Pongalo Pongal! Happy Pongal from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu to those near and far. Today the Cornell students all had a chance to celebrate Pongal, a traditional Tamil harvest festival, in a village.
Our schedule for this morning read “Pongal celebrations in a village,” so what I took that to mean was that we would go to a village outside of Coimbatore and observe some of the festivities already taking place. Naturally I was surprised when we arrived at the village and were greeted with this:
The village was in fact putting on the celebrations just for us! It was an extremely nice gesture, and all of us learned a lot and enjoyed ourselves immensely. However, the video cameras and excessive fanfare made the whole production feel slightly contrived from time to time.
Regardless, the first activity was a blast! The villagers picked out five of us girls to prepare the rice in traditional clay pots. The clay pots were initially adorned with flowers and colored patterns called kolam. Next, over a fire, the pots were filled with the water that the rice had been soaking in.
Adorning the clay pots with kola.
Affixing a string of flowers around the clay pot.
Lighting a fire beneath the clay pot.
Filling the pot with the water in which the rice had been soaking.
Next, the girls coaxed their fires, hoping to have the first pot to boil over. The overflowing of the pot symbolizes abundance and prosperity. It is good luck if the pot overflows to the north or the east, so the clever Tamil ladies typically place the pots upon the fires leaning ever so slightly to the northeast. Here, the first pot boiled over, at which point it is tradition to shout “Pongalo Pongal!”
Sarah, the lucky lady to have the first pot boil over, was rewarded with a beautiful red shawl, which one of the male villagers fixed up into a kind of hair wrap for her. As it turned out, each of the five ladies received a shawl when their pots boiled over.
Sarah, the lucky winner.
Sarah, the lucky winner.
Next it was time for Uri Adithal, a kind of south Indian form of a piñata. A clay pot was affixed between two palms, and the five ladies who helped cook the rice were blindfolded and each took a shot at breaking the pot.
Affixing the clay pot between two palms.
Taylor taking a shot.
Here is Sarah giving it her best shot. She actually got fairly close to breaking it!
Unfortunately none of us ladies were able to break the pot. The president of the local Lions’ Club (that was a surprise) was invited to give it a try, as we were told he has broken many a pot in all his years. He made it look easy and was rewarded richly.
President of the local Lions’ Club taking a shot.
The lucky winner.
The festivities devolved into dancing to Tamil tunes, which Peter Davies was happy to engage in.
Finally we had a Silambam performance. Silambam is a martial art from Tamil Nadu. The main weapon is a bamboo staff. I am not sure how common the addition of fire to the ends of the staff is, but it made for an impressive effect.
Lastly, we enjoyed a traditional Pongal meal on a large, green banana leaf. The traditional Pongal dish is a boil rice cooked with cardamom, jaggery (a molasses-like sugar from sugarcane), raisins, Green gram, and cashew nuts. I got to practice eating rice with my hands for the first time, a south Indian custom. Overall I really enjoyed the spicy sambar (the red stuff), but the other items were far too sweet for me. A young pup in the village feasted on that which I was unable to finish.
Pongalo Pongal! It was a great experience in the village for all of us. The Indian students and faculty accompanying us had mentioned they were sad they could not be in their homes sharing the harvest festivities with their families, but at the end of the day today, they all remarked how happy they were to have the opportunity to share Pongal with us. The farmers in the village were also both proud and overjoyed to be able to share their customs with us.
After lunch at the hotel, the real fun started. In 2012 a young student named Arun Viswanathan, a Coimbatore native, participated at this very same Cornell agriculture trip. Soon after he completed a two-year Masters of Professional Science in Food Science at Cornell. Upon completing his MPS, he had the opportunity to stay at Cornell and pursue a PhD. Instead he made the decision to return to his home in Tamil Nadu and work for a dairy. Before long, however, he grew tired of working for someone else and decided to take a leap of faith and pursue his passion: chocolate making.
Arun completed a training program with a Belgium chocolatier in the art of ganache-making. A ganache is the flavored filling inside of chocolates and pastries. Arun chose to focus on making quality ganaches to make up for the sub-par quality of chocolate he would be sourcing in India, most of which he buys through Mondelez. Upon returning to India after his training, he set up shop in none other than his parents’ house and recruited his mother as his one and only trainee.
Arun the chocolatier introducing us to a couple of his ganaches.
Upon arriving to Arun’s house, we first got to interact with a cacao farmer from the Western Ghat Hills near Coimbatore. Suffice to say this was the first of many freak outs of the visit. As I mentioned in my last post, I designed a huge theoretical breeding project for cacao this past semester and have read just about every publication on the species from the last ten years. This farmer was really amazing! Initially he wasn’t a farmer, but within the last ten years, he moved back to his father’s farm to cultivate cacao, nutmeg, and coconuts, trying his hand at farming. He uses an agroforestry system in which coconut occupies the upper canopy, cacao occupies the lower canopy, and nutmeg crops up in the middle. Despite the prevalence of disease pressure in cacao production, he successfully manages outbreak with biological control. After harvest, all of the pod shells are fed to a few cows on his farm. This which the cows do not eat are trampled and fed to vermicultured worms. The cows are allowed to graze among the trees, which supposedly promotes nutrient addition to the soil via dead roots after the tops of the plants die due to having been eaten by a cow. The cow dung, cow urine, and vermicultured worms are added to the soil, as well as additional mulch. All of these inputs act as organic fertilizers to the trees, and the mulch and dead leaves and husks provide integral feed and a home for the tiny flying midges that pollinate cacao. He’s planted both Forastero, for bulk chocolate production, and Criollo, which is believed to be the original type cultivated by the Aztecs and Mayans and makes higher quality chocolate. Criollo suffers severely from disease and is therefore hardly grown, so I was surprised to hear that his Criollo trees are yielding just as well as his Forasteros. It would have been great to have a chance to see his farm!
Our progressive cacao farmer talking about nutmeg production.
The farmer cut a couple of the pods open for us. Again, it was incredible to actually see, smell, touch, and even taste that which I had poured so much time and energy into researching. The pulp-covered beans were very slimy but tasty, and the bitterness wasn’t overwhelming. Beans from unripened pods were even better because they were more sour and less bitter.
A sliced cacao pod. The white parts are the pulp. The brown part is the bean.
The farmer also explained to us about his nutmeg production. After planting, nutmeg trees need ten years to develop before they produce fruit. The trouble is nutmeg is diecious. This means that each tree is either male or female. Only the female trees can produce fruit, so it takes ten years after planting a seed before you can even find out if you having a fruiting tree! There would be ways to sex seeds or young plants using relatively simple biotechnology, but unfortunately these haven’t been developed for farmers. If I ever got a small start of grant for a international agriculture project, I would definitely want to develop this on-farm technology for farmers.
A gorgeous nutmeg fruit.
Finally it was time to learn about chocolate. Arun’s mother showed us the inner workings of their mini chocolate factory. The purchased chocolate is melted down in this giant vat and poured into small molds. The molds are only filled halfway to allow for the addition of the ganache. The chocolate towards the outside of the molds solidifies first, so after a few minutes, Arun dumps the still-liquidy center out. This creates a depression where the ganache can be added.
The molds for chocolate-making.
Giant vat of white chocolate.
Dark chocolate anyone?
Some of the finished products.
The last bit of our visit was entirely unexpected. Arun explained that he’s experimenting with a lot of different ingredients in his ganaches, like saffron and even wasabi. His desire to be creative made sense to me, but what came next was a huge surprise:
A mini chocolate meal.
Arun is also experimenting with incorporating chocolate into food. The grand finale of this mini chocolate mean was a piece of garlic toast topped with cherry tomatoes, olives, mozzarella cheese, a dab of hot sauce, and of course chocolate. Believe it or not, it was absolutely fantastic!
At first I thought Arun’s experimentations were strange, but eventually I came to admire his desire to be creative, break with tradition, and invent something completely new and enjoyable. In a greater context, it was inspiring to see another young person, especially an India, cast off traditional conventions, follow a passion, make something out of himself, and push the boundaries within his industry. Arun borrowed his motto from the chocolatier he trained with in Belgium: “The more mistakes you make, the more successful you will become.” This is what are generation needs to do, to create something new.
Well now I am sitting here in bed having skipped dinner due to all the chocolate in my tummy. We’re off to the hill station of Ooty tomorrow morning so I better get some sleep. Feeling happy from all the chocolate and cacao and inspired by the driven, resourceful, and risk-taking Arun Viswanathan.