Tamil Nadu might be one of the most urbanised large states in India, but Pongal is one festival that is best experienced in the state's rural or semi urban centres. Like most harvest festivals across India, Pongal coincides with the beginning of the six-month northward journey of the sun. The entire festivities last four days (usually January 13-16 or 14-17) and similar to the extended pujo weekend in West Bengal, the entire state gets into festive mode. Pongal marks the beginning of the Tamil month of Thai (pronounced as 'thigh') that follows the auspicious month of 'Margazhi'. The Margazhi month typically runs from December 15 to January 14. It isn't just a month of special prayers but also a time when most temples offer special delicacies to the presiding deities.
My childhood memories of Pongal revolve around the aromas of Akkaravadisal wafting waft through my house. Of course, Pongal in Tamil Nadu's urban centres like Chennai pales incomparison with the festivities in rural centres that bring entire communities together as they offer thanks for a bountiful harvest.
"The ghee from the hand should trickle down to the elbow" - the Akkaravadisal, a milky sweet Pongal gets a mention in the Naalayira Divya Prabandham, a set of 4,000 (hence the name Naal Ayiram) hymns sung in praise of Lord Vishnu and his many forms. The Akkaravadisal is served as a prasadham (prasad) at the Sri Ranganatha Swamy Temple in Srirangam especially on the auspicious occasion of Panguni Uthiram. It is also made on Koodaravalli, the 27th day of Marghazi, a few days before Pongal at temples and many homes in Tamil Nadu.
Akkaravadisal is a combination of akkaram - a word used for sweet or jaggery while vadisal refers to the slow cooking process of boiling the ingredients. If there's one thing that I learned watching my mom make this dish on Pongal and other festivals, it is the art of patience in the kitchen. This is slow food at its very best and was invented at a time when the term slow food wasn't a buzzword like it is today. In terms of textures this is probably where a Sweet Pongal meets a Pal Payasam (rice kheer). Rice and moong dal cook in milk on a low flame for over 90 minutes as you add jaggery and other ingredients. It has become common to add condensed milk or khoa to reduce the cooking time but I still stick to the traditional slow cooking method. The dish is flavoured with a hint of spices - usually cardamom. It's also common to add edible camphor.
The key is allowing the rice and moong dal (Paasi paruppu in Tamil) to cook in the milk. You have to keep adding milk - I use a not so traditional non-stick pan, till the rice and dal reach a pasty consistency. My mother's recipe incorporates a few saffron strands, this is not a traditional ingredient used in this dish but adds a nice flavour. You can try this recipe at home, just make sure you have the time and the patience. The end result is certainly worth the effort
Pongal-Special: Akkaravadisal Recipe: How To Make Akkaravadisal
Raw Rice: 100 gms
Moong Dal: 25 gms
Milk: 500 ml - 800 ml
Jaggery: 150 - 200 gm
Ghee 25-50 gm
10-12 almonds finely ground
Saffron: A few strands
Cardamom: 4 pods
Nutmeg powder: a pinch
Cashew nuts: 15
Raisins: a handful
1. Pan fry moong dal with a teaspoon of ghee
2. Clean, wash the rice and add the rice in the same pan along with moong dal and milk and cook on slow fire till the mixture reaches a pasty consistency. Keep adding milk as and when required
3. Add finely powdered jaggery and keep stirring till the jaggery is fully blended with the rice. Now add the almond paste and little milk and stir so the almonds don't get into lumps.
4. Add crushed cardamom and nutmeg in a pan place the ghee when it is heated add cashew and raisins
5. Add saffron to quarter cup milk and mix well. Pour over the mixture. Stir well and serve.
6. Top it with a spoon of ghee just before you serve. You can add more ghee if you'd like a more rich
Happy Pongal 2022!
About Ashwin RajagopalanI am the proverbial slashie - a content architect, writer, speaker and cultural intelligence coach. School lunch boxes are usually the beginning of our culinary discoveries.That curiosity hasn’t waned. It’s only got stronger as I’ve explored culinary cultures, street food and fine dining restaurants across the world. I’ve discovered cultures and destinations through culinary motifs. I am equally passionate about writing on consumer tech and travel.