The missing ingredient


I have cooked Venn Pongal for breakfast this morning; a staple South Indian breakfast item made out of cooked rice and split moong dal. My husband expresses his appreciation for the Pongal and settles down on the sofa with his frothing cup of filter coffee!

There is a lovely story behind how I learnt to make tasty Venn Pongal. Let me take you back to the halcyon days of my childhood…..

Image courtesy – http://www.shutterstock.com

The Tamil month of Marghazi usually falls between mid-December to mid-January each year, and during this month special prayers are offered in most South Indian temples.

In our small and beautiful hometown, this month was a super-special month to look forward to, as we had our school winter break, and also our daily morning sojourns to the temple.

With a white layer of frost blanketing the countryside for company, my friends and I would rush out at 6.30 a.m. each morning to visit the temple.

The highlight was the yummiest Venn Pongal that was served to all those who were present. The pongal was served on pieces of banana leaf. My friends and I would relish each mouthful, closing our eyes in bliss. Divine!

Many years later, when I started cooking and tried to make pongal, I realized that mine was missing something. It did not taste half as good as the temple pongal. I asked family members for tips, but somehow my pongal always seemed to fall short.

A few years went by this way. Then, one fine afternoon, when my husband and I were out shopping, we bumped into the person who used to make the temple pongal. We were so happy and excited to meet each other after more than two decades. After we had caught up with family stories and had exchanged news about common friends, I blurted out, “How was your pongal so yummy?”

He smiled, and said, “It is very simple, just add hot milk to it. That is all.” I thanked him profusely, as we each went our separate ways.

Now, as I settle down for breakfast and eat the first spoonful, I can feel the cold winter breeze of our little town, the company of my dearest childhood friends and the hot piping delicious pongal, all of which added to the magic of those wonderful days.

Mom’s Magic Masala Powders


Indian cooking is both an art and a science. It is as much about mixing and experimenting with different flavours, as it is about precise quantities and ingredients-in-recipes that cannot be altered.

Indian cooking is about flavour, culture, local produce and the local weather. It is also about blending, grinding and pounding techniques that are used to extract ‘that’ perfect flavour!

But more than anything else, Indian cooking is about the hundreds of masalas and spices that are added to make each dish unique.

A lot of cooking happens in Indian homes. This whole cooking phenomenon in Indian homes rests on a very strong base.

What is this base, you may ask? It is what I choose to call “Moms’ Masala Network”.

If you visited my home and raved about my spicy potato curry or my onion sambar, I would probably tell you that both the sambar powder and the spicy powder mix I used for the potatoes, were home made; made by my mother.

Go to any Indian home, ask the lady of the house, and her best dishes will be those ones, where her mom or grandmom have made the masala powders at home; if not made by them, the recipes that she uses would be theirs, for sure!

My refrigerator has at least ten types of these masala powders.

However, of these, three masala powders are most precious, as my mom makes them at home and gives them to me.

Every summer, when the Indian sun is roasting everything in sight, my mom shops for the ingredients for sambar powder, rasam powder and chutney powder.

She reserves a day to do the shopping. She sun-dries the ingredients, roasts them and then gives them to a small mill in the neighbourhood, where the ingredients are ground to fine powder.

My mom sends huge steel containers to the mill. Once the powders make it home, she carefully packs them in huge zip-loc bags for her three daughters.

On each package is a small sticker label, which gives details about the type of powder and the date on which it was made.

I treasure these masala powders, because my kitchen runs on their strength and their flavour.

A yummy South Indian breakfast of idli or dosa is incomplete without my mom’s chutney powder. On a typical Sunday afternoon, the kitchen is filled with the aroma of onion sambar, thanks to my mom.

These products are available in the market, but the taste of mom’s masala powders cannot ever be matched.

Thank you, Amma.