Learn about the history of Sakkarai pongal, the sweet rice-based delicacy which has deep-rooted cultural and religious significance for the harvest festival
If you’re on the lookout for an underrated Pongal delicacy, something that also holds some significance to the traditional harvest festival, you must hear about Sakkarai Pongal. This temple-style sweet pongal is usually made with moong dal, golden raisins, jaggery syrup, and edible camphor (or pacha karpooram). Sweet Pongal is a key part of almost every menu for Pongal Thirunaal which usually falls on January 14 or 15.
This sweet delicacy is not just a dish; it symbolizes a rich tapestry of traditions, rituals, and values that have been passed down through generations. The festival of Pongal is a ‘thanksgiving’ to the Sun god; the festival marks the transition of the Sun into the zodiac sign of Capricorn and is dedicated to expressing gratitude to nature for a bountiful harvest.
Typically the first Pongal of the year is a ‘paal pongal’, which is a creamy milk pongal made with the first rice crop of the year (an aromatic short-grained rice called ponni). But the flavourful Ven Pongal and Sakkarai Pongal are also made across homes in Southern India. The name "Sakkarai Pongal" is derived from two Tamil words: "Sakkarai," meaning sugar, and "Pongal," which essentially defines the process of boiling over.
It’s made by boiling rice and lentils with sugarcane juice (instead of jaggery), ghee, and cashews until it overflows, symbolizing abundance and prosperity. The dish ‘boiling over’ is considered a symbol of the Goddess Pongal's (Uma, Parvati) blessing of abundance, which explains its significance in agrarian communities.
The Real Significance Of Sakkarai Pongal
The symbolic importance of Sakkarai Pongal extends beyond its association with the Pongal festival. It is often offered as a prasadam in temples during various religious ceremonies and festivals. The act of preparing and sharing Sakkarai Pongal itself is considered auspicious. Moreover, the ingredients used in Sakkarai Pongal also hold cultural and symbolic importance. Rice, a staple in South Indian cuisine, represents sustenance and prosperity. Lentils, another essential component, symbolize growth. Ghee, made from clarified butter, is a symbol of purity and divine energy.
Interestingly, though Sakkarai is the Tamil word for sugar, Sakkarai Pongal is usually cooked not with sugar but with sugarcane juice. The melting of the jaggery is quite key to its recipe especially when it’s served as a ‘naivedhyam’ or offering to Lord Vishnu. Ideally the syrup should be thick and glossy and have a caramelised component to it which lends a brown colour to the rice dish. Nutmeg and cardamom add complexity to the dish, while the saffron lends an amazing fragrance and the edible camphor enhances the flavour of the sakkarai pongal.
The Origin Story
Mentions of a sweet Pongal are believed to have first occurred in early texts and inscriptions where it has been referred to as ponakam or tiruponakam. The legacy of the Pongal dish in a celebratory and religious context goes back to the Chola era, i.e., 3rd century BCE.
Andrea Gutiérrez, a specialist in Vedic and Tamil traditions and a researcher of South Asian food has talked elaborately about carved recipes and inscriptions on the walls of famous temples across Tamil Nadu. Some recipes for Pongal have been found on the walls of the Chola dynasty’s Brihadeshwara Temple, which presents evidence of Pongal being cooked during the harvest Pongal festival
There are other recipes preserved quite precisely, identical to recipes for modern pongal in some temple inscriptions from the Chola Dynasty to the Vijayanagara Empire periods. Across almost all noteworthy inscriptions, sugar is the most crucial element in a Pongal recipe and nearly every dish had it in some form. The commonest type was jaggery prepared by boiling sugarcane milk, which was also the cheaper form of sugar.
There are also mentions of a partially refined and expensive variant of sugar, known as Carkarai that resembled brown sugar. It was mainly donated by the wealthy to temples or communal kitchens. Although in most festive renditions of sakkarai pongal, it's sugarcane jaggery that's used for sweetening the dish. If you're planning to make the delicacy at home for Pongal, here's an easy recipe:
1 cup rice (preferably raw rice)
1 cup rice (preferably raw rice)
1/4 cup split yellow moong dal (lentils)
2 cups jaggery (grated or chopped)
1/2 cup ghee (clarified butter)
1/4 cup cashews
2 tablespoons raisins
1/4 cup grated coconut (optional)
4-5 cardamom pods (crushed or powdered)
A pinch of edible camphor
A pinch of salt
Wash the rice and moong dal together under cold water.
Soak them in water for about 30 minutes
In a pressure cooker, add the soaked rice and lentils along with 4 cups of water.
Cook until the rice and lentils are soft and well-cooked. Mash them slightly using a ladle. In a separate pan, add the jaggery with a little water and heat it over medium heat.
Stir continuously until the jaggery dissolves completely, forming a syrup. Strain the syrup to remove impurities.
Add the jaggery syrup to the cooked rice and lentils mixture. Mix well. In a pan, heat ghee over medium heat.
Add cashews and sauté until they turn golden brown. Add raisins and sauté until they puff up.
Add grated coconut and add this mixture to the rice-lentil-jaggery mixture. Add cardamom and edible camphor
Crush or powder the cardamom pods and add them to the mixture. Cook the combined mixture over low to medium heat, stirring continuously until it thickens to the desired consistency.
Once the Sakkarai Pongal reaches the desired consistency, remove it from heat. Serve hot in bowls