Pongal is comfort food for south India’s harvest season – plus the recipe


I stand in my kitchen, in the liminal light between dreams and dawn, trying to contain my delight. Normally, I am a late and grouchy riser but today is Pongal – the harvest festival celebrated across southern India, particularly Tamil Nadu, in mid-January – which gives me the opportunity to eat its namesake food, one that I love.

There are two kinds of pongal: a sweet one made with jaggery (palm sugar) and this savoury ven (white) pongal, a simple dish made with rice and split mung dal. It is a study in restraint, unusual for India and almost Japanese in its minimal use of spices. Heartier than porridge, it is a vegetarian’s chicken soup, the epitome of comfort food. When served along with idlis (steamed rice dumplings) and dosas (thin, crispy pancakes), it forms a perfect south Indian breakfast.

It is also served at wedding breakfasts.

While I lived in New York years ago, my Sunday routine after a night on the tiles was to walk to Pongal restaurant on Lexington Avenue and order copious amounts of it. When I holed up in London for a month to write a piece, I told chef Sriram Aylur of Quilon restaurant that while his Michelin-starred tasting menu was exquisite, what I truly craved was my grandmother’s pongal. “You and me both,” he laughed.

So here I stand in my kitchen, pouring the rice and mung dal into the pressure cooker. I want to have the dish ready before sunrise, so we can worship the sun as we usually do on this day.

A floor decoration of the harvest festival at a Hindu temple. Photograph: Chamila Karunarathne/EPA

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