Indian Pongal:Forging New Bonds in Singapore

Cooking with a friend is the ultimate experience of forging bonds, that is my long-standing belief.

Being a trailing spouse of a diplomat, my stay usually doesn’t exceed a three-year term in any capital we are assigned too.  Every time we are transferred to a new destination, we fearlessly venture outside the expat bubble. We embrace the local culture, find our way around, and forge priceless bonds and friendships.  And before we know,  it is time to pack up and move again.

Despite the painful downsides of nomadic life,  I wouldn’t trade this life for anything.  It helped me grow out of my comfort zone.  Additionally, It has endowed me with a large overseas family that keeps nurturing me in so many ways.  Yet, the ongoing challenge is how to keep those friendships planted across the globe blossoming despite the distance.

Breaking bread with new friends, or even better–cooking with them in my kitchen or their’s, seal the friendship with a unique taste.  And this exactly when food blogging comes to rescue those precious moments from fading out under the weight of ruthless time and unforgiving distance.

Uma is the first friend I made in Singapore.  She also happens to be a trailing spouse. Yet,  in her own right, she is an engineer/telecom consultant turned math teacher at the most acclaimed International schools.

We both met at the gym of the serviced apartments where we stayed in until our homes were ready to receive us.  Our first coffee extended way longer than we expected, as it entailed heartfelt accounts of two nomadic moms, raising third culture kids.

Being a seasoned expat mom herself, she shared her tips for kids’ smooth transition and adjustment to their new surroundings.

Uma generously accepted to contribute with one of her traditional Indian recipes to Chez Nermine when I threw the idea out there a month ago.  For a more prolific experience, she took me on a fascinating food shopping experience in the Little India district.

As its name suggests, Little India is the heart of Singapore’s Indian community and unparalleled food mecca.  Under one roof, all Indian pantry staples are abundantly available.

Little India is vibrant, colorful, and buzzing with life.  Its bucolic streak paints a stark contrast to the pedicured, swanky profile of the Singaporean capital.

When Uma and I arrived there, the district was in festive mode, getting ready to celebrate Pongal.

Pongal is a three-day Hindu harvest festival celebrated in Tamil Nadu, a southern state in India.  However, the harvest festival is celebrated under different names in different parts of the country.

After the harvest of rice, sugar cane and turmeric, Pongal is observed at the start of the month according to the Tamil solar calendar, and this is typically between January 14 to January 17.

Turmeric Leaves and Roots

The festival is named after the ceremonial “Pongal”, which means “to boil and overflow”.  There is a savory as well as a sweet version of the Pongal dish.

To mark the festival, the Pongal with its both versions is prepared and first offered to God Indra, and then shared with family and friends.

Two days after this memorable food shopping experience,  I was on the 25th floor in Uma’s bright kitchen, to write down and photoshoot all the steps of that exotic dish Pongal.

A lovely display of the Pongal ingredients

 

Pongal Traditional Recipient

Pongal is cooked in a typical Indian bronze pot on the stovetop.  Rice and lentils are the common ingredients among the savory and the sweet dish.

While the savory version calls for curry leaves and pepper-cumin powder, the sweet one includes freshly grated coconut, cashews, raisins, and saffron.

Umma started mixing the rice and lentils together and rinse them a few times with tap water until the water ran clear.

In a frying pan, on low medium heat, she toasted both the lentils and rice mixture.

When all the liquids were evaporated and the rice-lentil mixture became fragrant, she transferred it to the bronze Pongal pot.

She added the milk and water and let the rice-lentil mixture cook to a semi-porridge consistency.

According to her, it is ok to blend tradition with technology boon and use the instant pot (Instapot) to faster cook the semi-porridge. 

 

To make the savory Pongal: Uma fried the in sizzling ghee the cumin-pepper powder to bring out the flavors.  She added the fragrant spices to the curry leaves and then to the cooked rice-lentil mixture, in addition to the cashews and saffron.

To make the sweet Pongal,  Uma added the Shagar (raw sugar) to melt with some water in the bronze pot, when it started to bubble, she added the coconut, saffron, and the cashew.  To finish up the dish, she drizzled a few spoons of ghee.

 

Mission accomplished!  When the two dishes were announced done, we headed to her wide 25th-level terrace with a marveling glare at the picturesque Singaporean skyline.  On the terrace floor, Uma plated a feast to the birds–different types of rice served on fresh banana leaves. “We have to take care of nature, so nature takes care of us”, she said smiling.

Feeding birds with different types of rice. “We should take care of nature, so nature would take care of us.”, Uma said.

We sat at a beautiful festive table to enjoy Pongal in its two versions (savory and sweet).  The festive table and the fragrant essence complemented the memorable, delectable meal accentuated with pungent spices, toasted nuts, and the unmistakable sweet hint of ghee.

Uma served with the savory dish, a type of vegan donuts made out of lentil flour to soak up the fiery tantalizing chutneys (coconut chutney and coriender-mint chutney) that accompany the Pongal.

Thank you, Uma for such a memorable and unique food experience.

Indeed, a day spent in the kitchen of a good friend is probably the finest dining experience.

In Uma’s Kitchen

I. Savory Pongal

6 servings

INGREDIENTS:

  • ½ cup of rice
  • 1/3 cup split green gram lentil
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 cup milk
  •  1-inch fresh ginger, grated
  • 2 teaspoons of cumin, coarsely crushed
  • 2 teaspoons  (coarsely crushed)
  • 1/4 cup cashews split in half
  • 10 to 12 leaves curry leaves
  • 4-5 tablespoons of ghee.  (can be adjusted, more or less depending on how rich you want it)
  • Salt- as needed

DIRECTIONS

  1. Mix the rice and the lentil.  Rinse a few times using tap water, until water runs clear. Toast the mixture on low heat in a wok until the lentil rice mixture gets fragrant.
  2. Transfer the rice-lentil to the Pongal bronze pot,  add the water and milk,  and bring it to a boil.
  3. Once it boils, reduce the heat to medium, and let it cook for another 20 minutes until it reaches a porridge consistency.  Stir it every now and then to prevent the rice-lentil mixture from sticking to the bottom of the pan. As a practical alternative, feel free to use the pressure cooker or the Instapot.
  4. Fry the cashews in ghee on low flame until it is fragrant and toasted and set aside.
  5. To bring out the flavors of the spices, heat one tablespoon of ghee on low flame, add the coarsely crushed cumin-pepper powder, freshly grated ginger, and curry leaves and add it to the Pongal.
  6. Add the salt, cashews, and ghee. Mix all the ingredients together.
  7. To finish the dish, add 3 to 4 tablespoons of ghee and mix again.
  8. Serve hot.

II. Sweet Pongal

Serves: 6

Sweet Pongal

Preparation Time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes

INGREDIENTS:

  • ½ cup of rice, Massori or Ponni rice
  • 1/3 split green gram lentil
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup of jaggery (raw sugar)
  •  1/4 cup fresh grated coconut
  • 10 to 12 cashews, split into halves
  • 2 tablespoons of raisins.
  • 4 to 5 tablespoons ghee (more or less depends on how rich you want the dish to be)
  • A pinch of saffron
  • 1/2 tablespoon of ground cardamom

DIRECTIONS

  1. Mix the rice and the lentil.  Rinse a few times using tap water, until water runs clear. Toast on low heat in a wok until the lentil rice mixture gets fragrant.
  2. Transfer this to the Pongal bronze pot,  add the water and milk, and bring it to a boil.
  3. Once it boils reduce the heat to medium,  and let it cook for another 20 minutes until it reaches a porridge consistency.  Stir it every now and then to prevent the rice-lentil mixture from sticking to the bottom of the pan. As a practical alternative, feel free to use the pressure cooker or the Instapot.
  4. Fry the cashews and raisins separately in ghee on low flame in a small frying pan and keep aside.
  5. In the Pongal pot, add one tablespoon of water and jaggery and bring it to a boil till the jaggery
    melts and bubbles. Add the grated coconut, ground cardamom, cashew, raisins, and saffron and stir for a couple of minutes. Add the cooked rice- lentil to this and cook for 4 to 5 minutes on medium heat.
  6. Add 4 to 5 tablespoons of ghee to finish the dish.
  7. Serve hot.

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Former diplomat | Travel & Food Writer | Stauch advocate of Culinary Diplomacy. Find more here: https://cheznermine.com/about/

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