South Indian food can be intoxicatingly heady...... or overwhelming, depending on individual perception. The fact that I grew up being constantly assailed by smells of roasting cumin, simmering asafoetida, mustard seeds popping and curry leaves blistering in hot oil, from neighbouring kitchens, probably predisposed me to a passion for South Indian flavours. On any day, I would take them over the more well known and less assertive ones of North Indian cuisine.

food photography 101 tip no 1 - don't use shiny or reflective containers; see my hand holding the camera?
see how uncomfortable your eyes feel looking at this picture? :P

When I last cooked for a living, I was fortunate enough to have found myself an assistant who was a fantastic cook and the kind of person whose greatest joy was to feed others. One day she brought a nondescript looking pack which was her breakfast, to work. She opened it and the smell almost brought me to my knees. From that morning on Letchumi would often bring me a breakfast of spiced semolina, known in India  as Rava Pongal. I once mistakenly thought it was just some deliciously savoury mess, stirred up by South Indian mums the world over, for their hungry families, many mornings of a year.

Actually, it's one of many dishes associated with Pongal, or the Harvest Festival, a four day long celebration originating in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, that's observed every year, in mid January to celebrate abundance, much the same way Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. That's about as much as I know - I acknowledge festivals mainly for the good eats they provide, but, if you want to know more, here's a handy link.

Traditionally, Rava (Semolina) Pongal would include things like ghee (clarified butter) cumin, mustard seeds, curry leaves, dried red chillies, moong dal and green chillies, and it's always served at breakfast. I've made a heartier, vegetable laden, vegan version using vegetable oil, that serves well as a light and quite healthy lunch. Today was supposed to be a fish post as I woke up this morning wanting fish for lunch. Just as I was about to set off in search of some nice mackerel, pomfret or dory, the sky darkened dramatically and absolute sheets of rain began falling. Half an hour of waiting and the incessant pelting of the windows convinced me fish would not be on today's menu.

food photography 101 tip no 2 - if it's cloudy, unless you're a pro with pro equipment, keep your pan and camera.
don't try to make up for the poor light by piling on the "bright" *eckk* This btw, is what "biscuity" brown roasted semolina should look like

I only had vegetables in the fridge and a quick scrounge around the kitchen meant I didn't have to eat fried rice, again. For anyone contemplating going vegetarian, I would definitely recommend the Indian route. South Indian food especially, is so abundantly flavourful and aromatic, when you become acquainted with it, you understand why vegetarianism or even veganism is so rampant in India.

The heavy reliance on a mind boggling array of grains and pulses, spices, fruit and vegetables and of course, the magnificent spices make the cuisine substantial, vibrantly colourful and absolutely saturated with flavour and aroma. You will go through an entire, gratifyingly gut busting meal before you realise there wasn't a scrap of meat anywhere. Makes all the sense in the world, for a near ravaged planet, fast running out of resources.

Prep 15 mins  Cook 15 mins  Serves 3


150 g (1 cup) fine semolina
330 ml (1 2/3) cup water
1 1/2 level tsp sea salt
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 level tsp cumin seeds
1 small onion, peel and slice thinly
2 green chillies, slice (deseed if you like)
3 cloves garlic, peel and grate fine
1 small knob ginger (half the length of your thumb) peel and grate fine
2 Tbsp fresh grated coconut
1 cup very small cauliflower florets (about two large florets cut fine)
1/2 cup thawed frozen baby peas
1 large firm, ripe tomato, cut into cubes
A handful cilantro leaves
Pinch hot chilli flakes (optional)


Dry roast the semolina over a moderate heat, stirring all the time, until nutty smelling and a pale biscuit colour. Remove from pan and set aside. Put the water, 1 tablespoon oil and 1 tsp of the salt into a separate small pot and bring to the boil.

Heat about 3 Tbsp vegetable oil in same pan you used to roast semolina and when moderately hot, add the cumin seeds and stir until fragrant, ensuring the seeds don't burn.

Add the onions and green chillies, cook stirring often, until limp. Add the garlic, ginger and coconut and continue to cook until fragrant and almost crisp. Put in the cauliflower and cook for about 3 minutes or until just beginning to soften.

If water has boiled, pour in the roasted semolina and stir immediately until mixture thickens. Stir to break up and allow to cook for about 2 minutes. Turn off heat and keep covered.

Add peas, tomatoes and remaining salt to the vegetables in the pan and stir until peas are thoroughly heated through and tomatoes are beginning to soften.

Turn off heat and add vegetables to the semolina in the pot. Stir through, taste and adjust seasoning if neccessary. Dish out and garnish with cilantro and chilli flakes if you wish. Serve immediately.