Wednesday, January 14, 2009
An American Pongal
by: Jennifer Kumar
It’s the mouthwatering aroma of ghee melting over rice and moong dhal boiled into Pongal. The first mouthful of plain pongal and ghee tempts me for the remaining portions. Mixing the ghee into the sambar, drowning it in thick, red, brinjal sambar; what an experience! To this, add fresh, crispy, perfectly round masala vada and upside down, tumbler-shaped Kanchipuram idli placed on the plate with a side of coconut chutney….
It has to be the food that makes Pongal. The term Pongal does double duty as the name of the food, and the name of the holiday. It is when I hear the word Pongal, I think of eating, think of ghee melting on pongal submersed in thick, savory sambar, but it is also when I hear the word Pongal, I think of togetherness, family, friends, and tradition.
What Pongal means to me…
Not everyone has the opportunity to celebrate Pongal in a pakka Tamil village, as I did back in the millennium year, 2000. Not everyone has a chance to partake in a village Pongal feast, in the Bhogi celebrations in the village, nor does everyone have the opportunity to watch the boiling over of Pongal on a makeshift stove, heated by wood, real flames and fire, made with the love of a whole village community. This is the experience I, as an American had when participating in Pongal in the Tamil village. To me, hearing the word Pongal is much more than rice, dhal and milk boiling over- it is the boiling over- nay, the overflowing abundance, of all Pongal offers- friends, family, opportunity of ridding of old and bringing in the new, celebration of the material, spiritual and animal worlds, travel, worship, and allowing this and much more to ‘boil over’ into our life as opportunities permit. Pongal is available to us everyday, we just have to have our eyes and spirits open to recognize and accept it.
Indeed, these reasons inspired me to start celebrating Pongal here in America. It is only after I was married in 2005, we together decided to celebrate Pongal every year, filling our home with family, friends and food! Preparations start more than a month in advance- planning the menu and guest list. We enjoy having potlucks, which means though I cook few main items, such as Pongal, brinjal sambar, Kanchipuram idli, chutney, vada and lemon pickle, our other guests bring their own special South Indian or North Indian creations. Our menu may not be comprised of all traditional Pongal fare, but it is unique and bountiful. On the other hand, our Pongal guest list is unique. As it usually turns out, few if any of our guests, including me and my Delhi-raised Malayalee husband are Tamils, lacking the experience, memories and background of growing up celebrating Pongal. For us, this makes our celebration cross cultural and quite unique. There are always new friends, Indian and American alike joining our Pongal potlucks that want to know about Pongal. They learn about Pongal from the food- and there is plenty of it to go around. Though few of us grew up eating pakka Tamil fare, most of us try our hands at cooking the various Tamil delicacies. This demonstrates the power of Pongal, the power of togetherness, and the amazing spirit of being open to learning and integrating different cultures.
There is much more beside the food, of course. I also love to decorate the house. This starts a week or so before the party. I’d prefer to do this on “bhogi” day, but generally in America we have to work throughout Pongal holidays, so taking up cleaning and rearranging little by little everyday seems to work out much easier. After cleaning and sprucing up the place, it is time to decorate it with kolums and golu. My decorations are inspired by a confluence of South Indian cultures- Tamil, Malayalee and Telugu. Though I create typical Tamil kolum designs, they are not drawn on our doorstep, as it is snowing and blowing out, nor are they created with rice flour. These kolums are made with various dried pulses, dhals, poha (flattened rice), rice and flowers. The kolums have been made in front of our puja alter or in front of our fireplace. Inspired by my Telugu friends who put up their golus during Pongal season (Makar Sankrati to them), I have married the kolum and golu in our household for Pongal. I create hand made stick dolls in Indian costume in village sceneries, surrounded by cows and other small plants and trees to get the feeling of a village. Generally, all of these decorations are framed by replications of sugarcanes strung together with fabric leaves and banners saying “Happy Pongal.” Indeed in addition to the food, the decorations liven up the home and create some curiosity and inspiration among the guests.
To greet each guest upon exiting, a kitchen towel or handkerchief, edges dabbed with turmeric, on a silver platter with kumkum, is offered as Pongal daanam (gift). To show respect and affection to our parents and grandparents, if visiting, I will often place the platter down and immediately touch their feet. Receiving their blessings back is always emotional and the highlight of Pongal festivities. (Photo, right, Pongal 2010, Towels and Small bowls were given in a much less traditional fashion- from a plastic "tray".)
It is with such enthusiasm and inspiration I enjoy celebrating and carrying on our own recreated traditions of Pongal here in our household in America. The feelings of warmth, homeliness, and acceptance that I felt while in India and every day of my life encourage and inspire me to continue to celebrate Pongal in my home, as an American in America. For me, Pongal is a way to give thanks not only for the overabundance of harvest in my own home, but giving thanks to those in Chennai who supported me, believed in me and encouraged me to strive and rise above the challenges I faced to complete my studies at Madras Christian College while learning and integrating a new, rich, exciting and exotic culture into my life.
Author of this post and owner of this blog; Jennifer Kumar, CC, MSW, is a cross-cultural coach. Are you moving to another country and want to connect to your culture by celebrating your holidays and finding ways to maintain your identity while adapting to a new place, I am happy to help. Contact her for more information at authenticjourneys at gmail dot com. See her coaching site, Authentic Journeys.
Updated: January 2011
Copyright ©2009 Jennifer Jayanthi Kumar
2 comments so far...
By Ashok on
Thursday, February 11, 2010
Re: An American Pongal
You truly rock jennifer !
By admin on
Thursday, February 11, 2010
Re: An American Pongal
Thank you for spending time on my blog, Ashok.