Ven Pongal in Chennai
“Pongal for table eight,” I heard the waiter holler into the kitchen.
Table eight was the one next to mine. Waiting for my order of dosa—an Indian crispy pancake—I decided that I would eat pongal the next morning. Just thinking of the sweet dish made with rice, mung beans, and jaggery (a kind of cane sugar) sent my taste buds into a tingle. But I was in for a shock when the pongal was served at the next table. It was not what I expected. To me, pongal was brown, sweet, and had to glisten with an ample measure of ghee—clarified butter.
I scanned the huge menu board on the wall. I figured out that it must be ven pongal, meaning white pongal, apparently a savory dish.
I was new to Chennai, the capital city of Tamil Nadu state. As the only working woman staying in a student hostel, I had to fend for myself when the students left for semester holidays.
When I was growing up, my father’s job required travel that brought us to small towns and villages, where eating out was not an option. We grew up on home-cooked food, and ven pongal had not featured in my mother’s menu. But in Chennai, I noticed that ven pongal was a beloved staple in all the eateries I visited. Still, I had trouble getting myself to try this iteration of my beloved sweet.
After I got married, I was out with my husband while he devoured ven pongal served with coconut chutney and sambar. He’d take a spoonful of ven pongal, dip it into the chutney, then dip it into sambar and pop it in his mouth. Seeing him go at it with gusto, I tried one spoonful, and soon I was doing the dip, dip routine. It was simply a savory version of the pongal I knew. It, too, featured rice and mung beans, but with a heavy sprinkle of black pepper and cumin—and of course, dollops of ghee. It was delicious. The sprinkle of ghee-fried cashews added a delightful crunch. I was instantly hooked.
“Pongal for table six,” the waiter hollers into the kitchen. That’s my table.