Sunday, January 30, 2011

Foodbuzz 24 x 24: Thanksgiving in January, An Indian Pongal Feast

   When I first saw the notice for The Foodbuzz 24 x 24 I was intrigued. Who wouldn't be? 24 people hosting 24 events all over the world on the same day. I immediately decided to enter. Then I thought wait a minute, if I enter and I'm picked, I really have to do this thing. I have do it and then post about it the next day. That's work. My life is about deadlines, script deadlines. Could I handle one more? Okay I thought. I'll send in an idea. I've always wanted to do an Indian Pongal feast with all the trimmings. I drew up a menu, imagined my perfect evening and sent it off.  
   A few hours later I started to get nervous. What had I gotten myself into? It's one thing to cook for oneself. It's a totally an other thing to cook for a deadline. I took a deep breath. Oh well, there's a lot of people entering. They won't pick me anyway. Well, they did. All of a sudden I was staring down the barrel of a full-on Indian Pongal Feast.
  Who doesn't love Thanksgiving? Turkey with all the trimmings, stuffing and the bounty of the seasons, vegetables, mince pie, pumpkin pie, the groaning board and the groaning pants buttons when all is done. Well, even though Americans celebrate Thanksgiving on one day in November, it's actually always Thanksgiving somewhere. So just when you thought all your holiday eating was done, allow me to show you a totally different Thanksgiving experience.  Pongal.  In the Tamil language, the word ponggal means to "boil over" and milk boiling over in a pot is the symbol of a new year's prosperity as shown in the video below as women race to see whos' clay pot boils over first.
   Thanks is given to the sun god and to the various farm animals that have contributed to a successful and plentiful year for a successful harvest. Of course as in any Thanksgiving or Harvest festival, one of the main attractions is the food and everyone is included, even the local elephants who have a feast of sugar cane.
    This year I decided to have a Pongal Feast. I was a week late as Pongal was the weekend of the 15th, but when it comes to a blow-out party, better late than never I always say.
   After seeing how elaborately they decorate for this holiday in Tamil Nadu, I figured that I'd better get my ass in gear decor-wise. This is not a couple of pumpkins in a basket and a folding cardboard turkey kind of feast. These guys are serious about how things look. Of course who better to be my in-house out-of-house decorator than Mr. X who has recently returned from his annual visit with friends in Trivandrum.
  We have a very large dining room table made out of 100 year old, reclaimed barn wood. It's a little hard finding a proper table cloth for it let alone something fitting for a pongal revel. Of course he had the answer. 30 years ago he'd bought a hand printed bedspread, a Kalamkari print. It was gorgeous.
   I immediately said "No! What if I spill something on it?"
   He said "How do you know what happened on this bedspread?  Okay I thought, now there's no way I'm using this thing. After reassuring me that the bedspread was pristine and table worthy, and after I promised to make sure there wouldn't be turmeric drippings all over it at the end of the feast, I accepted.
   He also offered me a 200 year old Chinese made jar that he'd found in Kerala as my centerpiece. It was gorgeous. How could I say no, even after he told me it might be haunted.
    I used my traditional dinner dinnerware as Mr. X seemed concerned when I talked about putting banana leaves down on his tablecloth. I dressed up the table with the flowers I could find, and found some cute stuffed elephants to frolic among the printed elephants on the cloth, some bright red-orange candles to light things up and swirly silver napkin rings completed the festive table.
    Friends and neighbors who I know share our love for Indian food were invited to join us. Even Patsy had a guest, her "friend" Peaches the Dog.
   Of course every dinner goes better with music.
 To hear some of the sounds of my 24 x24 Pongal Feast listen to a bit of Tamil Music Talattu Pada

   The only other thing left to figure out was the menu. Since this is a harvest feast celebrating the bounty of the land, the menu is vegetarian and as I discovered, also gluten-free, another plus.
I did a lot of research as to what dishes are traditionally served for Pongal feasts and of course that's like asking what Americans serve for Thanksgiving. It depends. It depends on family favorites, what crops are grown, what seems good at the time, and of course like here, what Amma (Mamma) used to make.
   Where turkey is the mainstay of American-style Thanksgivings, the heart of the Pongal feast is rice. My Pongal feast was no exception. I love the individual clay brams I was able to find at Bram Cookware they made my holiday thali complete.
 This is what I served:
 Spicy Tamarind Sambar
 Pineapple Rasam
 Ven Pongal
 Vegetable Stew with crunchy dal badis, (otherwise known as Ayvial)
 Masala Vadai
 Coconut Raita
 Apple Tomato chutney
 and for dessert
 Vermicelli Payasam with raisins and cashews.
   My shopping trips in preparation involved visits to the only local Indian market in the county, a Thai market and my new discovery, a Cambodian Market on Petaluma Hill Road, which blew my mind.

   All in all a 50 mile round trip. Who knew? Of course the vegetables came from Sonoma's Organic Friday Morning Farmers Market and (except for the long beans and the pineapple) everything was local. I started cooking the Wednesday before the dinner, roasting and grinding spices for my homemade sambar and rassam powders.
   My biggest challenge, and the one dish I was dreading making, was the traditional Indian Vadai or little dal donuts. I'm not used to deep frying, but surprise of surprises, thanks to advice I got from various Indian internet friends, they turned out beautifully.
   I made a list that I stuck to the fridge with a magnet to make sure I was on course. It gave me a feeling of accomplishment and it worked! For once I was able to greet my guests in a non-sweaty, relaxed manner, in a clean and sparkling blingy khameeze. Ready for fun.
 And eating.
 Drinking  Covey Run Gewurztraminer Columbia Valley 2008 and an assortment of Indian beers
 And finally Dessert.
    Since sweet pongal rice pudding is often served with this meal, and since I was already doing a big rice dish as an entree, I looked for alternatives. I found it in a vermicelli pudding with roasted cashews and plump raisins, served with a hot milk chai it was simply divine.
    We ended the evening romping with the dogs and lolling on the sofas in typical post Thanksgiving food comas (some things never change) while the rain pounded down on the roof.
    Afterward I collapsed,  contemplating the clean up of an army of clay pots which could not be run through the dishwasher.
   We gave thanks for being safe and warm and well fed with the bounty of our local farmers. We'd had a double Thanksgiving and it was good.
    I'll be posting the recipes for all of these wonderful vegetarian dishes in the days to come, as soon as I get done washing dishes.
   I want to thank Foodbuzz for giving me the opportunity to share this meal with my friends and family and with all of you.


  1. I'm not surprised that Foodbuzz chose you for this challenge. I've always been so impressed with the flavors and amazing colorful food you make. This was such a fun post to read. I love the picture of you at the end of the post, resting. I can only image how much work this had to be for you!

  2. Wow! Looks like an amazing party.

  3. The spread is amazing and I can't stop looking at the Masala Vadai! Well done babe. You rock.

  4. Amazing!! Everything looks soooo good! Congratulations and belated Happy Pongal - Pongal Vazhthukkal as it is said in Tamil ;)

  5. This is incredible! Totally in awe of all the work and love you put into this wonderful festival!

  6. Wow. Every dish looks amazing. I can't pick a favorite. I want to try everything!

  7. I am amazed at your dedication. Great job!

  8. @shirley,
    thanks so much, coming from you that's a real compliment! Those Vadai are work! But worth it.

  9. Looks like a meal fit for a king for sure. You did a wonderful job bringing us into your home and letting us experience the day with you all... Wonderful spread of work performed great job Kathy!

  10. very cool - everything looks delicious. and your photos look lovely. congrats on a successful 24x24!

  11. It is all so gorgeous. The colors! The music. Everything!

  12. What a beautiful job you did. From the decor to the food everything looks perfect. Good job girl!

  13. Congrats on being chosen! I adored this post! I wish I could have been a guest! Thank you for sharing and having such a fantastic blog - it always makes me smile when I stop by for a visit. I've listed you on my site as a stylish blogger - feel free to participate as you like.

  14. You did fantastic! I loved the music. I wish I could put that on every post. It really sets the mood. Great job!

  15. Talk about pulling out all the stops for a 24. A true feast and a bit of learning too. GREG

  16. Wow, this looks like quite the feast! Your table decor is absolutely gorgeous and the meal looks equally delicious! Congrats on being chosen for 24x24; this is an awesome idea!

  17. Wow... what a gorgeous table! All of your dishes look exquisite. I'm glad you were able to come through on yet another deadline :)

  18. Congratulations...with lots of exclamation points...for a job well done and beautifully presented.

  19. Outstanding! Everything looks so wonderful, especially the masala vadai!

  20. Wow, what a scrumptious spread?!! Congrats !! and I feel glad to have found your blog.



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