Cauliflower Ven Pongal with Tomato Chutney
Ven pongal is an Indian dish of rice and dal, seasoned with tadka, a tempering mixture of spices cooked in ghee. In this version, riced cauliflower is used in place of white rice to make it lower in carbs. Served in South India on its namesake holiday in January, it is also delicious anytime. If you want to serve it like shown in the photo, lightly pack the ven pongal in a measuring cup and unmold it on the plate. Recipe adapted with permission from The Vegetarian Reset by Vasudha Viswanath, The Collective Book Studio, January 2023.
A Warm Bowl of Ven Pongal Is Comfort Food at Its Best
During the long evenings of January in New York City, my mind often turns to childhood memories of Pongal celebrations. In India, mid-January heralds the arrival of harvest festivals that commemorate winter crops like grains and sugar cane and are also of religious significance to Hindus and Sikhs.
As is often the case with Indian festivals, they go by different names and are celebrated with various customs across the country, for instance, Lohri in the Punjab region, Makar Sankranti in several states, and Pongal in the southernmost state of Tamil Nadu. Celebrations include kite-flying, bonfires, music, dancing and exchanges of delicacies between families.
Our family got ready for Pongal by cleaning our home, then decorating our floors with kolam (colorful designs made with rice flour). We wore festive attire and offered prayers honoring the sun and rain gods as well as the hard-working cattle that helped generate this bountiful harvest. We celebrated family ties. And as my mother made pongal, a rice dish of the same name, the aroma of ghee filled our home.
Pongal means "to boil over." Rice boils over, traditionally in an earthenware pot, accompanied by cries of "Pongallo pongal" (may this rice overflow), and so may also our fortunes! It is offered first to the gods and then to family.
The dish comes in both sweet and savory avatars. The sweet version, sakkarai (sugar) pongal, is made with rice, milk, ghee, cashews and raisins and sweetened with jaggery. The savory version, called ven (white) pongal, is made of rice and moong dal. For me it represents the essence of South Indian cooking: a humble mixture of rice and beans elevated to extraordinary by a spectacular tadka. It is often served at wedding breakfasts, including at mine, and is a dish that I crave year-round.
Rice is the staple food of South India and has always been one of my favorite comfort foods, making portion control hard. But white rice can also send my blood sugar soaring. A couple of years ago, as my doctor expressed concern about my elevated blood sugar and urged me to minimize refined grains, I began my exploration into low-carb vegetarian cooking. Very quickly, I tired of eggs, cheese and avocado—my opinionated Indian palate craved spice and flavor.
And so began my love affair with riced cauliflower. It soon became the perfect alternative to white rice, and as a bonus, meant an added serving of vegetables. I discovered the key to its preparation was to cook it with a little oil or ghee until it's dry, so that it tastes less like cauliflower and instead has a more neutral flavor that becomes a humble carrier for the flavors of the dish.
I tentatively experimented with a cauliflower fried "rice." That was delicious. I grew bolder, making paella, a burrito bowl and then this version of pongal, keeping the flavor profiles intact. When the smell of the tadka of ginger, cashews, curry leaves and black pepper in ghee filled my home, it still made my knees weak. This pongal, made with riced cauliflower and moong dal and paired with my mother-in-law's delectable tomato chutney, was deeply satisfying.
As even my skeptical parents tasted and approved the dish, I knew I had something special. And when mid-January rolls around, I now have a new tradition to add to the Pongal celebration, one that is authentically and deliciously mine.
Moong dal are split yellow mung beans. Look for them in well-stocked grocery stores, Indian markets or online.
Sweet-and-sour tamarind concentrate is made from the seed pods of tamarind trees, which are native to Africa. Look for them with other Asian or Middle Eastern ingredients in well-stocked supermarkets.
Used in Indian and Middle Eastern cooking, asafetida (as-uh-fet-i-duh) is known for its distinct, slightly sulfurous aroma that works synergistically with other spices to enhance them—similar to the way anchovies can amp up a dish's flavor without you knowing they're there. You can find the spice at Indian markets or online.
Curry leaves are native to South Asia. They have a faint citrusy flavor. Find fresh curry leaves in the produce section (and sometimes in the freezer) at Asian markets and some natural-foods stores. Freeze extra leaves airtight for up to 2 months.
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