Is there any particular dish that you abhorred in your childhood, but have found a new appreciation for later on? Well, tell me about it. I have a long list of such foods. Ven pongal is one. It is a simple savory rice and lentil dish infused with lots of ghee and cooked to a creamy, almost mushy consistency. It is a popular breakfast dish in Tamil Nadu. My dad loves it, but mom was limited to making it only occasionally as I absolutely loathed it back then.
It was only later when I started cooking for my little Boy that I realized the importance and goodness of many traditional recipes. Ven pongal is prepared with any short grained white rice and moong dal (dehusked split bengal gram). For those of you not familiar with it, this is what the dal looks like. It is one of the many nutritious lentils used extensively in Indian cooking.
The rice and lentils are cooked in milk (or in water) till very soft and creamy. A generous dollop of ghee is what basically makes this dish, though you can substitute a part of it with oil if you wish. But I wouldn’t advise leaving the ghee out entirely. Pongal is nutritious, light and not spicy at all. It is tempered with cumin seeds, whole black pepper corns and curry leaves. If you want a little spice, you can coarsely grind the pepper corns. Ven pongal is usually served with coconut chutney or sambar and is best eaten fresh and piping hot. If you are wondering about the prefix ‘ven’ I’ve been using, it simply means ‘white’ and refers to the color of this dish. There is another sweet variety of golden/amber colored pongal made with rice and jaggery called sarkarai pongal, sort of like a thick kheer or pudding. Now that one, I used to like when I was little!
Since I was serving this healthy pongal, I decided to indulge in some masala vadai/vada to go with it. Masala vada or paruppu vada are deep-fried spicy lentil fritters. It is usually made with chana dal (split chickpeas), but I decided to use moong dal this time. The dal is soaked to be softened and ground coarsely along with spices of choice, then small round patties are formed and deep-fried. Forming perfect round patties is an art form I have yet to master and mostly don’t have the patience for. So I simply scooped a little batter with my fingers and dropped them in the oil. And ta-da, you have perfect one or two bite vadas!
Whenever a snack like vada or pakoda needs to be deep-fried, keep a few points in mind. For one, the batter must be thick and not have more water than absolutely required, this is to avoid sputtering. Also, the oil needs to be very hot when you drop in the batter, then the heat can be reduced to medium while the vada cooks. This ensures the outer crust is crunchy and the inside is perfectly cooked and soft. If the heat is too high throughout, the vada will simply burn and brown too fast. So keep the heat high when you drop in the batter, then reduce it to medium while they cook and can be removed. Increase the heat again while dropping in the next batch of batter and repeat.
VEN PONGAL (SOUTH INDIAN SAVORY RICE & LENTIL DISH)
You will need:
- Rice – 1 cup (any short grained white rice, typically raw rice is used)
- Moon dal (split bengal gram) – 1/2 cup
- Salt – as per taste
- Milk – 1 cup
- Water – 4 cups
- Ghee – 3 tbsp (use half oil and half ghee, if you wish)
- Whole black pepper corns – 1 tbsp
- Cashew nuts – 6-8
- Cumin seeds – 1/2 tsp
- Curry leaves – a few
- Asafoetida powder – a pinch
- Wash the rice and moong dal in water 2-3 times or till the water runs relatively clear. Drain well and keep aside.
- In a large, deep pan or pressure cooker, heat the ghee (or ghee and oil). Add pepper corns and cashew nuts. When the cashew nuts turn golden, add the rest of the tempering ingredients and remove from heat. Remove the nuts and curry leaves with a slotted spoon and keep aside.
- Place the pan back on heat and add milk, water and enough salt. Add the washed and drained rice and dal. Bring to a gentle boil, reduce heat, cover and cook till all the water is absorbed and the grains are fully cooked and very soft. If using an Indian style pressure cooker, cook on medium heat for 4 whistles, allow the pressure to release naturally and open the lid.
- Add the reserved curry leaves and cashew nuts. Add a small spoon of ghee also and mix gently till well combined.
- Serve hot with coconut chutney, sambar or both.
- I tempered the ghee first and used the leftover ghee to cook the pongal. This is easier and also adds more flavor to the dish, in my opinion.
- You can cook the pongal in more milk and lesser water too.
MASALA VADAI/VADA (SPICY LENTIL FRITTERS)
You will need:
- Moong dal (split bengal gram) – 1 cup
- Whole dried red chilies – 2-3, de-seeded
- Onion – 3-4 tbsp, finely chopped
- Ginger – a small piece, finely chopped
- Curry leaves – a few, finely chopped
- Salt – as per taste
- Rice flour or chickpea flour (besan) – a few teaspoons, if needed
- Oil – for deep frying
- Wash the moong dal in water 2-3 times and soak in water for 3 hours. The dal should be softened or else the fritters will be very hard. If you do not have that much time, soak the dal in hot water and cover the vessel. Keep it undisturbed for at least an hour.
- Drain the moong dal well. In a blender, coarsely grind the dal without adding any water.
- Take the dal in a mixing bowl and add the rest of the ingredients and mix well. Add a little rice or chickpea flour if the batter seems too wet.
- Heat oil in a frying pan or wok. Form small patties with the batter or simply pop in small balls of the batter when the oil is hot. Reduce heat to medium and fry the fritters till golden brown. Repeat till all the batter is used up.
- Drain the fried fritters in paper towels and serve warm.
- Use chana dal in place of moong dal or a combination of both.
- If you are apprehensive about the chilies, feel free to omit them or add just one.
Enjoy these lovely and easy recipes and let me know what you think.
Do you have new appreciation for traditional recipes? Were you or someone you know a picky eater when young? Do share.
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