January 23, 2006
Harvest celebrations are a commonality across cultures, a time to think about where our food comes from and give thanks. Pongal is the time for that in Chennai, a major celebration of the harvest that happens in Tamil Nadu the middle of every January. After being deluged (or at least hopefully somewhat blessed) by the northeastern monsoons in the months of October and November, farmers are now ready to bring forth the harvest.
Like good BBQ in the U.S., the traditional flavor of these dishes comes from cooking them over a wood burning stove. In my uncle’s relatively modern Chennai home, wood stoves were constructed for the occasion, and four pots of rice were put to boil inside the house. You can see how smoky the interior is in this picture of my aunt putting some milk in the Pongal pots.
Unfortunately, burning wood indoors greatly adds to indoor air pollution, a major problem in many developing countries. Billions of people use poorly-ventilated wood burning stoves. This pollution can contribute to numerous respiratory problems, including pneumonia and lung cancer, as well as cataracts and possible blindness. In poor countries worldwide, indoor smoke from solid fuels is the second-greatest environmental risk factor contributing to premature death (the greatest risk factor is what brought me to Chennai: water, sanitation, and hygiene). It is also the second-greatest risk factor in mid-income countries (after occupational risks and just above water, sanitation and hygiene). The World Health Organization found that indoor smoke was responsible for 1.7 million premature deaths in 2000. Thankfully for my uncle’s family, they do not need to rely on these stoves every day.
The last day of Pongal, called Kanu, is meant for meeting friends and family, and the beaches and parks were overflowing with families. On the last day of Pongal I was sitting in the offices of various officials trying to organize speakers and data for an upcoming workshop I will be co-hosting on wastewater treatment. Many of these folks weren’t acting like my friends, but nevertheless…
All in all, a wonderful holiday to celebrate the coming of the new harvest and be thankful for family, friends, and good food.