The rituals that make up the harvest festival hold a great deal of significance for me.Not only does it give me an opportunity to pay obeisance to the land for it’s multitude of offerings but it also throws light on how important it is to be involved in sustainable farming practices.
Last year ,thanks to my understanding of the revival of the many native varieties of rice ,my pongal pots contained as many as three different grains that had it’s own unique properties in terms of colour ,texture and nutrition.
This year as the time draws nearer to keep ready the various ingredients required for the auspicious sweet rice offering my thoughts leaned towards using un-refined sugars to compliment the taste of the wholesome raw rice.The traditional sakkarai pongal is made using a nattusakkarai otherwise known as jaggery or vellam .It was when it came to making the white kalkandu sadham that I was stumped for natural sugar options.This version of the pongal is known for it’s unique taste and creamy white colour that is the result of the rice being cooked with white rock candy,milk and water. Having eaten many bowlfuls at my grandmother’s home ,this one is a firm favourite. The natural sugar should also be one that would in no way taint the original colour of this rice. The idea of substituting panam kalkandu in place of regular kalkandu suddenly dawned on me early one morning. Because,I sometimes add a teaspoon of powdered panam kalkandu to a cup of hot milk along with a pinch of cinnamon . It’s a great beverage option for the family especially when there is a slight chill in the air.This brown rock candy made from the sap obtained out of the flowers of the palmyra tree is natural and un-refined.
This combination is one that I was exposed to many years ago when invited for an authentic Chettinad feast.The minerals in this natural sugar are known to be beneficial in warding off coughs and colds.It also tastes delicious and is the preferred sweetener for many traditional South Indian payasams.
When in rock form the crystals look like uneven pale beige/ golden brown translucent pieces. The panam kalkandu bought from organic stores or stores that stock herbal ingredients are the most authentic of the lot. The best way to use is to powder it in a heavy duty blender and sieve it to remove the impurities.There’s usually bits of fine twigs or straw that may have fallen in the sap before the mixture was set to crystallise to form the hard rock candy. Once powdered the intensity of the colour fades to a dull ivory.It’s easily dissolvable, devoid of any lumps and takes well to being heated.It is therefore a perfect alternative for the refined white sugar and I wonder why I never thought of using it to make pongal before. But i must clarify that though I’m advocating using a natural sugar in place of the refined white sugar,it’s no reason to binge. It’s just that we are substituting ingredients with natural goodness in place of the those that go through an unnatural process thereby making it harmful for consumption. That sort of thought process is essential to daily living,don’t you think ?!
As I go about measuring out the finest cashewnuts , plump raisins, strands of aromatic saffron and rice to be set out in separate containers in preparation for the big day it dawns on me just how meaningful all this can be.The joys of conscientiously sourcing ingredients are manifold. Not only is it about adhering to tradition it is also about continuing to contribute to one’s health.By all means let’s eat pongal , just make sure it is the healthiest pot of pongal ever cooked thereby making the calorie intake truly worthwhile.A festival is no excuse to binge on the unhealthy especially when the alternatives are just as appetising.
This day which is celebrated to welcome prosperity for the whole year by invoking the blessings of the sun for a bountiful harvest is simply another way to give thanks for not going hungry. Let’s celebrate pongal by extending that wish to our hard working farmers who rightly deserve to prosper. Happy Pongal !