India, through the centuries, has been a country deluged with milk. The Bhagavata Purana, the Mahabharata, and the Vishnu Purana make reference of ‘Samudra Manthan” where the Ocean of milk or Kshira Samudra was churned for the creation of amrita, the drink of immortality. Milk has played an important role in our festivals, temples, and religious ceremonies. For the Vedic Indian, milk and its products were a part of the everyday diet. From birth to death, use of milk became de rigueur in rituals.
The legendary food for Gods, the first reference of kheer with jowar was made by the Sufi poet, Malik Muhammad in his epic poem Padmavat in the fourteenth century. Also known as Kshirika in Sanskrit it literally means ” a dish prepared with milk”. Perhaps it was rice that was upheld for its life-sustaining qualities along with the abundance of milk in the subcontinent that led to the origin of kheer and its importance in our religious ceremonies. The simplicity in making it with basic ingredients found in every kitchen has made it popular in every household in the country. Known by different names such as payasam, payasa, phirni, Gil-e-firdaus, payesh it is truly a pan-Indian dessert.
Making kheer is not difficult nor is it strenuous. All it takes is patience and perseverance. It’s more like a happy dance of milk and rice, both twirling and swirling on the flames for a couple of hours, thickening and getting glossier by the minute. To it, add saffron and cardamoms. The saffron adds its distinct color and the cardamoms pep up the aroma. It reaches its crescendo when, in the final act sugar mingles with the milk and rice to give it a smooth, velvety consistency. This is the simplest way to make kheer. To add layers to its textures one can then further play around with it. Nuts like pistachios, raisins, slivered almonds add a bite to the delicate flavor and a few drops of rose water bring perfumery to the dessert. It was the Persians who introduced these to the basic kheer. Chill it or serve warm, it’s your choice. The final result is a bowlful of heaven. Ingredients smoothly wrapped with thick, condensed milk and each bite stirring all the senses to another level of gustatory pleasure. A sweet temptation hard to resist!
Kheer is not just a favorite in India. It is made very much in a similar manner in many parts of the world but with distinct variations. Shir-berenj is the Persian incarnation of rice pudding. Milk, water, rice, and cardamom are the main ingredients and adding sugar just optional. Depending on the preference sugar, jam, honey can be mixed later. In the three trips, I have made to Afghanistan, the rice pudding served is dairy free. Called Sholeh Zard, sugar is added to boiling rice and cooked until water and rice become dense. To this saffron, cardamoms rose water and slivered almonds are added. The method is the same except that water replaces milk.
Kheer is most versatile as a dessert. One can thicken it, make it richer or replace sugar with jaggery or condensed milk. Different types of dry fruits and vegetables and fruits like sugarcane, apple, mango and bottle gourds can be used. Vermicilli and sago can be the key ingredient in place of rice. Of course, the name keeps changing and these are all off-shoots of the basic kheer recipe.
I usually make kheer at home with condensed milk. The caramelized milk adds its own flavour and colour to the final product. While the world enjoys it simply as a dessert I love scooping a bite of hot mirchi wala parantha into a bowl of chilled thickened kheer and eating it that way. For me, that is the ultimate explosion of both sweet and spicy flavours in the mouth. Also, I throw a couple of bay leaves to milk and rice when I put it to boil. It adds a woody flavour that is not pronounced but you know it lingers somewhere on your taste buds. Of course, I throw them out once I’m ready to garnish and chill. Whether you have it hot or cold, as a fruit kheer or rice kheer, one scoop of the dessert and you’re sold. Kheer is a perfect ending to a good meal.