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If you grew up in a traditional South Indian family like I did, you’ll probably agree that sweets were meant for ‘occasions’ – mostly festivals. The reason I emphasize South Indian is because I know there are belts that have jilebis for breakfast. I mean, on one of my early visits to my husband’s Bengali home as a new bou, imagine my gawking surprise (and delight) at being presented with a plate of shingaras (samosas) and jilebis for breakfast. Anyway for South Indians, the end of a meal is signified by curd rice – or rice mixed with yoghurt, a dash of salt, and consumed to the accompaniment of a pickle.
Even in weddings that lay out a smorgasbord – with peni and chiroti and payasa and boondi ladoo as sweets – it all ends with majjige anna or curd rice. Probably the coolness and the acidity regulator in yoghurt helps settle down all the spices and sugar consumed all through the meal. In the weddings I’ve attended as a cynical teen, watching people consume food off the traditional plantain leaf (seriously, what an eco-friendly way of eating!) was an entertainment in itself. For example, there is a process to eating your chiroti and peni. First you sprinkle a generous amount of sugar on it. Then, soften the crispy chiroti/peni by slowly pouring badami milk provided specifically as an accompaniment. So when you put this divine thing in your mouth – you have the slightly bland and crisp taste of the underlying chiroti/peni, the crunch of the sugar that would not have fully dissolved, and the hot, thick milk richly flavoured with saffron and almonds. Do this the wrong way and you’ll have a mushy mess, with the milk flowing in tributaries all over you ele or leaf, and soon, it will pool on your lap.
See that’s the thing...these exotic sweets required a lot of effort to prepare...and demanded your concentration whilst eating – so you savoured it all the more. These are not usually prepared at homes – the only place where we could taste them was at weddings...so for me, chirotis/penis are all the more precious. The last time I had chiroti was in my friend VC’s wedding...and that seems to have taken place in the Jurassic era.
But for me, the emperor of desserts is ghas ghase payasa - a sweet porridge flavoured with roasted khus khus or poppy seeds – because of its simplicity in preparation, unique flavour and after-effects.
There are variations in the preparation from region to region, but here is the way I do it –
1) 2-3 cubes of jaggery, depending on their sweetness
2) 5 tsp of poppy seeds
3) Rice flour 3-4 tsp
4) Half a shell of coconut, grated.
5) Milk – ½ litre or more, depending on the consistency you like. You can use semi-skimmed, but whole milk gives a richer taste.
6) Nutmeg and cardamom for flavouring (you can use nutmeg powder).
1) Dry roast poppy seeds till a nice aroma filters out. Remove immediately from the flame.
2) Grind the roasted poppy seeds, grated coconut and rice flour in a mixer, adding little water. The consistency of this batter should be thick and smooth.
3) In a thick-bottomed pan, place the jaggery, add a little water and on a low flame, allow the jaggery to melt. Filter this melted jaggery to remove impurities and transfer this to another thick-bottomed pan. Add the poppy-coconut batter to the jaggery solution, and on a low flame, bring to boil whilst constantly stirring. You can add the nutmeg powder now.
4) Add milk in small quantities till you think you have the right consistency. As the kheer boils on low flame, it takes on a satin sheen and become thicker. Adjust the consistency as per your requirement by adding more milk.
5) Switch off the heat. Pound three or four pods of cardamom and add the powder to the hot kheer.
Your payasa is done. But – you are not to gobble it up uncouthly. If you want to hit nirvana, you must try my method.
Firstly, make sure the day-after-payasa is a holiday. So a Saturday is ideal for this. If possible, take the traditional oil bath. A good substitute for castor oil is coconut oil, considering we don’t get seegekai in its original form easily – and considering most of us are losing hair, rubbing the scalp with seegekai may not be a good idea anyway. Do the traditional Indian head massage with warm coconut oil and sit in the sun for an hour. Don’t read, don’t check emails ...nothing. Just turn your face to the sun, and let your skin absorb the warmth and energy.
Once you are done with your shower, have a light lunch to make space for the payasa. Serve yourself the payasa in a large steel tumbler. The temperature of the kheer should be just right – it should not be scalding; it should not be lukewarm. It should be just hot enough for you to feel it against your throat, and the flavour of the poppy seeds should flare in your mouth. Throw on your favourite music (my fix is Pink Floyd’s ‘Any colour you like’) as you drink your payasa. The poppy seeds usually have a sedative effect, but taken this way – well...it’s the most organic way of entering psychedelic trance.
To me, that is a dessert!
© Sumana Khan – 2015