Of public telephones and interested strangers!

“Allo… allo… hiss… crackle… splutter… one glass bellam… rice….milk… ” goes the line before getting completely cut off. I think i know the ingredients now and I have my mother’s genes – we shall make do, somehow! 

The call was to my aunt – Kalyani pinni – one of those super cooks in my family – and this was soon after I’d gotten married and shifted to Madras. My very first Sankranti (Pongal) in my new home and i wanted to impress my guests with my chakkara pongal (sweetened rice desert). Not having the slightest clue how to go about it was no deterrent to ambition (more of my mom’s genes)!! My aunt’s chakkara pongal was world famous in Madras 😉 and so the call was to her.

Unfortunately, this being the 1980s, it was not so easy to get  a telephone connection and our connection was still some months away on the waitlist. If I needed to make a call, I had to run down, cross the road to the medical shop opposite (honestly, those days i think there were more medical shops in India than telephone connections!) and yell at my loudest over an uncertain connection at a decibel level above the noise of the traffic. Getting a recipe over a line like this was quite an affair. The pharmacist was used to people coming in and making calls on business or matters of urgency and must have been quite a repository of other people’s lives, i guess, but this was probably the first time he’d listened in on a call for an “urgent” recipe! By the time I finished and turned around, I found I’d gathered quite an audience all eager to learn how to make chakkara pongal! They say we all touch people’s lives in many ways that we are unaware of – my aunt definitely taught a bunch of interested strangers of many creeds and colours how to make a super dessert!

Remember that I had an uncertain “recipe” at best and so i made do – the first one was just about passable but today it’s my chakkara pongal that is world famous in Valmikinagar!! (Modesty is not my middle name, you see!)

You don’t need an uncertain line for this one!


  • Rice – 1 cup – washed
  • Jaggery – 1.5 – 2 cups (grated)
  • Kalkand (rock sugar/misri) – 2 tbsp
  • Milk – 1.5 cup
  • Coconut milk – 1 cup
  • Water – about 2 cups
  • Green cardamom – 3 – peeled and powdered (the easiest way to do this is to pound it in a mortar and pestle with 1/2 tsp of sugar – you get a really fine powder)
  • Edible camphor ( pacha karpooram) – 1 small pinch
  • Saffron – a few strands – mix with one tbsp of warm milk and set aside
  • Cashewnuts and almonds – slivered – 2 tbsp
  • Raisins  – 2 tbsp
  • Ghee – 1/2 cup (and don’t let any dieter talk you out of this!)

Fry the cashewnuts, almond slivers and raisins ina little ghee and set aside. In a heavy-bottomed vessel, cook the rice in a mixture of milk and water. When the rice is almost done, add the coconut milk, jaggery and kalkanda and continue to cook till rice is very soft and the whole thing is blended well. Add the ghee and cook for a further 3-4 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the camphor, cardamom and saffron milk and mix well. Switch off, let rest for a few minutes before decorating with nuts and raisins and serve. It’s even better the next day! Ask the guys around the telephone at the medical shop!

( pic courtesy internet)