I always feel a little sheepish about discussing Indian foods. Obviously, I am not Indian nor do I have a long, rich history with this cuisine. Until a 2009 trip to Delhi and Rajasthan, my understanding came from the cookbooks of Madhur Jaffrey and local Indian restaurants. What I lack in background, though, I make up for with my passion for the country and its diverse, vegetarian-friendly cooking. Whenever I try an intriguing, new dish there, one that I may not find back in the States, I track down the recipe so that I can make it on my own. The latest of these at-home recreations is South Indian ven pongal.
During a recent trip to Chennai Air India had offered a scoop of ven pongal as part of my in-flight, vegetarian meal. The hotel where I stayed also served it as part of its breakfast buffet. After trying and liking it on the plane, I made a beeline for it at the buffet table. For the next eight mornings I skipped the glazed, fruit-filled pastries and pancakes and ate this hot, savory dish instead. Me skip sweets? That alone should tell you how good ven pongal is.
Ven pongal begins with rice and split yellow mung beans or moong dal. The two are boiled together until soft and then mashed with a spoon until smooth. Generally, Indian cooks use pressure cookers to prepare the rice and dal. Since I don’t own a pressure cooker, I put the rice, dal and water in a heavy bottomed pot and bring the ingredients to a boil over high heat. Once the water has boiled, I clamp on a lid, reduce the heat to medium and let the ingredients simmer away until all the water has been absorbed. The pot method takes a bit longer but the result will be the same. Plus, you don’t have to buy and store another piece of kitchen equipment.
In South India ven pongal is considered a breakfast dish. Because of its hearty consistency, I’ve begun to use it as a side dish as well. Its nutty, mildly garlicky flavor goes beautifully with fish and shellfish. Its complex flavor and abundance of protein also make it a pleasant main course.
The ingredients in ven pongal are fairly straightforward. With the exception of ghee and asofoetida powder, you should be able to find all at your local supermarket. If you can’t locate ghee, substitute clarified butter. As for asofoetida, this spice appears frequently in Indian recipes. Derived from fennel, it adds a mellow, garlic flavor to foods. If you don’t have an Asian market near you, replace the asofoetida with garlic powder. If you do go with garlic powder, I’d suggest increasing the amount to 1/4 teaspoon in the following recipe.
SOUTH INDIAN VEN PONGAL
1/3 cup moong dal
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons white rice
3 1/2 cups water
1 teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted, divided
1/8 teaspoon asofoetida powder
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons ghee or clarified butter
1 teaspoon black peppercorns, crushed lightly with the back of a spoon
12 to 14 whole cashews
In a small frying pan over medium heat toast the moong dal until it releases its aromas, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Place the dal and rice in a colander. Rinse under cold running water and drain thoroughly.
Place the cumin seeds in the frying pan and toast over medium heat for about 1 minute, until the aromas are released. Remove from heat and place half of the seeds in a large, heavy bottomed pan.
Add the rice, dal, water, asofoetida, ginger and salt to the pan and bring the ingredients to a boil over high heat. Once the water has begun to boil, place a tight fitting lid on the pot, reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 16 to 20 minutes, until all the water has been absorbed and the rice and dal are very soft. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside, leaving the lid on the mixture.
Heat the olive oil and ghee in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the remaining cumin seeds, peppercorns and cashews and cook for 1 minute.
Using a spoon or spatula, mash the rice and dal together until smooth. Add the mixture to the frying pan and stir together until well combined. Serve warm.