Stef kneels over her pot, cooking

RUAbroad with Stefanie: Pongal Festival Competition

A few weeks ago I was walking back to residence with a few friends. We had just had dinner and were complaining about the heat when a friendly, local man stopped our group and approached us with a brochure. “Are you guys from NTU?” He asked. He was an alumnus promoting a cultural event in Little India to celebrate Pongal Festival, a traditional Tamil harvest festival. He invited us to attend a “cooking class” on how to make the sweet dessert called pongal.

We agreed and signed up for the event.

On the Saturday of Pongal Festival we woke up early and made our way down to the hustling streets of Little India. Extravagant and colourful decorations lined the side of Serangoon Rd, the main street in the district. Traditional south Indian music blast through speakers as we weave in and out of the crowds. We finally find the location a few minutes late (I’m still don’t quite know my way around) but they agree to let us in. It wasn’t until we stepped underneath the tent of the “cooking class” and walked to our station that we realized this was not a class, it was actually a cooking competition.

Not only had I never made, tried or even seen this dish before, I had never even heard of it. Despite all of this our group of five was expected to make the dish in earthenware pots over a small fire on the ground and present it to three judges to be graded for our effort. They would compare our pongal to that of the other contestants who looked like they knew what they were doing. In this situation it was either fight or flight and as much as we all wanted to fly, we fought.

We were given a bag filled with rice, milk, ghee, dried fruit, nuts, an orange powder, cardamom – we assumed these were the ingredients – and some coals and matches. With some huffing and blowing we managed to get a fire started and eventually the milk boiled. Next we added the rice, this much we could figure out on our own.

In Tamil, the word pongal means to boil over or overflow so traditionally, the cooked rice is supposed to spill over the sides of the pot and onto the floor granting the chef good fortune for the coming year. As soon as the pot overflows everyone chants, “Pongal! Pongal! Pongal!” The spill marks the boiling of the first rice of the season. The first day of this four-day festival is meant to give thanks to Surya, the Sun God for a good harvest and mark the start to the sun’s six-month journey north.

Stef's cooking pot

Waiting for our pongal to spill we tended to the fire and asked locals what to do next. Up until this point we were completely winging it, gathering what we knew from the host walking around talking into his microphone. I noticed other contestants decorating the ground around their pot with personalized patterns using coloured rice powder. A little lightbulb went off in my head, “The orange powder! That must be what it is used for!” I thought. I started filling in chalk-stencilled flowers. After completing one of them I noticed a few people watching me in confusion. I stood up and observed another group using their orange powder as an ingredient inside the dish. My face turned red.

“I think I just put food on the ground for decoration,” I said to my friend with panic in my voice. What had I done? Had I been disrespectful? Wasteful? Had I offended the other teams? A million other questions ran through my mind as a desire to crawl into a ball and melt into the ground consumed me.

A good friend reassured me that it wasn’t a big deal and together we kept fanning the fire hoping the pongal would (finally) boil over. It never really did but we got close, so to speed up the process we shouted pongal early and added the rest of the ingredients. At this point a sweet Singaporean woman had volunteered her expertise, telling us what ingredients to add when and how much. We stirred and stirred until all five of us on the team were tired and the other teams started decorating their plates. We tasted our concoction and decided it was good enough to serve to other people. The other contestants presented their pongal in fancy silverware and framed their rice flour designs with mango and banana leaves.

To be honest, had we known that this was one of the most important festivals celebrated by Tamil people and in fact a competition, not a class, we probably would have skipped out on the event or at least done a little bit more research beforehand. But we did best with what we had.

Styrofoam bowl in hand, we offered our pongal to the three judges. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone take such a small amount on a spoon in my life. But they tried it and they criticized it – and that meant we were successful-ish in completing the competition!

When the event came to an end we practically sprinted out from under the tent without as much as a backwards glance. For a while I didn’t want to talk about it because of the sheer embarrassment I felt – but now, about three weeks later, I feel comfortable enough to write about it. Not only is this story hilarious, it’s a good representation of how fun and exhilarating it can be to be forced out of your comfort zone. If I knew the truth about this “cooking class” I probably would have turned him down but life brought me down to Little India on that hot day in January and I’m glad for it. Even though it felt uncomfortable in the moment, it was also exciting and eye opening. I learned a lot about the south Indian culture and met some interesting people in the process.

Now, I can say I know how to make pongal… I guess?