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 method1 of 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
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.
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