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Pongal is comfort food for south India’s harvest season – plus the recipe | Travel



I stand in my kitchen, in the liminal light between dreams and dawn, trying to contain my delight. Normally, I am a late and grouchy riser but today is Pongal – the harvest festival celebrated across southern India, particularly Tamil Nadu, in mid-January – which gives me the opportunity to eat its namesake food, one that I love.

There are two kinds of pongal: a sweet one made with jaggery (palm sugar) and this savoury ven (white) pongal, a simple dish made with rice and split mung dal. It is a study in restraint, unusual for India and almost Japanese in its minimal use of spices. Heartier than porridge, it is a vegetarian’s chicken soup, the epitome of comfort food. When served along with idlis (steamed rice dumplings) and dosas (thin, crispy pancakes), it forms a perfect south Indian breakfast.

It is also served at wedding breakfasts.

While I lived in New York years ago, my Sunday routine after a night on the tiles was to walk to Pongal restaurant on Lexington Avenue and order copious amounts of it. When I holed up in London for a month to write a piece, I told chef Sriram Aylur of Quilon restaurant that while his Michelin-starred tasting menu was exquisite, what I truly craved was my grandmother’s pongal. “You and me both,” he laughed.

So here I stand in my kitchen, pouring the rice and mung dal into the pressure cooker. I want to have the dish ready before sunrise, so we can worship the sun as we usually do on this day.

A floor decoration of the harvest festival at a temple in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

A floor decoration of the harvest festival at a Hindu temple. Photograph: Chamila Karunarathne/EPA

This year, Pongal falls on 14-18 January. It is a time when we decorate our homes with symbols of the harvest. I have tied two tall sugarcane stalks on either side of my front door. There they stand, like exuberant if emaciated knights, guarding the threshold. Young turmeric, plentiful in the market at this time of year, is laid out on banana leaves, which we will feed to the cows tomorrow. My earthenware “pongal pot,” decorated with white designs, has mango leaves tied around the rim. Garlands of fragrant jasmine and marigolds are strung on every doorway. There is green everywhere I look.

I walk to the terrace and draw a design on the floor with rice flour. Orange light fills the sky. It is time. My husband and two daughters troop in. Together we carry trays of fruits, vegetables and flowers out to the terrace. The pongal pot takes pride of place in the centre.

The sun rises. We touch our palms together in a namaste and pray to Surya, the sun god. As we stand quietly, savouring the new light, the fragrance of the pongal rises up and tickles our nostrils.

Pongal-o Pongal,” calls my husband.

Pongal-o Pongal,” we echo his wish. May the harvest be bountiful.

Then, we go in, to sample this perfect dish on what will surely be a perfect day.

Savoury pongal

Serves 2

100g rice, ideally not basmati because you want the grains to stick together, so any medium- to short-grain rice
60g mung dal
½ tsp cumin seeds, lightly crushed
⅛ tsp asafoetida

3cm piece fresh ginger, chopped

700-750ml water, or add as required
12 cashew nuts, halved or quartered
10 black peppercorns
A few curry leaves
1 tbsp ghee or clarified butter
½ to 1 tsp salt (as required)

Roast the mung dal on a low heat until aromatic. Pour into a bowl, add the rice and water and pour the whole thing into the pressure cooker, adding the ginger, asafoetida and salt. Pressure cook on a medium to high heat for 10 to 12 minutes until the texture of thick porridge. (If you do not have a pressure cooker, you can make the pongal in a pot or pan on the stove-top. Simply follow the recipe and cook the rice, lentils in 800-950ml cups water for 30-40 minutes. Do add more water if needed.)

Heat the ghee in a separate pan, add cumin seeds and fry until they sputter, then add the cashews. Stir over a low heat until golden. Add a few curry leaves and black peppercorns, then pour this over the pongal. Mix well and serve hot with coconut chutney or sambar.
Shoba Narayan’s latest book is Food & Faith – A Pilgrim’s Journey Through India

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Dior plays the tarot card as haute couture comes up trumps | Fashion




In the age of sweatpants, haute couture – fashion’s superleague, in which dresses are made to order and cost about £100,000 – is enjoying an unlikely boomtime.

The haute couture lineup has been invigorated by diverse new names including contemporary American artist Sterling Ruby, who counts the thrash metal band Slayer among his fashion influences and whose new collection includes a red, white and blue loose-yarn coat, which alludes to “the current political climate, the Trump administration and the ongoing threat of rightwing anger.”

The house of Schiaparelli, fresh from a triumphant Lady Gaga moment at the inauguration, have embellished this season’s gowns with jewelled seahorses and gold casts of molar teeth.

Alber Elbaz, a cult figure much missed since his departure from Lanvin five years ago, will launch his new AZ brand with a digital collection and a livestreamed talk-show on Wednesday. Fendi join the January haute couture schedule for the first time in their 95-year history, with a womenswear debut from new British signing, Kim Jones. The digital Fendi show is rumoured to star Demi Moore, as well as Kate Moss and her daughter Lila.

With catwalk shows off limits, Dior designer Maria Grazia Chiuri costumed tarot card characters for a 15-minute film shoot at a Tuscan castle by Gomorrah director Matteo Garrone: The Magician wore a floor-length hooded evening coat embroidered with feathers; The Sun a sundress with celestial embroidery on pale gold lace.

Maria Grazia Chiuri with two models.

Maria Grazia Chiuri (centre). Photograph: Benoît Tessier/Reuters

Since 2016 Chiuri has rebooted Dior as a progressive brand, phasing out old-fashioned concepts of feminine charm in favour of the primacy of the female gaze. The tensions of the past year have seen her retreat from political statements towards a daintier aesthetic and a more whimsical mood, with the hot-take feminist slogan T-shirts, which had become a signature, on hold. In a Zoom call from her Paris studio before the show, an angelic beauty from Botticelli’s Pallas and the Centaur could be seen on Chiuri’s moodboard. The centaur, which in the painting the goddess of knowledge holds firmly by his hair, was cropped out of sight.

Garrone’s film had charm – and, after last season’s criticism for lack of diversity, a black High Priestess. There was a brief love scene, suggesting that fashion is learning a few of Hollywood’s tricks of the trade for keeping audiences engaged, for as long as film continues to sub in for catwalk shows. There was even a pinch of Bridgerton spice in the cantilevered empire line bosom of the Wheel of Fortune’s cloud-grey gown. “There is one school of thought that says tarot cards are about the future, but the point of view that fascinates me says that they help you to learn about yourself,” said Chiuri.

Dior clients “are ordering beautiful clothes to wear at home,” Chiuri said. “There are many countries with a culture of dressing beautifully within the home. And the beauty of haute couture is that if a client wants something simpler, then we can make it for them. We can make pyjamas in our couture atelier,” she said, before adding: “I am a little bit lazy, myself. If I am alone, I don’t care so much what I wear.”

The survival of haute couture is a reflection of the inequity with which the pandemic has hit incomes. The privileged few who make up haute couture’s target market have been largely insulated from the economic insecurity of the last year. But it also points to an industry shifting away from the four-seasons-a-year trend cycle which has driven the blockbuster ready-to-wear shows and a return to a slower pace. Haute couture dresses are made to order over several months and worn not just for several seasons, but for several generations – and so do not pander to fleeting trends.

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‘Come for the quips but stay for the coats’: the enduring style of Fran Lebowitz | Fashion




Pretend It’s a City is not a fun watch. It should be. A Netflix docuseries about the writer and Manhattan socialite Fran Lebowitz complaining about New York? The definition of fun. Yet, watching Lebowitz wander around pre-pandemic Manhattan in a giant overcoat and taupe scarf, scowling at the city in all its mask-free, lattice-shaped grandeur, it is hard to stop thinking about how painful an experience it is now that the city – and Lebowitz within it – is out of reach.

Lebowitz is not a fashion icon, but she is a style icon. Embodying the sort of intellectual New York world she covered in her 70s column for Andy Warhol’s magazine Interview, she might find the idea amusing. But we will never know, because she will never read this, since she doesn’t have a phone, or a computer. Her only Tweet, posted over a decade ago, reads drily: “thank you for following me you people are uber sweet”.

Still, as a self-confessed coat-loving materialist, she would be hard-pressed to deny it. “I hate money … but I love things … I love clothes,” she says in one episode, playing with the sleeve of a crisp, white men’s shirt from Hilditch & Key. In another, she launches into the origin story of her gold cufflinks made by Alexander Calder – the sculptor famed for his kinetic wire mobiles – which are probably worth about £50,000. Later, she wonders why she was refused a mortgage.

Fran Lebowitz in 1978
Lebowitz in 1978. Photograph: John Mahler/Toronto Star/Getty Images

Lebowitz has worn the same clothes for the past 50 years. With the exception of the pastel blue and cream sweaters she wore in her 20s – but gave away because they seemed “childish” – and every blue moon a pair of Manolo Blahniks, her uniform rarely deviates. It consists of the following: pinstripe blazers and broad-shouldered overcoats by Anderson & Sheppard, a Savile Row tailor whose only previous female client was Marlene Dietrich; Cuban-heeled cowboy boots, possibly by Miron Crosby (although she won’t tell), initially worn because of an injury, but also because they elevate her from 5ft 4in to 5ft 6in; many pairs of Levi’s 501 jeans with the hems ironed up; Hilditch & Key men’s shirts; and, of course, the tortoiseshell spectacles, originally by Calvin Klein but copied by a million hipsters. This led, hilariously but inevitably, to Lebowitz collaborating with the US glasses retailer Warby Parker.

If it seems reductive to talk about her coats instead of her caustic wit, blame her addiction to cashmere. Martin Scorsese, who co-produced the series and interviewed Lebowitz, knows this. He lets the camera scan her from head to toe as she takes in the “singular sensibility” of Grand Central station, or sips Diet Coke from a goblet at the Players members club, or walks over the 1964 Panorama of the City of New York at Queens Museum, those boots in protective shoe coverings.

Netflix indulges it, too, having produced a promotional poster of the show in which Lebowitz’s face becomes a doodle haircut and glasses. How many people, aside from Ziggy Stardust, John Waters and Anna Wintour, are so familiar they can be successfully reduced to a cave drawing?

And Lebowitz knows it. For every quip about the superfluousness of art on subways, or people carrying yoga mats, she has an anecdote about clothes. A favourite involves finding herself front row at the 1971 Muhammad Ali v Joe Frazier fight – the one where Frank Sinatra pretended to be a photographer to get ringside. She tells Spike Lee that she had no idea what was happening inside the ring because she was interested only in the “fantastic” fur coats and hats of the attendees.

Whether showing Lebowitz with Betsey Johnson, wearing a dinner jacket to the sequin glamour of Studio 54, or suited and booted on stage with Toni Morrison, the series is a love letter to her sartorial triumphs. But it also shows how they have grown richer with age. Since the 00s, Lebowitz has appeared (dressed) in the 2016 Pirelli calendar (“I thought it was a joke”), in a cream dinner jacket at the CFDA awards (dinner jackets are her red carpet go-to) and on the front row of fashion shows for Carolina Herrera.

Lebowitz used to be a fixture of fashion week, too. “I’m always interested in clothes, plus there are beautiful girls,” she says. “It was a perfect thing to me. What could be more perfect than a fashion show?” Now, she is not so sure. “I’ve always been interested in clothes… which is why I don’t go to fashion week any more, because they’re not about clothes,” Lebowitz told AnOther magazine last spring.

Fran Lebowitz at Naomi Campbell’s Fashion for Relief show in 2010
At Naomi Campbell’s Fashion for Relief show in 2010. Photograph: Larry Busacca/FFR

Fashion advice remains part of her repartee – no to the small glasses trend as seen on Kim Kardashian, yes to the cartoonishly large Jacquemus straw hat of 2017. On menswear, she says she would sooner see a man approach her with a grenade than wearing a pair of shorts. And as for yoga pants, it’s a firm no.

Lebowitz loves a good coat but she also sees clothes as an economy and a metaphor. From skewering Donald Trump’s aesthetic as “a poor person’s idea of a rich person”, to comparing the relationship between Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren’s customer base to the skyscrapers of New York and Dubai, she understands the role New York has to play in it.

Pretend It’s a City is a pitch-perfect dream of Warholian parties and drinking with friends, soundtracked by Lebowitz’s epigrams, which stack up like the hot dog buns of the Manhattan vendor she passes. But it is also a celebration of her style, in all its well-tailored, sensible, formality. In short, come for the quips, stay for the coats. If it seems strange to feel homesick for a Savile Row blazer, it will make sense after watching this.

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