Pongal is a popular rice dish made in Southern India and is a cooked mixture of equal parts of rice and moong daal. Two versions of pongal exist; a savory and sweet version. The savory version is seasoned with bold tastes which include ginger, green chillies, cumin, whole pepper, curry leaves and asafetida. Savory pongal is well loved comfort food, and is commonly eaten for breakfast. The sweet version is made by sweetening the rice-daal mixture with a syrup made of jaggery or sugar. Sweet pongal is as beloved as the savory version and is typically made during festival times as offering to the gods.

Chakkara means sugar in Telugu, the language spoken primarily in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. In the southern state of Tamilnadu, this dish is refered to as Sakkarai Pongal where Sakkarai means sugar in Tamil, the primary language of Tamilnadu. Even though the term ‘sugar’ refers to the refined sugar of today, the traditional reference is to jaggery, which is the preferred method of sweetening pongal.

Jaggery is an unrefined sugar which is derived from sugarcane and has a characteristic caramel color. Jaggery is used widely in Indian sweet dishes. It is considered beneficial to health per Ayurveda when consumed moderately. When you buy jaggery at Indian grocery stores, look for the variety that is sold as small blocks and not the grated kind.

This dish consists of cooking the rice and moong daal together until soft. A jaggery syrup is made separately and combined with the cooked rice and daal. Flavoring elements include powdered cardamom and edible camphor. I’ve used saffron in the recipe below, but it is optional and not traditional. A finishing touch is the addition of ghee. Even better if you want to roast some cashew nuts in the ghee before adding the mixture to the cooked pongal. If you are looking to make a vegan version of pongal, substitute the ghee with coconut oil (the kind that is designated for cooking with).

A word of caution on the edible camphor. There is a big difference between edible camphor and the camphor that is used in religious ceremonies.

20170116_181940101_ios As the name suggests, edible camphor is edible and is derived from the wood of the camphor laurel tree. Edible camphor and camphor oil derived from the camphor laurel are widely used in Ayurvedic preparations. Edible camphor is available as a white solid but will easily disintegrate into a powder when you crush it between your fingers. Edible camphor should be stored in an airtight container because it is a sublime substance and will turn into gas if exposed to air. Edible camphor should be used in sparing amounts – literally a pinch! More than a pinch and it will make the dish bitter and unpleasant. It is usually hard to find edible camphor in Indian grocery stores here, so stock up on it when you travel to India. If you can’t find it, skip this ingredient entirely.

The other camphor is derived from oil of turpentine and should not be anywhere in your kitchen.

Cooking time: 1 hr
Serves: 12

16-20 oz jaggery
1/2 cup water
8 oz moong daal
6 oz rice
5 cups water to cook rice and daal
4-6 green cardamoms
a few strands of saffron, optional
a pinch of edible camphor, optional
1/3 cup ghee or virgin coconut oil if making a vegan version
1/4 cup cashew nuts

Using a mortar pestle, make a fine powder of the cardamom seeds, the saffron and the edible camphor. Set aside. 

In a small saucepan, heat up 1/3 cup of ghee on low heat and gently roast the cashew nuts until they are golden brown. Set aside. 

Combine jaggery and 1/2 cup water in a saucepan and cook over medium heat until jaggery has melted completely. Cook an additional 3-4 minutes after jaggery has melted to thicken the syrup slightly. Now strain the jaggery syrup into a bowl and set aside. 

While the jaggery is cooking, rinse the daal and rice together and drain well. Combine the daal-rice mixture with 5 cups water. Bring to a boil, then lower heat, cover and cook until very soft, almost to the point of being mushy. This will take 30-45 minutes. Alternately, you can use a pressure cooker to speed up the cooking process. 

When the daal-rice mixture is cooked, fold in the melted jaggery, cardamom powder mixture, ghee and cashew nuts. Stir to ensure everything is well mixed and cook an additional 2-3 minutes until the flavors are combined. 

Serve warm or at room temperature.