The auspicious occasion of Pongal/Sankranti is celebrated today, January 14. The five-day-long events of the customary harvest festival that extend from January 13 to 17 are indeed a grand affair in the South Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Telangana. Though lavish outdoor and indoor celebrations with large gatherings are not permitted this year owing to the rapid spread of COVID-19 infection due to the new omicron variant, people can still celebrate in the comfort of their homes, staying safe and keeping coronavirus at bay.
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Numerous customs and rituals are observed on Pongal/Sankranti, which falls in the solar month of Makara and lunar month of Magha according to the Hindu lunisolar calendar, thereby marking the end of the winter solstice. It coincides with the sun’s northbound shift to the Makara zodiac constellation, thus being called Makar Sankranti and heralding longer, brighter days ahead. Traditional rituals encompass decorating homes with beautiful hand-drawn kolams composed of rice flour, lighting bonfires to burn wastes that metaphorically signifies removing all the negativities in the past. In addition, agricultural communities perform customs to safeguard cows, bovine animals from evil energies, besides flying big kites in vibrant hues. Pongal is also a time to treasure family bonds and values, with sisters chanting prayers to the Almighty for the health and safety of their brothers.
Of course, Pongal/Sankranti is synonymous with a sumptuous feast comprising sweets including Payasam, savoury bites such as vada, rice varieties like tamarind rice, coconut rice, lemon rice, which are prepared at home with fresh ingredients. But the spotlight on the occasion of the harvest festival is Pongal, prepared as both a sweet – Sakkara Pongal and a savoury – Ven Pongal. While these customary recipes are usually prepared with rice, this time around, try making them with millets. These age-old nutrient-dense grains have made a comeback in the past decade, featuring in various staple Indian dishes of khichdi, dosa and rice varieties. While popular millet varieties include ragi/finger millet, bajra/pearl millet, jowar, lesser-known variants of little millet/samai, kodo millet and barnyard millet/kudhiraivali are also packed with nutrition.
These traditional dishes comprise all essential nutrients of proteins, carbohydrates, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals and also supply vital antioxidants to boost immunity and prevent disease, which is rather important in present times of COVID-19.
Barnyard Millet Pongal (Sweet)
1 cup barnyard millet
¼ cup yellow moong dal
1 cup jaggery, powdered
1 tsp elaichi/cardamom powder
3 tbsp ghee
7 – 9 whole cashews, halved
A pinch of edible camphor (pacha karpooram)
Dry roast the barnyard millet and moong dal in a pressure cooker, then 3 – 4 cups water, seal with the lid and pressure cook for 3 whistles.
Lower the flame and allow it to simmer for about 5 minutes, then once the pressure is released, open the cooker and mash the mixture well.
Boil jaggery powder in water and once it dissolves completely, filter the jaggery water into a bowl.
Pour the sweetened concentrated jaggery solution, along with cardamom powder, edible camphor into the pressure cooker containing mashed millet blend.
Cook on medium heat for 3 – 5 minutes, stirring well to prevent lumps.
Heat ghee in a small pan, roast the broken cashews until they turn golden brown and emanate a fragrant aroma.
Top off the sweetened millet blend with roasted cashews and serve the barnyard millet pongal warm after lunch, as a delicious dessert on the harvest festival.
Barnyard millet offers profuse amounts of soluble and insoluble fibres, that regulate appetite, curb untimely cravings and enable smooth bowel movements. It is also rich in iron and zinc for optimal blood circulation and nervous system functioning. Moong dal provides proteins for strong muscles, jaggery supplies calories for instant energy, while ghee is a storehouse of healthy unsaturated fats, vitamins A, E for heart wellness and enhanced eyesight.
Little Millet Pongal (Savoury)
½ cup little millet/samai
2 tbsp moong dal
1 piece ginger, minced
½ tsp turmeric powder
3 tsp ghee
1 tsp whole black pepper seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 green chilli, slit vertically
A bunch of curry leaves
A pinch of asafoetida
Heat ghee in a pressure cooker on medium flame.
Add the whole black pepper seeds and once they begin to crackle, add the cumin seeds, green chili and sauté for 1 – 2 minutes.
Now put in the minced ginger, moong dal and quickly fry for just a minute, then add the little millet.
Pour in 2 cups of water, add a bit of salt as per taste, mix well and let it boil.
Close the pressure cooker and cook for 3 – 4 whistles on medium flame.
Allow the pressure to release slowly, then mash well and serve the little millet savoury pongal hot along with kadhamba sambar, coconut chutney as a nourishing, delightful breakfast for the harvest festival.
Little millet is bestowed with B vitamins for uplifted metabolism, digestion and optimal biochemical cell reactions in the body. It is also rich in calcium for fortified bones, joints, besides potassium for preserving normal blood pressure levels. Ginger is imbued with decongestant and expectorant properties that combat respiratory ailments of cough, cold, fever, while curry leaves provide vital minerals, antioxidants for healthy hair growth.