January is dark and gloomy, which makes it the perfect time to celebrate the sun. Western cultures are pretty bereft of celebratory occasions during the deep winter months, as everyone hunkers down and waits for spring, so we turned to Southeast Asia, which doesn’t let a little winter funk get in the way of holiday-making.
Makar Sankranti, also called Pongal, is a Hindu holiday that is dedicated to the Sun God, Lord Surya. It marks the passage of the sun into Capricorn, or the beginning of the sun’s journey northward (otherwise known as spring) and celebrates the plentiful rice harvest and prosperity. In fact, the word Pongal signifies the boiling over of the rice in the pot. Called by many different names across Asia and India, this ancient festival is also celebrated with kite flying and ritual bathing. And like all Southeast Asian celebrations, there are reams of delicious dishes associated with it.
Because India is such a huge amalgam of cultures, there’s no single dish or even set of dishes for Sankranti. We decided on a South Indian vegetable curry, with lemon rice and coconut rice to round out our menu. A simple and refreshing cucumber raita is a great accompaniment to the curry.
We took a trip to the Indian supermarket Patel Brothers in Jackson Heights, Queens to purchase some of the ingredients for the dishes we planned. We know specialized ingredients can be daunting, but Patel has branches all over the country; you can also order any of these items online, or in most cases, substitute more readily available choices. If you have time and inclination, though, a trip to a specialized market can be a real adventure. We went in with a short list of four or five items, and staggered out with multiple bags, overflowing with jars of coriander chutney and mango pickle, soft yellow raisins and medjool dates, savory chickpea-flour snacks, and more. A delectable buffet lunch at the nearby Jackson Diner was an added bonus, and we plotted our Sankranti meals over plates of chicken masala, saag paneer, and the best naan we’ve had.
We also liked that Sankranti gave us an excuse to bake. Many of the Indian sweets shared during this time feature sesame seeds, such as til-gul–balls of sesame and jaggery, an unrefined palm sugar that tastes of butterscotch and molasses. Indians living in Maharashtra, the Indian state where Mumbai is located, exchange til-gul as a symbol of sweet words, saying, “Tilgul ghya, goad goad bola,” which means “Take til-gul and talk all sweet.”
Another reason for the popularity of sesame in Sankranti sweets is that they contain oils that are considered nourishing for bodies parched by winter. Sesame seeds are surprisingly nutritious and sesame oil may be the world’s oldest condiment. Yet Western cuisine doesn’t make much use of sesame, so all the more reason to bake up a batch of these simple but delicious–and for us, quite unusual–cookies. Benne wafers have been a specialty of South Carolina since the nineteenth century. They are light, nutty and just the thing to nibble alongside a steaming cup of tea, perhaps while envisioning yourself flying colorful kites in India.
South Indian Vegetable Curry
adapted from Epicurious
This is a delicious, warming vegetarian stew, with a depth of flavor that belies the absence of meat. Zanthe made her own garam masala, from Julie Sahni’s recipe, but you can purchase it as well. True to for, we made two different versions of this highly adaptable recipe, one with only potatoes and sweet potatoes, and one with long beans and cauliflower in addition. If you prefer the latter version, use half the amount of potatoes and sweet potatoes, 2 or 3 cups cauliflower florets and 1/2 lb green beans, trimmed and halved.
- 1/2 green chile, seeded, chopped (serrano, jalapeno or thai all work fine)
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon garam masala*
- 3 tablespoons sunflower oil
- 1 2-inch-long piece peeled fresh ginger (about 2 ounces)
- 3 large garlic cloves, peeled
- 1 large onion, cut into 1-inch chunks (about 2 cups)
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 3 cups vegetable broth
- 2 teaspoons (packed) jaggery or brown sugar
- 2 kaffir lime leaves (If unavailable, substitute 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice and 1/2 teaspoon grated lime peel for each lime leaf.)
- 2 whole green cardamom pods
- 1 large yam (1 pound), peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
- 2 medium russet potatoes (about 12 ounces), peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1 cup unsweetened grated coconut (or 1 cup coconut milk is an option)
- 2 large carrots, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch rounds
- 2 tomatoes, cored, chopped ( ½ pint halved cherry tomatoes or 1 cup canned tomatoes also work)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
- optional additions: ½ cup of yogurt (not Greek), 4 ounces baby spinach
* A spice mixture available in some supermarkets and in Indian markets. To make your own, dry-roast the following in a heavy frying pan for 10 minutes over medium heat until dark and fragrant, then cool and grind to a powder: ¼ cup cumin seeds, ¼ cup coriander seeds, 1 ½ tbsp cardamon seeds (removed from pods), 2 whole cinnamon sticks (3 inches long), 1 ½ tsp whole cloves, 3 tbsp black peppercorns, 4 bay leaves broken up.
Puree first 7 ingredients in food processor until paste forms. Cook in large pot over medium heat until aromatic, stirring often, about 10 minutes. Add tomato paste. Cook until mixture starts to darken and brown, stirring often, about 5 minutes longer.
Add broth, brown sugar, lime leaves, and cardamom. Simmer 10 minutes, stirring often and scraping up browned bits.
Add sweet potatoes, russet potatoes, coconut, carrots, tomatoes, and 1 teaspoon salt to mixture in pot. Bring to boil, then reduce heat to medium low. If using cauliflower and green beans, add them about 15 minutes after potatoes. Cover and simmer until vegetables are tender, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes.
Add spinach and yogurt, if desired, and cook until wilted, about 3 minutes. Season with salt. Discard lime leaves, garnish with cilantro and serve.
Since Makar Sankranti celebrates the rice harvest, we tested two different rice recipes, one that tosses brown basmati with a tangy, refreshing mix of mint and buttermilk and then some toasted aromatics. The other rice dish comes from South India and is citrusy, nutty and packs a bit of heat thanks to some dried red chiles.
- 1 cup brown or white basmati rice, cooked according to instructions, then spread on baking sheet and cooled to room temperature
- 1 cup loosely packed mint leaves
- ½ cup buttermilk
- 1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and cut into chunks
- 2 whole dried chilies
- ¼ cup unsweetened grated coconut
- ⅛ tsp black peppercorns
- 6 fresh or 10 frozen curry leaves, torn into pieces
- 1 tbsp unsweetened grated coconut
- 4 tsp canola oil
- 2 tsp black or brown mustard seeds
- 2 tsp yellow split peas (soaked in water for 20 minutes to soften, then drained)
- ¼ cup unsalted roasted peanuts
- ½ tsp cumin seeds
- 12 fresh or 16 frozen curry leaves, torn
- 2 tsp flour (or use rice flour for a gluten-free option)
- 1 tsp salt, or to taste
- juice of ½ lime
Mix mint, buttermilk, chilies, garlic, ginger, peppercorns, and curry leaves in food processor until pureed.
Carefully toast coconut in a small dry skillet over medium heat, stirring, until it’s golden (don’t burn).
Combine oil, mustard seeds, split peas, and peanuts in a wok over medium heat, stirring, until mustard seeds begin to crackle, about 2 minutes, then add curry leaves and cumin, and cook until peanuts turn golden brown, 1 or 2 minutes more.
Turn heat to low and add flour, stirring for 30 seconds. Add mint and buttermilk mixture and bring to a simmer. Add rice and stir until rice is heated through.
Stir in toasted coconut and lime, taste for salt, and serve.
- 2 cups of basmati rice, cooked and cooled to room temperature
- 3 tablespoons of sunflower oil
- 1 tsp black mustard seeds (optional)
- 2 tablespoons of yellow split peas (soaked in water for 20 minutes to soften, then drained)
- ½ cup of roasted cashews coarsely chopped
- 3 whole dried red chiles (increase or decrease depending on heat preference)
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 12 fresh or frozen curry leaves, torn into pieces (optional)
- 1 red onion, halved and then sliced
- ½ cup chopped scallions
- 2 tsp salt, or to taste
- juice of 1 lemon or lime
Heat the oil in a wok or wide medium pan over medium-high heat. Add the mustard seeds, drained yellow split peas and cashews. Cook, stirring for a few minutes.
Add the red chilies, cumin seeds, turmeric, and torn curry leaves. Cook until the cashews turn a uniformly gold color, around 2 minutes.
Add the onions, scallions and salt. Cook, stirring until the onion is softened, around 4 minutes.
Now add the rice and stir gently until the rice in uniformly yellow. Add the lemon or lime juice and cook uncovered until the rice is warmed through. Taste for lemon and salt, and serve hot.
Simple Cucumber Raita
- 2 cups plain yogurt (not greek)
- 1 cucumber, preferably English, peeled and grated
- ½ tsp ground cumin
- ¼ tsp salt
Stir together the yogurt, cucumber, cumin and salt. Serve chilled.
adapted from The Gourmet Cookie Book
Makes approximately 3 dozen cookies.
- ½ cup sesame seeds (look for them in the “Ethnic Food” section of the market–you will likely find them more cheaply and in larger quantities than in the spice aisle)
- 1½ tbsp unsalted butter
- 1 cup light brown sugar
- ¼ tsp salt
- 2 tbsp flour
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
Line a cookie sheet with parchment, set oven rack in the center, and preheat oven to 350℉.
In the oven or in a skillet, carefully toast the sesame seeds, stirring occasionally, until fragrant and light brown. Set aside to cool.
Cream together butter and sugar until well mixed (we used an electric mixer with the paddle attachment).
Add egg, flour, salt, vanilla and sesame seeds, and mix until combined.
Drop scant teaspoons of batter onto parchment-lined cookie sheet, at least two inches apart, and bake for 8-10 minutes or until golden brown and edges have set.
Slide cookies on parchment onto a rack to cool: they will be very soft at first but will flatten and firm as they cool.