Thursday, September 23, 2010

Food of the Gods....

My first introduction to it, possibly about 59 years ago, would have been, when a maternal uncle, dipped a pure gold ring into a bowl containing it, and then allowed the stuff to drip on my tongue, as I sat in my mother's lap, watched by a large contingent of assorted grandparents and uncles and aunts, not to mention some children, who were waiting for the main program to get over so that they could get on with their portion of the same, nicely served in more reasonable quantities in silver bowls.

This was a child's first introduction to solid food, after birth.I can 't think of a better item to introduce a child to. Variously called Kheer (North and Western India), Payasam(south) , Payesh(Bengal and lands eastwards) etc depending on which part of India you lived in.

Of course the popularity of the item has never waned, and there are folks who even today, as adults, post the variety of payasam they have just had, on Facebook pages, and discuss the finer points of the recipe , if you ask.

Then there are those, who actually follow a rigid diet , run for exercise, get all apologetic about culinary indulgences appearing quickly as avoirdupois on their hips, but are totally and firmly convinced that payasam/kheer, has the amazing property of being quickly and totally convertible to ATP in your quadriceps, and other muscles of the leg. There have even been instances of folks being suddenly energized by visions of payasam, as they battle a tired mind and wooden legs, a kilometre away from the winning post at the half marathon.......

This dish goes back to ancient times, and is basically made by boiling rice or broken wheat in milk and sugar, and flavouring it with cardamoms, pistachios, raisins, saffron, and almonds. Certain kheers or payasams or also made from coconut milk, and utilise jaggery as the sweetener. Regional seasonal varieties using such sweeteners as palm gur jaggery are very popular in Bengal.

Indian food per se, is not served in courses, but as an entire meal, with each food item having its designated place in the plate (in modern times), and the plantain leaf , traditionally. And so kheer or payasam used to be part of a meal. However, it may also be enjoyed by itself as a dessert item.

Today payasam may be made with a variety of grains, and also from vermicelli.

For many years , I used to think it is an Indian speciality, and liked to think that the British rice pudding was a stiff upper lip version of what they took back from us, after we got our Independence. Unfortunately, a person called Gervase Markham actually published a recipe for that in 1615 and called it by the very depressing name of Whitepot, defeating my efforts at trying to prove that among the many things the British took away from us , including the Kohinoor diamond, kheer aka payasam ranks right up there; not embedded in the Queen's crown, but possibly enjoyed by her at dinner.

Turns out that Kheer, Payasam,Payesh , is more international than we think.

There are 12 varieties made in Asia alone, 29 in the whole of Europe including Russia, 6 varieties in North America, and 9 in South America. Sometimes the concoction is boiled, sometimes baked, and sometimes a little bit of both.

Asian versions always have lots of nuts and spices like cardamom, saffron , nutmeg.

The European versions often boast of cinnamon, lemon peels, vanilla, orange peels, and eggs, while the Nordic countries, it served with blobs of butter , whipped cream, strawberry/cherry sauces, oranges, and sometimes almonds.

Things get a bit merrier in North America , where they soak the raisins in rum, sherry or tequila, and go innovative with spices, and include, ginger, anise seed, cloves, allspice, and even shredded and toasted coconut flakes.

Things get even more wild in South America, where they include coffee as a flavouring, and raisins are soaked before use in sherry, rum, port wine, brandy and even whisky. Vanilla, cinnamon, coconut and cloves seem to be standard.

There are stories behind payasam/kheer, and whatever it is known as, in the above countries. For example, in Flemish and Dutch Christian folklore, it is a meal given to people who go to heaven, and they supposedly eat it with a Golden spoon.

While this requires someone to go to heaven and report back, Indian legends boast of a story, that could possibly be more believable.

Ambalapuzzha in Kerala in South India boasts of a very famous Krishna temple, constructed in AD 790 by a gentleman known by the amazing name of Chembakasserry Pooratam Thirunal Devanarayanan Thampuran and it is believed that the current figure of the deity was moved here from the famous Guruvayur temple to save it from the marauding armies of Tipu Sultan. At some point in history, the local king was visited by a sage who was actually Lord Krishna in disguise.

And they decided to play a game of chess.

The King being a bit more sensitive to things like wins and losses, asked what he had to do in case he lost. Whereupon the sage, simply said, starting with a single grain of rice in the first square of the chess board, and every subsequent square carrying double the amount of the previous , the king should simply give the total quantity of rice in 40 squares to the sage. The king, who had probably chosen horse riding over maths in school, thought the sage was being very modest and didn't like it at all, but the sage insisted.

Turns out that there wasn't sufficient rice in the kingdom to match the requirements, which reached one million by the 20th square and one trillion by the 40th square. The king was upset, and that was when the Lord revealed himself to the king, and urged him to serve payasam/kheer made out of the necessary rice to all the devotees who came to the temple, as "prasad" or "blessed food". Ever since then, Pal-Payasam (rice payasam) is served to everyone who visits the temple even today, and is greatly valued by the devotees.

However just in case you thought that Payasam / Kheer/ Payesh had only heavenly associations, I must hastily add that there are some spoilsport science types that have not been able to keep away.

In Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia, a lady called Thomasina keeps stirring a spoon of jam into the rice pudding/kheer/payasam, supposedly to demonstrate chaos. Then she asks if she can separate the stuff by stirring it backwards, where upon her teacher, a Septimus Hodge , says, no, it cant be, because according to Sir Issac Newton, the universe is deterministic.

Please . I mean why mix the two . Issac Newton and Payasam . A guy with a name audibly close to Septicemia. And with so many names available the lady had to be named after a man. Theories of chaos . And why waste all the good stuff. Not done . Not done. Its like having me and Anjelina Jolie in the same picture frame. Not done.

And finally, Douglas Adams in his famous Hitch Hikers guide, has a supercomputer called Deep Throat derive the pudding recipe from First Principles. ( edited : I seem to be so severely payasama-ized , that I even named the computer wrongly. The computer there was actually called Deep Thought, and not Deep Throat . I stand corrected, apologize for the mistake and gratefully thank my friend Suchita for pointing it out.)

I give up.

I mean, why add jam ? And blasphemously , stir it backwards and forwards in the payasam, or its western version, anyway ? And Thoughts, Deep or otherwise, could ideally be relishing sweet, white, thick, chilled or warm, fluids, garnished with spices and nuts, during or post a wonderful celebratory meal instead of fiddling around desperately with binary numbers.

For heaven's sake, it's just "1" or "0".

"1" means yes, I will have Payasam, and "0" means no, I wont.

And I always thought "0" was never an option.



  1. yummy post makes my mouth water. and it was news that payasam has international connections and roots/routes. i don't think I am happy about sharing the credit but will agree to be magnanimouus.

  2. Yummy post it is!! Didn't realize it had such a history and our version is probably pretty bland in comparison, but I always enjoy it! Hope your week has gone well, have a lovely evening! Enjoy!


  3. Such a yummy post, when the festive season is in full swing and I am loving it. :)

    Even though my girls like the sugar mixed version of kheer, I prefer the moong dhal + jaggery payasam of the traditional South Indian style... :) :P

    Thank you for reminding me tomorrow being Friday (just an excuse), I am making payasam. :)

  4. Informative and very interesting.
    During my pregnancy I craved for kheer and had a bowl of Muller rice pudding every single day! Sometimes the apple version, sometimes strawberry, very rarely custard and most often plain - and everyday I thought "this is our kheer". I'm hoping someone discovers that a recipe for kheer was published in India even before 1615 :)

  5. I must suggest this to all people who are going through some trying times... try the payasam ! It clears up the mind and cleans up the arteries. Or whatever.

    Just make sure you indulge.

    But Jam ? Coffee ? Well, am not sure if thats going to be payasam.

    What the heck...its time to convince the missus to make some ! :)

  6. 1. 1. 1. Please.

    Minneapolis is host to quite a few people from India, and with them came the restaurants and THIS! This lovely item I had assumed was a dessert but now find that it doesn't have to be.

    I love this stuff. Love it even more than rice pudding, even more than tapioca. I have never had it with anything other than how it is served at Nala Pak and the Bombay Bistro :-) but now see that, indeed, to my way of thinking, it would be tasty with berries. But jam? Anything soaked in tequila?! Never!


  7. Oh my - my education continues. Totally unfamilar with the food in your country. I love rice and tapioca pudding and you gave me some ideas of different things I can put in it.
    Sounds so good!!!

  8. I love payasam - pal payasam to be exact. Although this time at home I got converted to a coconut milk/jaggery payasam fan :) This dish so deserves to be called the food of the Gods. I have heard that legend of temple that you mentioned and I found it fascinating :)

  9. Sweet post, and right after lunch..enjoyed it! The International connection was news to me. And loved the way you dealt with the different aspects of the dish - the varieties, taste, history, myths....

  10. While I have never had this dish, I always remember a story in Tinkle... where a swami eats like an elephant and says there is no space in his stomach and the king offers him payasam... and he promptly agrees for payasam and when asked how will his stomach accomadate it... and he tells the king... just like when you go on the road all else make way ... similarly the moment payasam comes in... the way will be created in my stomach !!!!!!!!!

    I m sure it tastes like heaven... I still am waiting for it to find its way to my stomach !!!!!!

  11. and I have always been told kheer is different... :|

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