Last week was Makar Sankranti, the one holiday for us city-dwellers to be spent with the family over some great food. This, however, is never without giving gratitude for the abundance in our pantries. Makar Sankranti goes by several names across the country, and is celebrated as a harvest festival. It is called Suggi Habba in Karnataka; Pongal in Tamil Nadu; Uttarayan in Gujarat; Maghi in Punjab, Bihu or Bhogali in Assam; Kicheri in Uttar Pradesh. But in every form, one thing remains constant. That it is an expression of gratitude for a bountiful harvest. The food for the celebration is prepared with a fresh harvest.

 There are several dishes that are cooked for this festival across the country. The focus is usually on the chief crop of the region, along with a variety from the year’s harvest. In the southern states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu (Kerala celebrates Onam as their harvest festival) there is a celebration of rice.


“In Tamil Nadu, you have the ven pongal (savoury) and the chakkara pongal (sweet) made of rice and moong dal. The savoury version has pepper added to it and the sweet version uses jaggery. Each of the ingredients is indigenous to the southern region of India,” says Rakesh Raghunathan, a Chennai-based food historian and TV show host.

Traditionally, landowners would bring their first produce of rice, lentils, pepper, spices, ghee and more as offerings to the temple. It meant that temples had a surplus of these ingredients and would use it to make a one-pot meal like pongal to serve to the people who came to worship on this day. Pongal means to overflow. Traditionally, the cooking pot was made to overflow to signify this, explains Raghunathan.

“The Chettiar community of Tamil Nadu made a pongal of rice and milk with no sugar and a negligible amount of salt. No matter how affluent one was, this was always made in a terracotta pot on a firewood stove in the courtyard. Specific kolams were drawn around the fire. As the pot overflowed, children would run around banging metal plates with spoons shouting pongal oh pongal,” he reminisces.

In Karnataka, Sankranti is synonymous with ellu bella (a mix of white sesame seeds, fried groundnuts, coconut chunks and bits of jaggery), which is offered to the gods and then to others when families go visiting.

“The idea behind this dish is ‘Ellu-bella thindu olle maathadi’, which means ‘eat something sweet and speak sweetly’,” says Suresh Venkataramana, Executive Chef, Oota Bangalore. “In Karnataka, pongal goes by the name huggi anna and is believed to be the favourite food of God Gorakhnath, an avatar of Lord Shiva. This deity is offered huggi anna on Sankranti and it is also distributed as prasad to devotees. This one-pot dish symbolises unity and also refers to the cyclical process of life and regeneration with the beginning of the new harvest year,” he adds.

In Karnataka, Sankranti is synonymous with ellu bella (a mix of white sesame seeds, fried groundnuts, coconut chunks and bits of jaggery), which is offered to the gods and then to others when families go visiting.

“The idea behind this dish is ‘Ellu-bella thindu olle maathadi’, which means ‘eat something sweet and speak sweetly’,” says Suresh Venkataramana, Executive Chef, Oota Bangalore. “In Karnataka, pongal goes by the name huggi anna and is believed to be the favourite food of God Gorakhnath, an avatar of Lord Shiva. This deity is offered huggi anna on Sankranti and it is also distributed as prasad to devotees. This one-pot dish symbolises unity and also refers to the cyclical process of life and regeneration with the beginning of the new harvest year,” he adds.

Among the other rice dishes often made in the south are coconut rice, puliogare (tamarind rice), lemon or even citron rice or vaangi bath (brinjal rice).

Moving to the North, where Maghi is celebrated in Punjab with kheer, made usually with rice as the base and flavoured with cardamom. Til ke Laddu – sesame and jaggery laddus are also made, not just as a sweet offering but also as a seasonal dish that has a long shelf life providing heat to the body in harsh winters. Khichdi is also a dish prepared at this time – it can be a simple version of rice and lentils spruced up with a dollop of ghee. Or, instead of the usual toor or moong dal, urad dal may be used. There is also a Maghi version made with chana dal.

In Assam, the festival is known as Bhogali, meaning abundance. It is a time when the people are happy to take a break from toiling in the fields and can come back home. The festival is celebrated with food made from grains, seasonal vegetables and cereals. 

“One significant dish made at this time is mah korai. Think of it as a crunchy trail mix made with sticky rice, coconut, sesame and black gram (soaked first). All of these ingredients are dry roasted and tossed with salt and freshly pressed mustard oil. This is a mix that is offered to anyone who comes to visit. Roasted peanuts are also added to this mix. Unfortunately, this is a tradition that is dying out,” says Kashmiri Barkakati, Guwahati-based food chronicler and researcher of Assamese culinary heritage.

Duck is also consumed during this time because of its body warming properties. Til pitha (sticky rice with jaggery), freshly-made sugarcane jaggery and fresh-pressed mustard oil are all staples during Bhogali, as is eating fish. 

“One cannot think of celebrating Bihu without fish. It is a status symbol to buy the biggest available in the market because fish signifies abundance and it is shared with people as part of a meal. Fish is a significant protein besides meat. Several kinds of yams are also eaten during the season as is black sesame seed. Urad dal, with the husk is also cooked”, adds Kashmiri.

The beauty of Sankranti, no matter where in the country it is celebrated, or what food best represents the festivities, is how it brings people together. Covid has shifted thought processes, and more and more people are putting in the time and effort to go back to their culinary roots. It is one thing that kept us connected as we celebrate another festival under the shadow of this deadly virus. 

(Views expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of OTTplay)

(Ruth Dsouza Prabhu is an independent Bangalore-based journalist with over 20 years of experience, writing for Indian and international publications on niches like food, beverage and travel.)