A celebration of rice

Growing up in the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, there is not a day I recall when I did not eat rice in some form, and there were days when I ate it more than once. Nevertheless, every year there was one day during the month of January, when rice was truly celebrated.



Below, is a methodof preparing, milagu pongal, a rice and lentil based dish with black pepper and cumin as the main spices.


Split green gram lentils (referred to as moong dal in an Indian store)

Whole black peppercorns


Chopped ginger

Curry leaves

Clarified butter

Cashew nuts

Asafoetida (optional)


Clean, and presoak lentils and rice separately in the proportion one to two, respectively, for about an hour in water. Drain and partially cook lentils in water in the proportion two parts water to one part rice and lentils. When lentils are partially cooked, add rice and continue cooking until soft and most of the water has evaporated. Mash the mixture gently to reach desired consistency. In a separate pan, heat clarified butter to lightly fry a few curry leaves, thin strips of ginger, cashew nuts and a pinch of asafetida before adding this seasoning mixture to the cooked lentils and rice. Stir the entire mixture with enough freshly ground black pepper and cumin to taste. Season with salt and finish with some clarified butter before serving.

Milagu Pongal

Pongal is a traditional harvest festival when the farmer thanks everything that helped materialize his harvest, and takes pleasure to celebrate it. In Tamil, pongal means to overflow. On Pongal day, it is common practice for people in Tamil Nadu, farmer or not, to gather around a pot of boiling rice, to wait for it to rise up to the brim, and then to say in unison, Pongal – o – Pongal!  Rice is the focus, but the moment becomes more than that.



1. Adaptation of  Mrs. Sasi Devi's recipe

15 thoughts on “A celebration of rice

    1. Bala

      Post author

      I think the milk solids in butter (which sediment to the bottom as butter is heated slowly) tend to brown easily, and hence it is more challenging to lightly fry the listed ingredients in butter. However, if careful, butter should be just fine, and it will probably add some more flavor.

  1. Sudha Sankar

    Pongalo-Pongal to you and yours Bala!!! May there be an abundance in your home and may we never forget how grateful we are to mother Earth for all that she provides for our sustenance and pleasure.
    I actually think of "chakara" sweet pongal when I think of the Pongal celebration. My kids (and sometimes their American friends) growing up in Connecticut got together in the cold month of January to thank mother earth and the Sun god. We made the sweet pongal… The children were told to cheer “Pongalo-Pongal” every time the pot boiled or brimmed over.
    This is an easy preparation with a lot of theater…
    I boil equal parts of milk and water, wait for the pot to boil over (kids chant “Pongalo-Pongal”)
    Then add half the quantity of white rice and wait for this to boil over (“Pongalo-Pongal”)
    Lower the temperature and let the rice to fully cook and add same quantity of jaggery to the top. Wait for the sugar to melt and bubble (“Pongalo-Pongal”)
    Stir in equal portion of ghee, clarified butter, spice with powdered cardamom, and garnish with butter roasted raisins and cashews (“Pongalo-Pongal”)
    This pot was decorated with flowers and we ceremoniously took it outside to see if we could spot the sun in the cold Connecticut sky. In any case we gave thanks to the sun, the earth and our friends and enjoyed the sweet pongal (“Pongalo-Pongal”)!
    This has become the tradition in my house where we celebrate over my Jennaire stove. My desperately improvised traditions bring my South Indian Pongal with some familiar smells, tastes and sounds to this New England home. I do not get to cook my Pongal as my mother does every year in her farm in Tamil Nadu. She celebrates the tradition by cooking the pongal in a terracotta pot, over open fire, in the specially dug fire place in her courtyard, with freshly harvested rice, using new jaggery from the sugar mill. The courtyard is bedecked by festoons of mango leaves and coconut palms with sugar cane and freshly harvested paddy. The women are in there vibrant colored saris and serve the Pongal onto green banana leaves… This is the South Indian farmer’s “Thanksgiving” to celebrate the recent harvest.
    “Pongalo-Pongal”. May there be abundance in your hearth and home!

    1. Bala

      Post author

      Thank you for taking the time to share in detail your lovely Connecticut tradition and memories of your mother. Chakara pongal is a definite childhood favorite of mine. Pongal-o-Pongal to you and all your near and dear ones!

  2. Great post Bala, thank you.

    When I read about Pongal I immediately thought about Tu Bishvat holiday which will start tonight! Tu Bishvat is a Jewish holiday, occurring on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat (this year Tu Bishvat will start at sunset on January 15th and will end at nightfall on January 16th). It is also called "New Year of the Trees." It's the harvest festival and Jews all over the world celebrate it both as an agricultural festival and also as an ecological awareness day. Trees are planted in celebration and families/communities gather around a table where the Seven Species (associated with the Land of Israel in the Torah), =Wheat, Barley, Grapes, Figs, Pomegranates, Olives and Dates are eaten.

    The world is in fact soo small with different cultures and similar traditions... Happy Pongal! Sibel.

    1. Bala

      Post author

      Thank you, Sibel. It was very interesting to learn about Tu Bishvat - thank you for sharing. The similarity in traditions among different cultures is indeed wonderful to realize.

      Happy Pongal! Happy Tu Bishvat!


    My distinct thought during my childhood about Pongal is new clothes,my mother single handed would prepare an elaborate spread of chakkaria pongal, ven pongal,vadai and payasam offer it to God on a banana leaf. The family gathered to pray. The food was first offered to crows and then we feasted. At that time I simply followed the practice but now know the significance, Sharing with not only friends but with other living beings. My father's pride and joy was in getting the pongal made from the rice from the fresh harvest from our village. I clearly remember being seated next to my father on the table and his passing on the cashewnuts and raisins to me from his plate. This tradition passed on and this time it was Pavithra who got the pampering from my father.

    1. Bala

      Post author

      Wonderful to hear about your memories of Pongal with your father and mother. And, yes, when I was young I remember ensuring that I got a ladle of chakara pongal packed with cashew nuts in it.

  4. Malar

    Hi Bala, read your interesting article on pongal.living in Boston now ,I really missed out eating and celebrating pongal . Your article brought back so many fond memories . The day after pongal is maatu pongal when we celebrate a special. Pooja for cows throughout tamilnadu.it is so much fun to watch the cows painted, decked with flowers with bells jingling being paraded in their towns.. We have a cow at my house in chennai. And we enjoy celebrating by making sweet pongal for the cow named jaya. (Because she shares her birthday with our c m jayalalitha). The milkman who has been working with us for so many years gets new clothes on this day.
    Long live our traditions

    1. Bala

      Post author

      Thank you, Mrs.Jayapratap. Your maatu pongal tradition sounds wonderful, and reminds me of the cows my grandmother used to take care of in her house in Madras when I was very young. It was also nice to read about the milkman tradition you have had for so long.


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