Ven Pongal - Beyond the Comfort Meal

Chef Praveen Shetty (Executive Chef, Conrad Bengaluru) on what makes this harvest special one of the finest breakfasts for the quintessential Urban Warriors

By: Madhulika Dash; Photograph Courtesy: Conrad Bengaluru

Few years ago, when Shira Gabriel, an associate professor of psychology at the State University of New York, Buffalo, decided to revisit the idea of Comfort Food, a term that was coined in the 1966 to define the food cause of obesity in adults, she fell upon a unique gem: that of classic conditioning eating or as nutritionist would today define as “a default mechanism that makes us reach for solutions that can instantly remove us from an unpleasant occurrence. And most of the times, the ‘solution’ is a dish.” After her research, Gabriel concluded that what makes a food comfort is the “socialness of it”. An aspect of comfort food that found credence in subsequent research works carried by different experts who investigated the “emotional” side of the food that defined it as comfort.

And yet, Gabriel and her ilk were far from decoding the very basis of what made food, which is designed for wellbeing, comfort. Or, as Chef Praveen Shetty (Executive Chef, Conrad Bengaluru) puts it, “the tradition wisdom behind the composition of a dish that not only gave it the ability to re- calibre the dosas as and when needed, resolve the trigger but also remain relevant in the purpose for a long period of time.”

It was a concept that the Karnataka food specialist came across while researching on traditional dishes and what made them relevant for the contemporary diners, who psychologically and physiologically is much different from the time the dish was designed for. What came to me as a surprise is the timeless composition, says Chef Shetty, “and one dish that showcases the deeper understanding of the mind and DNA deep connect with food is Huggi or its more popular name, Ven Pongal.” Traditionally, the dish was created, he continues, “to mark the harvest festival, both in terms of feast and symbolism, and thus the name Pongal, which means “bubbling up" or Huggi, which in Old Kannada stands for Puggi or "bubbled up, ballooned. It is believed that the sheer act of the dish overflowing from its pot is a sign of prosperity”.

However, says the chef, “in cooking, this boiling over of the porridge where the rice kernels swim up to the surface of the pot is an indication of the porridge being primed enough for wellness. And to ensure that the dish works its ‘therapeutic’ magic by the spoon, there were two different ways designed to cook the dish, each with its own goodness and connect.”

While the easier version calls for mixing the spices, ghee, rice and moong dal together and slow cooking it till the aroma wafts across the kitchen as a messenger of the dish being ready; the other is where the spices are added at the end when the rice and lentil is cooked. The latter version, adds Chef Shetty, “often finds more precedence during the harvest festival not only because it ensures that the dish appearance is in a shade closer to thar of the rice (thanks to the little milk it uses) but also because it encourages minimalism when it comes to flavourants, where a pinch is enough to get the desired results – both in terms of taste and nourishment. The two aspect that makes Ven Pongal, a popular, balmy, buttery breakfast in South India, a certified Comfort food.”

But what seals the deal is the composition of the dish that integrates during all the bubbling and boiling into this efficient team that takes care not only of the cortisone levels in the body (a hormone related to stress and happiness) but also of the digestive system and immunity.

In fact, the smooth khichdi like porridge is so light – in spite of the liberal use of ghee, milk and cashewnut – that it quickly digests with each of the ingredient working, says nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, “in calming you down while throwing these burst of energy that keeps you active – and happy too.”

Continues Bhassin, “every ounce of that extra ghee or cashew nuts that is put into Ven Pongal or Huggi goes into resetting the cortisol level in the body, making you feel calm and more receptive to the surrounding positivism than negative. It is also the fat that allows the penetration of nutrients into the muscle. Result, a small portion is enough to turn the eater into having this sense of calmness followed by instant high in our receptiveness of positive things.”

This when paired with its social association, which is the festival of Pongal, says Chef Shetty, “lends it the extra facet of being part of a memory that celebrates community. It is this sense of belonginess that has worked in the favour of Ven Pongal - and has transformed it from being a festive special to a favourite Comfort Meal.”

In fact, say the experts, “it is its style of cooking, choice of ingredients and their purpose is what makes Ven Pongal, a dish best enjoyed with coconut chutney and Medu Vada on the side, one of the finest example of Comfort Meal.”