Ven pongal, anyone?
FOOD at most Indian weddings, whether served on the traditional banana leaf or in the most sophisticated buffet style, tends to be stereotyped and predictable. I know what I will get to eat at a Gujarati wedding dinner, a Catholic wedding bash or a typical Tamilian kalyana saapaadu.
Some individual items may be excellent, but the pattern is always repetitive. Certain traditional items have to be served and sometimes the menu is decided by one-upmanship. If Ramakrishna Iyer's son's wedding feast had 23 items, his neighbour Ananthakrishna Iyer will see to it that at least 24 items figure in the menu at his daughter's wedding.
A couple of years ago, organising a small reception-cum-dinner for my daughter and son-in-law, I decided to break the tradition. I thought long and hard and decided on the menu ven pongal, Mysore bonda, thayir vadai, puri sabji and for dessert, kulfi. Mr Sabarianthan, our caterer who had successfully run a South Indian restaurant at Los Angeles, supported my suggestion. My wife, however, was a bit apprehensive whether these would be enough. "Are we going to serve the guests only snacks?" she asked. "What if people miss the full-fledged menu?" Obviously, they did not. Even today, some of our neighbours and friends remember what they ate on the occasion. The hit of the evening, was ven pongal. We had to explain to our non-South Indian guests what it was, how it was made and why it tasted so delicious. In fact, my wife and I spent more time in spreading the message about the ven pongal than introducing the guests to the newly married couple.
I had anticipated the success of ven pongal; for it had been my favourite dish for years. I have no idea if this type of pongal has anything to do with the traditional Pongal festival and enthused the joyous slogan, "Pongalo, Pongal!"
Ven pongal smelt and tasted better because it was special and not prepared at home with the same frequency of dosai, idli or adai. We had it at tiffin time, say, once a month and the infrequency only whetted my enthusiasm for it.
Whenever mother solicited our opinion for the tiffin any particular evening, I would say just one word, "ven". Why didn't ven pongal become as popular a South Indian dish, as say, idli, masala dosai or vadai? Don't ask me.
Talking of ven pongal, I am reminded of Gray's lines in the "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard."
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness in the
Though the dish was supposed to be eaten while hot, I did not mind the colder version. The more ghee it had, the better it tasted. It should carry the flavour of pepper. And you can have it without any side dish. Later in life, at some of the South Indian restaurants in Mumbai, I discovered that ven pongal was always served with aviyal. The combination was okay, but I could consume the delicacy by itself.
After leaving home at the age of 18, I spent several years in Ahmedabad without tasting ven pongal. The South Indian restaurants in the city in those days offered poor stuff and somehow ven did not figure in the food items I had at the homes of my friends. My wife quickly learnt to make most of the South Indian dishes, but missed out on my favourite pongal. In fact, she excelled in making sakarai pongal, but then it was not the same.
After 20 years of life without ven pongal, I was reunited with the same when I started work in Bombay. I came to know that Ananda Bhavan in the Fort Area served the dish on Mondays and I became a regular. The pongal-aviyal combination was not like the one we used to have at home, but I was happy at the reunion.
Ven pongal figured in the novel, Miss Janaki authored by my favourite Tamil writer, Devan. One of its characters, Mr. Haran (originally Hariharan) is lost in thought about his late first wife, Jayam. As soon as he returned from office, she would help him to relax, bring a dish of "chudda chudda, nei sottum (piping hot, dripping with ghee) ven pongal" and feed him herself. Gosh, you do not get wives like that any more!
It is high time that ven pongal received its due in South Indian cuisine. Why don't restaurants organise ven pongal festivals and popularise the dish? I suggest that young men who go to see girls for marriage should find out if the young ladies are capable of preparing ven pongal. And before anyone accuses me of being a traditionalist who feels that women should only cook, let me explain that the girls in question are welcome to tell their future husbands that they will learn to prepare ven pongal provided they are taught to do so by their would-be husbands. Imagine young men and women being brought together in holy matrimony by the magic of ven pongal!
Send this article to Friends by