ASIAN FOOD

A kitchen experiment to find the best alternative to raw rice for sweet pongal

Is it ‘thinai’? Black rice? Perhaps ‘thooyamalli’, a heritage rice variety?

The cooker with black rice and dal whistles, puffing steam along with a drizzle of purple-coloured water onto my kitchen walls.

I wince at the thought of cleaning up: black rice, evidently, is not easy to handle. But once I open the cooker — after five whistles and 10-minutes of simmering on low flame — the glistening deep-purple rice makes me forget all else.

Kavuni arisi or black rice pongal is the third variety I am experimenting with. In an attempt to make sakkarai pongal with heritage rice varieties this year, I narrow down to three: thooyamalli, kavuni arisi, and thinai arisi. The best pongal wins, which I will cook on the big day.

Sakkarai pongal is a silky concoction of rice, moong dal, jaggery and ghee. Although raw rice is widely used, several heritage rice varieties make for a great pongal. These include iluppai poo samba, mappilai samba, neelam, Salem sanna, jeeraga samba, hand-pound raw rice, thooyamalli, kuruvai, and thinai arisi, according to Praveen Anand, executive chef, South Indian Cuisine, ITC Hotels.

Millet on white background

Millet on white background
 

“Pongal is a festival in which farmers offer to Nature whatever they grew on their land,” explains Praveen, adding, “The above varieties are grown in the Madurai belt, the stronghold of Tamil culture.”

Cooking time and the amount of water required, varies for each; Praveen suggests soaking the hard varieties such as mappilai samba for half an hour before cooking.

Round 1

Thooyamalli is from his list and the rice, slightly longer, but as thin as jeeraga samba, does a great job of becoming one with the jaggery and dal. The taste is similar to the typical raw rice pongal; the rice, a shade darker than ivory, bears a mild fragrance.

Round 2

Thinai or foxtail millet is technically not a rice variety. But I decide to cook it thanks to a conversation Coimbatore-based A Shrikumar, (who works for an NGO) had with an elderly man from a tribal village in the Sathyamangalam forest.

“I learnt that people of the Urali tribe make pongal with millets, thinai, ragi, cholam, varagu or samai,” says Shrikumar. This is because they chiefly grow millets in the hills. And years ago, when jaggery was difficult to source, tribal people used honey to sweeten their pongal. “They also made a curry with the vegetables they grew, to be had with pongal,” he points out. “They used wild tubers, broad beans…whatever they cultivated.”

Clockwise from left: Black rice, thinai, and thooyamalli pongal

Clockwise from left: Black rice, thinai, and thooyamalli pongal
 
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Special arrangement

I cook thinai pongal in a steel wok since millets do not require pressure-cooking. The tiny round morsels yield well — in no time, they take in the jaggery syrup I spoon in. Thinai has a nice earthy fragrance that is subdued in the end result: what makes this pongal stand apart is the pleasingly grainy texture.

Round 3

Kavuni or black rice is the best-looking of them all. Apart from the health benefits the rice boasts, I pick it to attempt cooking a hard rice variety. Which means it requires soaking the night before to make the rice pliable. I pressure-cook it: it is easier that way. But before that, I spread the soaked rice on a piece of cloth to dry and dry roast it before cooking.

I add jaggery syrup and simmer the deep-purple mix of rice and dal, but the colour remains the same. Once done, I top it with plenty of ghee-roasted cashews. The taste is unique: the rice’s nutty flavour fits jaggery’s sweetness to the T. And the pongal is chewy, with a depth of flavour.

The winner is undoubtedly black rice. It is slightly more elaborate to cook, but the end result is worth it.

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