Organising my kitchen cupboards is a mundane task, but sometimes it is surprisingly rewarding. Ingredients that I never find when I need them materialise like Banquo’s ghost in Macbeth, but with happier consequences. On one recent cleaning effort I chanced upon a packet of kalkandu or mishri, rock sugar. It transported me back to childhood when temple visits were often rewarded with crinkly yellow-cellophane wrapped treasures of khajoor (dry dates), mishri, raisins and cashew. They stayed fresh for a long time, though I did not usually put them to the test. The thought of rolling around an oversized chunk of rock sugar in my mouth till it dissolved brought so much joy.
Kalkandu is apparently a favourite of the gods too. In my 2019 travels across India exploring sacred food offerings, I learnt of a delicious sounding naivedyam using kalkandu in several ancient temples in Tamil Nadu. I particularly remember an early morning visit to Thillai Kali Amman Kovil, a Shakti Peetham located a short distance from the famous Chidambaram Nataraja temple. Legend speaks of the celestial dance competition between Shiva and Kali, where the goddess is defeated and banished from Thillai to where the Kali Amman temple is now located.
After my darshan of the goddess, the gurukkal (priest) gave me a donnai or leaf bowl filled with steaming hot kalkandu sakkarai pongal. This is a concoction of rice, passi paruppu (moong dal), rock sugar and ghee, garnished with plump fried raisins and fragrant with saffron, cardamom and pachchai karpooram (edible camphor). Kalkandu sakkarai pongal is better known as a signature item in the naivedyam of the Chidambaram temple.
I first tasted this flavourful sweet while staying with my friend, Mangalam, during the Pongal/ Sankranti festival. Her home town, like mine, is Coimbatore, once part of the ancient Kongu Nadu region. Kalkandu pongal is a popular item in this region’s cuisine. Mangalam’s mother prepared a different pongal for each day of the festival: the usual jaggery-based sakkarai pongal with rice and lentils, millet pongal with karuppatti (palm jaggery), savoury ven pongal, and my favourite, kalkandu sakkarai pongal, with brown rock sugar. I was happy that she did not add edible camphor: though reminiscent of temple prasadam, camphor, if not used judiciously, can overwhelm all other flavours and ruin the dish.
Several variations are possible in the preparation of kalkandu pongal. Kalkandu sadam, for instance, has rice (no lentils) cooked in milk. Powdered rock sugar is added, followed by saffron, cardamom and a garnish of ghee-fried raisins and cashew. Alternatively, rice may be cooked in water and milk added (or not) later. Kalkandu may be powdered, melted into a thin syrup, or used as is. While saffron and cardamom are standard ingredients, nutmeg may or may not be included.
In the southern States, sakkarai pongal, with rice, moong dal, milk and jaggery, is a popular preparation for bhog/ naivedya in homes and temples. Rich with ghee and studded with fried cashew and raisins, it is an all-time favourite, and kalkandu sakkarai pongal is an interesting alternative, with rock sugar, saffron, cardamom and nutmeg each contributing their unique flavour.
The packet of rock sugar in my kitchen brought instant memories of this delectable dish and I put it to good use in a recipe broadly similar to the one used in the Chidambaram temple.
I use my grandmother’s vengala paanai or bronze pot to make the pongal. It is heavy-bottomed and allows the dish to slow-cook on low heat. Alternatively, rice and dal may be pressure-cooked and other ingredients added (as in the recipe below). In this recipe, kalkandu may be powdered. However, when the crystal chunks are allowed to dissolve gradually in cooked rice it brings a special flavour. Stirring the saffron gently into the pongal helps it infuse the rice with its aroma and colour, giving the sakkarai pongal its classic pale yellow hue.
Chidambaram temple Kalkandu Sakkarai Pongal
Rice ½ cup
Passi paruppu/ split moong – 2 tablespoons
Kalkandu/mishri – 3/4 cup
Salt – 1 pinch
Saffron – 4-5 strands
Ghee – 1 teaspoon + 2 tablespoons
Cardamom – powdered 1 pinch
Nutmeg – powdered 1 pinch
Cashew, raisins – a few
1. Soak rice and dal separately for 20 minutes. Drain.
2. Roast dal in 1 teaspoon of ghee. Add rice, roast for 2 minutes.
3. Cook rice and dal till soft. Mash well while hot.
4. Add kalkandu. Let it dissolve (about 10 minutes on low heat). Stir frequently.
5. Add salt, stir.
6. Add saffron, stir for 2 minutes.
7. Add cardamom, nutmeg. Stir.
8. Fry cashew and raisins in ghee. Add them (with ghee) to pongal.
The author is a chartered accountant, and author of Bhog Naivedya: Food Offerings to the Gods.