Ven pongal is an Indian dish of rice and dal, seasoned with tadka, a tempering mixture of spices cooked in ghee. In this version, riced cauliflower is used in place of white rice to make it lower in carbs. Served in South India on its namesake holiday in January, it is also delicious anytime. If you want to serve it as shown in the photo, lightly pack the ven pongal in a measuring cup and unmold it on the plate. Recipe adapted with permission from The Vegetarian Reset by Vasudha Viswanath, The Collective Book Studio, January 2023., January 2023


Credit: Alexandra Shytsman

Recipe Summary

45 mins
1 hr 15 mins

A Warm Bowl of Ven Pongal Is Comfort Food at Its Best

During the long evenings of January in New York City, my mind often turns to childhood memories of Pongal celebrations. In India, mid-January heralds the arrival of harvest festivals that commemorate winter crops like grains and sugar cane and are also of religious significance to Hindus and Sikhs. 

As is often the case with Indian festivals, they go by different names and are celebrated with various customs across the country, for instance, Lohri in the Punjab region, Makar Sankranti in several states, and Pongal in the southernmost state of Tamil Nadu. Celebrations include kite-flying, bonfires, music, dancing and exchanges of delicacies between families.

Our family got ready for Pongal by cleaning our home, then decorating our floors with kolam (colorful designs made with rice flour). We wore festive attire and offered prayers honoring the sun and rain gods as well as the hardworking cattle that helped generate this bountiful harvest. We celebrated family ties. And as my mother made pongal, a rice dish of the same name, the aroma of ghee filled our home.

Pongal means "to boil over." Rice boils over, traditionally in an earthenware pot, accompanied by cries of "Pongallo pongal" (may this rice overflow), and so may also our fortunes! It is offered first to the gods and then to family. 

The dish comes in both sweet and savory avatars. The sweet version, sakkarai (sugar) pongal, is made with rice, milk, ghee, cashews and raisins and sweetened with jaggery. The savory version, called ven (white) pongal, is made of rice and moong dal. For me it represents the essence of South Indian cooking: a humble mixture of rice and beans elevated to extraordinary by a spectacular tadka. It is often served at wedding breakfasts, including at mine, and is a dish that I crave year-round. 

Rice is the staple food of South India and has always been one of my favorite comfort foods, making portion control hard. But white rice can also send my blood sugar soaring. A couple of years ago, as my doctor expressed concern about my elevated blood sugar and urged me to minimize refined grains, I began my exploration into low-carb vegetarian cooking.  Very quickly, I tired of eggs, cheese and avocado—my opinionated Indian palate craved spice and flavor. 

And so began my love affair with riced cauliflower. It soon became the perfect alternative to white rice, and as a bonus, meant an added serving of vegetables. I discovered the key to its preparation was to cook it with a little oil or ghee until it's dry, so that it tastes less like cauliflower and instead has a more neutral flavor that becomes a humble carrier for the flavors of the dish. 

I tentatively experimented with a cauliflower fried "rice." That was delicious. I grew bolder, making paella, a burrito bowl and then this version of pongal, keeping the flavor profiles intact. When the smell of the tadka of ginger, cashews, curry leaves and black pepper in ghee filled my home, it still made my knees weak. This pongal, made with riced cauliflower and moong dal and paired with my mother-in-law's delectable tomato chutney, was deeply satisfying. 

As even my skeptical parents tasted and approved the dish, I knew I had something special. And when mid-January rolls around, I now have a new tradition to add to the Pongal celebration, one that is authentically and deliciously mine.


Tomato Chutney


Instructions Checklist
  • To prepare pongal: Place moong dal in a medium saucepan and cover with water by 2 inches. Soak for 30 minutes; drain and rinse. 

  • Bring 1 cup water to a boil in the saucepan. Add the dal and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook until the dal is tender, about 20 minutes, adding more water if the pot gets dry. (Alternatively, cook the dal in a pressure cooker for 15 minutes on high pressure. Release the pressure naturally.) Drain any excess water.

  • Meanwhile, heat a medium skillet over medium heat. When hot, add 1 teaspoon ghee (or butter) and riced cauliflower. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the cauliflower is dry, 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer to a plate

  • To prepare chutney: Heat a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Add oil and mustard seeds. When the mustard seeds start to pop, add tomatoes, tamarind concentrate, ½ teaspoon salt, cayenne and asafetida; mix well. Reduce heat to low; cook, covered and stirring often, until the mixture is very thick, 20 to 30 minutes.

  • To prepare tadka: Heat the skillet over medium heat. Add ghee (or butter) and cumin seeds. Cook, stirring, until the cumin seeds turn dark brown, about 30 seconds. Add cashews. When the cashews turn golden brown, about 30 seconds, add curry leaves, ginger, salt and pepper; cook, stirring, until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the dal and cauliflower and mix well. Serve with the chutney.


Moong dal are split yellow mung beans. Look for them in well-stocked grocery stores, Indian markets or online.

Sweet-and-sour tamarind concentrate is made from the seed pods of tamarind trees, which are native to Africa. Look for them with other Asian or Middle Eastern ingredients in well-stocked supermarkets.

Used in Indian and Middle Eastern cooking, asafetida (as-uh-fet-i-duh) is known for its distinct, slightly sulfurous aroma that works synergistically with other spices to enhance them—similar to the way anchovies can amp up a dish's flavor without you knowing they're there. You can find the spice at Indian markets or online.

Curry leaves are native to South Asia. They have a faint citrusy flavor. Find fresh curry leaves in the produce section (and sometimes in the freezer) at Asian markets and some natural-foods stores. Freeze extra leaves airtight for up to 2 months.

Nutrition Facts

1 cup pongal & 2 Tbsp. chutney
255 calories; protein 10g; carbohydrates 27g; dietary fiber 8g; sugars 6g; fat 14g; saturated fat 6g; mono fat 6g; poly fat 1g; cholesterol 19mg; vitamin a iu 847IU; vitamin b3 niacin 2mg; vitamin c 67mg; vitamin e iu 1IU; folate 240mg; vitamin k 28mg; sodium 772mg; calcium 85mg; chromium 1mcg; iron 3mg; magnesium 90mg; phosphorus 188mg; potassium 887mg; zinc 1mg; omega 6 fatty acid 1g; niacin equivalents 4mg; selenium 4mcg.