Pongal: A relevant dish and festival

Even far from India, this celebration stills holds meaning.

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    Harvest tradition: People gather to pray around a pot of pongal in Sri Lanka.
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Around mid-January, people in South India celebrate Pongal, the harvest festival. Unlike Halloween or Christmas, Hindu holidays don't fall on the same date each year. Back home, my mother consults an almanac to keep track of festivities. Since I can't read the flimsy paperback, she just tells me about upcoming holidays. And because few of them touch my life in New England, I pay little attention.

But Pongal is different. My ears automatically perk up at the mention of the word because it stands for both the festival and a dish. Pongal is the main course for the holiday feast. It literally means "boiling over" in Tamil. The dish, made from rice and lentils, is ritually cooked in a heavy, brass pot in two versions: sweet and savory. During the rest of the year, the savory pongal, similar to a hearty risotto, is eaten at breakfast.

As a festival, Pongal has its uses – it's the ideal occasion to have city kids reflect on where their food comes from. Rice paddies are always part of the scenery in South India, but during childhood train journeys through the countryside, I didn't realize that this grasslike plant was my staple food in its native form.

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The only thing that I, like most urban rice-eaters, knew about grains was when they arrived, processed and polished, at grocery stores in bulging gunnysacks. As far as the origin of lentils, I still have no clue. Other ingredients of pongal – peppercorn, cumin seeds, turmeric, and ginger root – come from spice gardens anyone would be fortunate to visit.

Another feature of this agrarian festival is the running of the bulls, a recently outlawed practice. This ancient sport had a huge following in the temple city of Madurai, my father's hometown. In my sheltered existence as a child, I was not wounded by angry cattle, nor did I see bullfighters claim their reward tied to the bulls' horns.

When I heard my boy cousins describe the action on the streets, I felt a second-hand adrenaline rush. I also remember feeling cheated. Imagine being in New Orleans and having to sit out Mardi Gras parades because the revelry might turn rowdy!

At dusk, the cattle would wander the streets again. This time, there would be placid milk cows wearing strands of little brass bells around their necks. Milkmen from nearby dairy farms brought the cows to customers' doors. I got to pat the cow whose milk I'd been drinking throughout the year. Then my mother gave the accompanying owner some cash, while I fed her some treats.

Now, my mother buys milk in cartons from the supermarket. For all she knows, that milk could be from cows in New Zealand.

This January, no cow will be stopping by my door in Boston. The landscape is bleak, and harvest is quite a way off. Cooking a decent pot of pongal takes effort, and I may not have the time to do this on a weekday.

Still, the festival doesn't seem irrelevant. It reminds me to participate in community celebrations around me. And knowing where my food comes from seems like an excellent plan in this era of renewed interest in sustainable living.

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