditionally served with an intense, sweet and sour, spicy, saucy dish called Gothsu (made with vegetables, tamarind, and spices), any fresh chutney, and/or any type of Raita.

Note: I love making Pongal with short grain brown rice - brown rice is wonderfully flavorful and healthier than white rice as it provides more protein and fiber. The brown rice needs more liquid though - so I use a total of about 5 cups of water for 1 cup of rice plus the mung dal. Brown rice also takes a little extra cooking time - about 15 minutes more or so.

For a fat free pongal, dry toast the whole peppercorns and cumin seeds until fragrant; cool a little and grind coarsely. Stir into the pongal.

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