There is no dish in the Indian cuisine that is more rooted in culture and tradition than payasam. From simple celebrations to festivities to religious ceremonies, this dessert is inseparable. Not only because of its popularity and love but also because it is ingrained in our tradition that no auspicious occasion is complete without serving this dessert.
On special days, heaven be praised, we have too many religious festivals; it is a common practice to serve a little bit of sweet as the first item on the menu. It is a symbolic representation of celebrating new beginnings on a sweet note and that sweet customarily is payasam. A small serving of the payasam is spooned out before serving other dishes. That’s the first thing we relish before digging in to an enormous spread. There are two cultural dining etiquettes that all south Indian mothers never fail to teach their lovely daughters: the right way of placing the banana leaf for dining and to remember that the first thing to be served on a platter, on festive days, is payasam.
Don’t be fooled by the banana leaf thing. Let me emphasize, it’s very significant to lay the banana leaf the right way and is quite confusing for the newbies. It is a custom in South India to serve traditional meals on a banana leaf during festive occasions like Diwali, religious events and during weddings. It is a traditional Indian dining etiquette to sit on the floor; laps crossed and eat food from a banana leaf. Each item is served in a particular order starting with payasam, which is served on the bottom right corner of the leaf. I hope you get the drift and realize how puzzling it can be!
Coming back to payasam, this dish dates back to ancient times and its origin is quite ambiguous. It is woven with myths and legends. Kheer, a thicker version of payasam is mentioned in Ayurveda. There is a literary reference mentioned, as early as 14th century BC in Gujarat, India about a similar dish made with millets and milk. Payas or ksheerika, is also the Sanskrit root word for payasam/kheer, which, means a sweet dish made with milk. Persians have another popular recipe called firni and they used dry fruits and nuts to enhance its taste. It is a common fact that the Mughals and Persians heavily influenced the north Indian cuisine and the present kheer recipe could have been adapted from it.
A remarkable thing to observe here is that this dish is omnipresent. Almost every cuisine in the world has a variant of this dish. It is glorified and relished by many cultures worldwide. This is commonly known as rice pudding in the West, Ksheer in the Middle East, arroz con leche in Spanish and so on. Each recipe varies greatly and is evolved and adapted according to the local inhabitants. It sets a clear idea of how cultures and traditions were intertwined and embraced mutually.
Payasam can be made with rice, vermicelli, and tapioca pearls. In modern times it is also made with veggies like carrots and yellow pumpkins. Rice or vermicelli is simmered in milk until it is creamy and rich. You can then top it with nuts of your choice – almonds, cashews, pistachios, raisins, and even macadamia nuts. Flavor it with cardamom or nutmeg powder or any kind of natural flavoring essence.
Curdling of milk may be an issue while making. To avoid it, always boil the milk and then add the milk (warm or at room temperature) to the mixture while making payasam. This is a foolproof way to prevent curdling of milk. If the milk is too hot or cold, either ways, the chances of milk curdling are higher. Try to use whole fat milk; it also prevents milk from curdling.
Even though milk is the main ingredient, other milk derivatives can be used. Mainly, condensed milk and evaporated milk are used. These two provide a full-bodied base to the payasam. The dairy products can be used alone or in a combination.
Semiya payasam is a traditional Indian dessert prepared with vermicelli cooked in milk and topped with cashews, raisins, almonds and pistachios.
- 4 cups milk divided (3 cups + 1 cup)
- 1 cup vermicelli (semiya)
- 1 cup water
- 6 Tbsp sugar
- 2 Tbsp condensed milk
- 1 Tbsp ghee (clarified butter), divided
- 10 cashews broken
- 10 almonds sliced
- 10 golden raisins
- 10 pistachios sliced
- Boil milk in a saucepan and keep it aside.
- Heat ½ tablespoon ghee in a pan. Once it is hot, fry the cashews, almonds, pistachios & raisins separately, until they all turn golden brown. Remove them from the pan and keep it aside.
- In the same pan add the remaining ½ tablespoon ghee. Fry the vermicelli until it starts changing its color and becomes golden brown. (This step can be skipped if using roasted vermicelli).
- Then add 1 cup of water and 1 cup of boiled milk to the pan. Frequently stir the mixture else the milk will burn at the bottom.
- Keep adding milk progressively as and when the mixture thickens. Add about 1-½ cup milk, and cook the vermicelli until it becomes soft.
- Once the vermicelli gets cooked, add the condensed milk and sugar. Add the remaining ½ cup milk and keep it on the stove for few more minutes until the sugar dissolves.
- Turn off the stove and add cashews, almonds, raisins, and pistachios. This thickens on cooling. Keep an extra cup of boiled milk at hand. So if you are serving later & it thickens, you can add some more milk (according to your consistency preference) and serve.