Pongal or Makar Sankranti is a festival celebrated all over India. It goes by different names in different parts of India and the customs in celebrating the festival vary too. This festival is dedicated to the deity Surya (Sun). It is a harvest festival. It marks the first day of the Sun’s transit into Makara (Capricorn), marking the end of the month with the winter solstice and the start of longer days. It usually falls on the 14 or 15 of January. This festival is celebrated with a lot of enthusiasm in farming communities in villages across India with kite flying, bon fires, dancing, and feasts.
Sweet treats using sesame seeds and jaggery, Pongal (both sweet and savory versions), and rice pudding are a few of the treats made during this festival.
Pongal is a savory dish using yellow mung beans (washed and split), rice and a few basic spices like black pepper, ginger, cumin seeds and ghee. It is one variety of khichdi that is very popular in south India. The recipe I shared here is made with red lentils since they are easily available at the Co-op. The taste is very similar to the original Pongal.
I am also sharing the recipe of tomato stew (pulusu) which is my mom’s recipe. It is very simple to make and is a wonderful accompaniment to Pongal. You could also enjoy Pongal with a vegetable raita.
Sesame ladoo is a super simple sweet treat and is a great winter food. Sesame seeds are highly nutritious, warming and calcium rich. These ladoos are made with jaggery (an unrefined cane sugar). I used coconut brown sugar which is available at the Co-op as the texture looked close to jaggery powder. They are very simple to make.
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What you need For Pongal with Red lentils:
½ cup red lentils
½ cup white rice
1 tsp tightly packed finely chopped/grated ginger
1 deseeded jalapeno sliced into thin strips (use as per taste)
12 whole black peppers coarsely crushed (use as per taste)
½ tsp cumin seeds
10-12 curry leaves (optional)
1 pinch asafetida (optional)
2-3 tablespoons ghee (or oil if vegan)
2 cups water for cooking rice and lentils
½ cup water later for adjusting consistency
¼ cup cashews split in half or cashew bits
Salt as per taste
1) Dry roast rice and lentils together for 2 – 3 minutes.
2) Wash thoroughly and soak in water for 20 to 30 minutes (Not necessary but preferred).
3) Prepare the rest of the ingredients.
4) Cook the rice and lentil mixture just like how you cook rice. I use the rice cooker. You can use an instant pot or just cook on stovetop. Stove top instructions: Add 2 cups of water to the washed and drained lentils and rice mix and bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for 12 to 15 minutes till the water is completely absorbed and the rice is cooked.
5) In a pan, add 2 tbsp of ghee, once it is warm, add asafetida, cashews, cumin seeds, coarsely pounded black pepper and once they start sizzling, add curry leaves, jalapenos, and ginger. Once they start sizzling and release their aroma, add the cooked rice and lentils, salt to taste and a quarter cup of water and mix well. Add more water if needed and adjust the consistency. It should have the consistency of porridge. You can make it slightly watery as it will thicken as it cools down. Add more ghee if you like to give it a rich taste. I added another tablespoon of ghee. Enjoy it warm with a raita or a spicy stew.
What you need for Tomato pulusu / stew:
3 tomatoes-medium sized- medium diced
1 big bunch or ½ loosely packed cup cilantro along with stems finely chopped
2 tsp ground spice mix:1 tbsp coriander seeds,1 tsp cumin seeds, 2 tsp whole black pepper, dry roast and grind them in a spice grinder
¼ tsp turmeric
1 tbsp besan / garbanzo flour / rice flour anything to thicken the stew
Salt to taste
Tempering ingredients: a pinch asafetida, ¼ tsp cumin seeds, ¼ tsp mustard seeds, 2 dried red chillies, 10 to 12 curry leaves. (If you do not have these ingredients, 2 big cloves of garlic or 1 tbsp of coarsely chopped garlic and ½ tsp red chili flakes would be amazing in the tempering.)
1 tbsp ghee / oil
1) Add the diced tomatoes in a pot and add enough water to submerge them.
2) Add the chopped cilantro, turmeric and salt and cook till the tomatoes soften.
3) Once the tomatoes are cooked add the ground spice mix and ½ cup water and cook for 3 minutes.
4) Dissolve the besan/ garbanzo flour in ½ cup of water and make sure there are no lumps.
5) Keep the pot on simmer and slowly add the flour water to the pot stirring it gently to ensure there are no lumps, slowly increase the heat to medium and continue stirring for a few minutes till the stew thickens and there is no raw flavor from the flour. Turn off the heat and cover.
6) In a separate small pan, add 1 tbsp oil, when it gets warm add the tempering ingredients or garlic and chili flakes, whatever you have handy and let them sizzle. Add this flavored oil to the pot of stew and cover immediately. Let it rest for a few minutes and give some time for the flavors to infuse into the stew.
7) Enjoy this stew with steamed rice or with Pongal or khichdi.
What you need for Sesame laddus:
1 cup sesame seeds
½ cup or 1/3rd cup coconut sugar (depending on how sweet you would like the ladoos) (Jaggery- an unrefined form of cane sugar is traditionally used)
2-3 cardamom pods
½ to 1 tbsp ghee (optional)
Dry roast sesame seeds in a pan till they warm up for 2 minutes.
In a blender, add sesame seeds, coconut sugar and crushed cardamom and start blending them. The fat in the sesame seeds starts getting released as they are getting crushed. If the mix feels a little dry, add ½ tbsp of melted ghee and blend. Add more ghee if needed. ½ tbsp was enough for me. Blend till it comes together and can be shaped into small balls. Sprinkle a few sesame seeds on top to make them look pretty.
Variation: You could also add ½ cup dry roasted peanuts to this. So ½ cup sesame seeds and ½ cup peanuts and follow the same procedure. I would roast the sesame seeds and peanuts separately.