Easy, Savory Ven Pongal (South Indian Grits)

Easy, Savory Ven Pongal (South Indian Grits)

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Ven Pongal is basically South Indian grits.

I’m not sure if that’s a hot take, but I’ve had a bowl of grits before. It was good – cheesy, creamy, fluffy. Add some lentils and tempered spices, and now you’ve got my attention.

Pongal is a simple rice dish with moong dal and spices.

There are two kinds of Pongal – Ven Pongal (simply referred to as Pongal) and Sakkarai Pongal. Ven Pongal (Ven meaning ‘white’ in Tamil) is savory and Sakkarai Pongal (‘Sakkarai’ meaning sugar in Tamil) is sweet. 

Pongal requires pressure cooking, either in a pressure cooker, which is a staple in most Indian kitchens, or an Instant Pot. This recipe provides instructions for either method. You technically can make ven pongal over the stovetop, but it takes much longer to cook. Is that something y’all are interested in exploring? If so, let us know in the comments, and we’d love to get you a stovetop version in a jiff!

Today’s Pongal recipe is for Ven Pongal – the savory kind.  It is a rice dish cooked with moong dal and spiced with black pepper, cumin, ginger, and curry leaves. The spices are tempered in ghee and give a rich aroma to the dish. The star ingredient is asafoetida. It is added to the rice and lentils right in the beginning which imparts its unique flavor to this dish.  This Pongal is normally eaten with chutney or sambar. Pongal is simple, delicious, healthy and comforting. In fact, it holds some fierce competition with yogurt rice, my other favorite South Indian comfort dish.

Another key ingredient in Ven Pongal is peppercorn. Pepper is actually indigenous to South India, and was a major element in the ancient spice trade. As early as 1,000 BC, pepper has been chronicled as a major trading element. Pepper was so desirable (and costly) in the Silk Road, that European explorers decided to “discover” pepper on their own terms – Christopher Columbus, Vasco de Gama, Sir Francis Drake and their contemporaries sailed the seas looking for pepper. In fact, Columbus brought back shiploads of what he thought was pepper back to Spain, only to find that he brought useless chili peppers instead. So, he’s been wrong a few times…

History

Pongal also refers to the Festival called ‘Pongal’, a multi-day Tamil harvest festival celebrated in mid-January where Tamil households in India, Sri Lanka and across the world are inundated with the aroma of sweet and savory Pongal!  The festival marks the end of the winter solstice, and the pongal was used to celebrate the rice boiling over the stove, akin to the hopeful harvest. Pongal actually means “to boil over”, marking this day as one to celebrate abundance and gratitude.

During the month preceding this festival, Ven Pongal would feature as breakfast in these households, a tradition that my mom followed faithfully. I, however, grimaced at having to eat this porridge every. single. morning! Little did I know back then that the magical consistency and deliciousness my mom so effortlessly crafted was a real treat – and now I try so hard to recreate my mom’s magic every time I make it. Pongal has been a staple in my household, during the Festival and even otherwise.

Spice Mix

Got 30 minutes and want a warm bowl of this smooth Indian rice porridge? Stick with me. I got you. It’s like wrapping yourself up in a warm blanket.

Easy, Savory Ven Pongal (South Indian Dish)

Ven Pongal is a rice dish cooked with moong dal and spiced with black pepper, cumin, ginger, and curry leaves. The spices are tempered in ghee and give a rich aroma to the dish.
Servings 4 people

Ingredients
  

For Pongal:

  • Rice – ½ cup
  • Moong dal – ¼ cup
  • Asafoetida – a pinch
  • Ginger finely chopped – 1 tsp
  • Water – 3 cups
  • Salt as needed

For Tempering:

  • Ghee – 4 tsp
  • Black Peppercorn – 1 tsp
  • Cumin – ¼ tsp
  • Curry leaves – 8 to 10
  • Cashews – 6

Instructions
 

Pressure Cooker Method

  • Wash rice and dal well separately and keep aside.
  • Heat 1 tsp of ghee in a pressure pan or cooker, add chopped ginger and saute for few seconds in low flame.
  • Turn stove to high, add 3 cups of water, rice, dal, asafoetida, salt and cook for 4 whistles.
  • Once the pressure is released, open the cooker and check the consistency.
  • Pongal should be soft and smooth, like oatmeal or porridge would be. When you scoop a ladle of Pongal into a bowl or plate, it should not stick to the ladle. That’s when you know you’ve done it right!
  • If Pongal is dry or thick, add hot water or milk, about ½ a cup, cook on low flame until it gets soft and smooth. Stir occasionally and gently. We do not want a gooey, sticky Pongal here.
  • Heat 1 tsp of ghee* in a small fry pan, add black pepper, cover the pan with a lid and lower the flame. When the pepper begins to splutter, add cumin. Cumin will immediately begin to splutter, add curry leaves and pour the sizzling spices onto Pongal and mix well.
  • Fry cashews in 1 tsp of ghee in low flame until light golden.*
  • Garnish Pongal with the cashews and 1 or 2 tsp of melted ghee on top for that yummy, extra rich flavor!

Instant Pot Method

  • Wash rice and dal well separately and keep aside.
  • Select the saute mode and add ghee. Roast cashews until golden brown in the ghee, and take out of the Instant Pot to set aside.
  • Continue in saute mode and add the ginger. Saute with the remaining ghee for 1 minute.
  • Add rice, moong dal, salt and asafoetida. Stir for one minute.
  • Pour in the water and stir to combine, and then secure the lid.
  • Make sure the pressure valve is set to the Nature Release, Sealing position. Press the Pressure mode and set the time to 10 minutes.
  • Let the Instant Pot naturally release steam. Once you hear the noise, open the lid. Add the cashews back, and add the tempering (tadka) from the sauce pan.

Tempering (Tadka)

  • Once the Pongal has finished cooking, start on the tempering.
  • In a separate small fry pan, heat 1 tsp of ghee* in medium heat.
  • Add black peppercorns and cover the fry pan with a lid. Lower the flame.
  • Once the peppercorn begins to splutter and pop, open the lid and add cumin. Cumin will immediately begin to splutter.
  • Add the curry leaves and turn off the flame. Stir everything together, and immediately pour the sizzling, tempered spices onto the cooked Pongal and mix together.

Notes

  • Always wait until oil or ghee heats up before you add spices. When we add spices to hot oil or ghee, the spices will crackle and pop, burst out with their rich flavor and aroma, and impart them to the oil or ghee used to fry them.
    The order in which the spices are added is important. The spices that are hard go in first.
  • Here, add black pepper first. It is important that the pepper crackles and pops fully. When it crackles, it release its bold flavor, adds nice little crunch to the dish, and tempers the heat down.
  • Then add cumin. Cumin will immediately begin to crackle, so add curry leaves right after adding cumin, turn the stove off, and pour the spices onto the Pongal. This ensures the cumin seeds do not get scorched.
  • To get nice, aromatic and crunchy golden cashews, do not wait until ghee heats up. Add ghee to the fry pan, add cashews and fry in low flame.

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