Friday, 12 October 2012

Kheer and Nostalgia

As a bureaucrat, for a period of time in his career, my father travelled fairly extensively around the country. He was rarely gone for more than a week at a time, but would call every evening to check on us. I remember these calls from faraway places. They were always brief. This was India from a different time. Long distance calls were expensive. But we all managed to get a couple of words in.

I looked forward to these calls. As a child, when my father travelled on work, I thought of him as a bit of a celebrity. In my head, I imagined him catching an Important Flight to attend an Important Meeting in an Important Place. I remember mentioning, quite unnecessarily, to my friends at school that my father was away, travelling on work.

There was always a little bit of ceremony around packing the night before his departure. My father is an organised and meticulous man. When it comes to packing anyway. Inevitably, his suitcases were a work of art, both before he left home, and once he was back home from his trip, as my brother and I discovered as we rummaged through his clothes to hunt for treats and souvenirs.

There was also some ritual around his homecoming. As the time of his arrival approached, my brother and I would look out excitedly from the balcony, scanning cars as they drove into the parking lot. When he finally got home, we each got a hug. I remember the smell of his old Old Spice aftershave, an old habit that continues to hold strong. It was tradition for him to bring some chocolate back for my brother and I. I remember looking forward to the chocolate, being thrilled when it finally appeared, and fighting hard to hide my dismay on the rare occasions that it failed to materialise for reasons that mattered little to me. 

One of the nicest things about children is their ability to find happiness in little things. Isn’t it unfortunate that we unlearn some of the most important lessons as we grow older? Today’s post is about one of the simplest desserts of them all – kheer, a north Indian variant of what is a near universal dessert. We know it as payasam in parts of south India, payesh in Bengal, and as some form of rice pudding in most other parts of the world. I took this kheer along to a potluck attended by my classmates who come from all over the world, and it seemed to be comfortably familiar to all palates.

Discounting the time that it takes to babysit the kheer on the stove (which my flatmate and I took turns to do) to prevent it from sticking to the bottom of the dish, this is a relatively effortless recipe to follow. The star ingredient is the saffron, which lends an unmistakable flavour and a gentle yellow hue to the kheer. I have a little stock of saffron in my kitchen here. My father brought it from beautiful Kashmir on the latest of his, now rare, official trips. I have never been to Kashmir, but for now, I am happy to have some Kashmiri saffron in my kitchen, and happier still that I am yet able to find joy in some of life’s simple pleasures.

Kheer (serves 6-8 persons)

2 cups cooked finest basmati rice
1/2 gallon  (1.9 litres) whole milk 
1 generous pinch of saffron, soaked in 3-4 tbsp warm milk (leave the saffron to soak for at least 20 minutes) and a few strands to garnish  
1/3 cup raisins
1/3 cup sliced almonds/cashewnuts (I used almonds)
¾ or 1 cup sugar (depending on how sweet you like your kheer; 1 cup makes for a very sweet kheer)
1 tbsp ghee

Divide the milk into two halves. Leave half of the milk to cook on medium heat on the hob in a heavy bottomed vessel. Stir as often as possible to prevent the milk from sticking to the bottom of the vessel.
Place the rest in a microwave safe bowl. Microwave the milk uncovered for ten minutes. Leave it to rest for five minutes, stir the milk, and then microwave again for ten minutes. Repeat the cycle (i.e. 3 cycles of 10 minutes each in the microwave in total). By this time, the milk would have thickened considerably and reduced in quantity. Add this thickened milk to the milk on the hob. Add the cooked rice and the sugar. Start with ¾ cup sugar, and you can always add more later to make the kheer sweeter if you like. Continue stirring. This is the agonizing part. It took us 30-40 minutes of constant stirring on medium-high heat before the kheer reached the desired consistency. Take it off the heat, and let it cool. Add the saffron flavoured milk.

In a small pan, heat the ghee and add raisins and the nuts. Stir briefly until the raisins turn plump and the nuts turn a light brown shade. Add the nuts, raisins, and ghee to the kheer and stir. Serve warm or cold, depending on how you like your kheer.  

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