In Indian cuisine, food is not just material for sustenance; it is a celebration, a way of life. I wrote about Pongal in this post a couple of weeks back. One of the must-have dishes that day is this easy one-pot dessert also called pongal. The word “pongal” literally means “to boil over“. In Indian culture, an overflowing pot of food is considered highly auspicious, a symbol of prosperity and abundant blessings. Milk is boiled and allowed to spill over when you first enter a new home. Newlyweds are gifted cornucopia of fresh fruits and sweets to signify sweet beginnings.
For Pongal, freshly harvested rice and lentils are cooked together, sweetened with jaggery and laced with ghee to make this delicious dessert. That being said, pongal is actually eaten throughout the year, though it does seem to garner more importance around this time. It is one of the most fail-proof dessert recipes ever. The rice, dal, milk, jaggery and ghee combine to make this soul-warming dessert, that is also nutritious to boot.
My husband is someone who watches his intake of rice, so I am constantly coming up with alternatives to our beloved rice dishes. I wanted to try and see if I could substitute some other grain for rice in this sweet pongal. I thought pearl barley would be a good substitute. Barley is more nutritious than white rice and very easy to cook as well. I simply love its texture when cooked, soft and chewy with just a touch of bite to it. Just make sure to use a deep pot, because barley tends to make the water foam a lot while cooking.
For the sweet pongal, pearl barley and a little bit of mung dal are cooked till both the barley and dal are soft. Unrefined cane sugar crystals known as jaggery (chakkara, sakkarai or gur) are dissolved in water and the pongal is sweetened with this syrup. I added freshly powdered cardamom and dried ginger (known as chukku) to flavor the pongal. This is then topped with a generous drizzle of ghee which makes the whole pot of sweet deliciousness glisten golden and smell heavenly. I like my pongal topped generously with cashew nuts and raisins fried in more ghee. I always end up popping those fried cashews into my mouth before they are added to the dessert; that’s chef’s privileges, you see!
I loved how this pongal turned out and can actually see myself whipping up a pot of this more frequently from now on. Pongal is an extremely versatile dish. You can cook the grains entirely in milk or add just a little bit towards the end to make it creamy and rich. You can also make this dessert entirely vegan by adding coconut milk or no milk at all, and substituting ghee with a vegan alternative.
- Pearl barley - ¾ cup, washed and drained
- Mung dal - ¼ cup
- Water - 3 cups
- Jaggery - 1 cup, grated and lightly packed
- Milk - ¼ cup
- Cardamom powder - ½ tsp
- Ginger powder (chukku podi) - ⅛ tsp
- Salt - a small pinch
- Ghee - 4 tbsp, divided
- Cashew nuts - 12
- Golden raisins - 12
- Heat a deep pot or pressure cooker on medium heat. Dry roast the mung dal for a few minutes till you get a nutty aroma.
- Add barley and water to the pot. If using a pressure cooker, cook for 3 whistles on medium-high heat and allow the pressure to be released naturally before opening the lid. If you are using an open pot, cook till the grains are very soft.
- While grains are cooking, take the grated jaggery in a small saucepan and add ¼ cup of water. Dissolve the jaggery in water over medium heat. Set aside.
- Once barley and dal get cooked, open the lid and mash the mixture lightly with a ladle. Strain the jaggery syrup right into the pot. Set the pot on the stove on medium heat and cook till jaggery gets combined with the grains and most of the liquid is absorbed.
- Now add milk, cardamom powder, dried ginger powder and a pinch of salt. Bring to a gentle boil, taste and add more jaggery (or sugar) if needed.
- Spoon in 3 tablespoons of ghee into the hot pongal. Pongal will be very soft and slightly glossy at this point. Remove from heat and keep covered.
- Fry the cashew nuts and raisins in a tablespoon of ghee till golden brown. Add them to the hot pongal, mix and serve. Pongal can be served hot or warm. If you are refrigerating it, slightly re-heat with a few spoons of milk before serving.
2. Jaggery can be found in Indian grocery stores. Traditionally, jaggery would have some impurities and this is why it had to be made into a syrup and strained before use. Nowadays, powdered jaggery is readily available and this can be substituted for jaggery in this recipe. Jaggery ranges in color from a deep red to golden yellow, so the color of the pongal will depend on the type of jaggery you use. If you cannot find jaggery, feel free to use brown sugar.
3. For vegans: Feel free to omit the milk in the recipe or replace it with coconut milk, and substitute ghee with a vegan alternative. Though the taste will not be the same, you will have the same soft creamy texture and get to enjoy this delicious dessert.
Pongal has soft-serve consistency and is excellent for young and old alike. It is a comforting dessert and great for winters. Pongal can also be enjoyed as a sweet breakfast porridge.
Have you tried sweet pongal? Do try this variation using pearl barley. Make some pongal for dessert and breakfast this weekend. Stay warm and stay happy, folks!
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