The yin and yang of food pairings as reflected in pongal and vada!

Very rarely do “star couples” last. Something to do with the amount of adulation/ attention they get used to – methinks. In the very “me, me” world that they live in, where the clamour for attention is so strong, how much space is left to accommodate a “we”?

Even in non-star pairings, there is usually (not always!) a more outgoing partner and a quieter soul – making great matches! One needs more attention, the other is happy to be left alone or maybe has learnt the fine art of pretending to listen while absorbed in his or her own thoughts! What is VERY important here is the strategic placing of the hmmm’s… (thoughtful), the Is that so’s? (invitation to carry on since I don’t know what the heck you are nattering on about!), tsk, tsk’s (indicating you are completely at sea about the topic in the air but this is a fence you can jump off on either side!) and the best – “let’s talk about this later. This is too important to talk about while driving/eating/sleeping/whatever” (subtext here is I’VE HAD ENOUGH. JUST STOP. GIVE IT A REST AND I HOPE YOU FORGET ABOUT IT BY TOMORROW)!! All these to be used judiciously in the course of conversation.

Some very successful pairings are when the partners take turns to be the “star” of the piece/day/event – helps if you are good at very different things. It will NOT do to get competitive – “my biryani is WAAY better than yours” or “not a bad effort but you took the second curve TOO fast” (racing couple!) or a “a cupola HERE?? Are you mad – it’ll look like a strawberry mousse, not a house!!” (architect couple, in case you’re wondering what a cupola is!)

So, there having now expounded my theories of pairings (based on close to thirty years of marriage and watching many other marriages!), let me get to the crux of the matter – far more important than all those small disagreements above – FOOD PAIRINGS!

One of those marriages absolutely made in heaven – I’d go so far as to call it a Gandharva marriage – the highest form of marriage as per the Vedas – is that of Sir Pongal and Lady Vada. The lady is undoubtedly the star of the piece but there are times like when you are tired/ill/just had too much – when the knight comes to the rescue – rather like those times when nothing but the frayed nightdress will do – and you’d KILL anyone who tried to give it away!

Vadas – of two kinds – have had their place in this narrative but now comes the turn of the quintessential comfort food for most South Indians – Pongal – to take its place centre stage – a dish so perfect it has a WHOLE festival named after itself!! Here’s a challenge – name any other dish which has this distinction – imagine a festival named mutter paneer or chocolate cake – even America does not have a festival called apple pie!


  • Rice – (raw rice, not the parboiled variety) – 1 cup
  • Moong dal / pesara pappu / patham paruppu/ green gram dal – 1/2 cup 
  • Ginger – 1″ piece – minced
  • Cumin seeds/ jeera – 1/2 tsp whole + 1/2 tsp crushed
  • Peppercorns – 1/2 tsp
  • Green chili – minced – 1
  • Turmeric – 1 pinch
  • Salt
  • Ghee (very important – no substitutes!) – 2 -3 tbsp
  • Cashew nuts – broken into halves – 2 tbsp
  • Curry leaves – 2 sprigs
  • Mustard seeds – 1/2 tsp
  • Asafoetida – 2 generous pinches.

Heat half a tbsp of ghee in a pressure cooker and fry the washed moong dal for 4-5 minutes. Add the rice, ginger. minced chili, turmeric, salt, crushed jeera and 5 cups water. Pressure for 4-5 whistles. Open when the cooker has cooled off – do not force open. Mash well with the back of a ladle.

Heat the rest of the ghee in a small pan (popu garita / thaalchi kottra karandi – what a mouthful!). Add mustard seeds. When they pop, add the pepper, jeera, curry leaves, asafoetida and cashewnuts and fry till nuts turn a golden yellow – about a miute.

Pour over the pongal.

Serve with pacchi pulusu (thin, watery sweet and sour gravy with tamarind and jaggery and flavoured with pepper, jeera, green chili and ginger). Of course, if your yin and yang are in perfect harmony, let it reflect on the plate – with BOTH  pongal and vada! 

 (pic-courtesy internet – sorry – still travelling!)