Dessert of future past

Aug 11, 2018, 08:22 IST | Suman Mahfuz Quazi

As kheer gets acknowledged as a heritage dish, we try to trace the dessert's history through the many variants found across India

Dessert of future past

Everybody eats. The prince with gold, the pauper who is old, the student on a budget, the boss with an Amex - everybody needs to eat. Perhaps that's why food forms such an important part of our lives and axiomatically a part of our history.

And speaking of history, an all-time favourite that comes to mind is kheer, the mention of which dates back to 400 BC and the sweet treat was recently featured as a heritage food alongside pilaf, cheesecake and other food dishes on a food history website. It's as simple as it is unique. The recipe includes milk, primarily, and a sweetener and a grain, millet, fruit or vegetable. It is unique in the many variants available across the country such as payasam, payesh, phirni and so on.

Mohsina Mukaddam and Pushpesh Pant
Mohsina Mukaddam and Pushpesh Pant

Food historian Mohsina Mukaddam says tracing the history of the dish is not easy. "India is so diverse that it is difficult to say when it was first mentioned. We can go back to the Rig Vedic period but some Tamilians claim it was mentioned in Sangam literature. The problem with Indian food history is that there are no clear dates and literature cannot be an authentic source because there is so much interpolation," she tells us.

Irrespective of how kheer came to be, one thing is clear - along with the human race, the dessert too has evolved. "Starting from 2500 BC, whenever a grain was introduced in our diet, it found its way into the dish," Mukaddam says.

Have the eco-political conditions of pre-and post-Independence and the social fabric of different regions influenced the sweet favourite? We ask historian and food enthusiast Pushpesh Pant. "Social fabric, caste, community and above all class, have impacted kheer. For example, the poor man's kheer is made with less milk and sugar or even cheaper substitutes like sakarkand. In the Sultanate period, it evolved into phirni made with rice powder. In Awadh, gourmets experimented with lehsun ki kheer and ek chawal ki kheer. And the British diluted it to a rice and milk pudding," he remarks, adding, "The dish continues to evolve even today along with changing tastes and rising health consciousness. Gone are the days of using condensed milk as a thickening agent. The inclusion of dried fruits and nuts, too is supposed to enrich the dish and make it healthy."

Perhaps the origin and evolution of the dish is so debatable because of the myriad symbolism attached to it - some serve it at funerals and some at engagements. Irrespective of that, the very fact that it is consumed in one form or the other across the length and breadth of the country points towards one thing - it is loved unanimously.


Southern sweetness
The paal payasam is kheer with a South Indian twist. The dish contains milk, ghee, rice and sugar and is flavoured with cardamom. Some even experiment with coconut milk and it is garnished with broken
cashew nuts.
TIME: 7 am to 12 am
AT: Thangabali (Mahim and Andheri West).
CALL: 9920345383 (Mahim)
COST: Rs 120


From the heart of Bengal
This seasonal delicacy which is available from September to March is made with a special kind of dark jaggery available in West Bengal or the Middle East. The chenna payesh is rich with pieces of malai and is topped with Irani almonds.
TIME: 12 pm to 11.30 pm
AT: Zaffran (all outlets).
CALL: 30151594 (Lower Parel)
COST: Rs 175


Keep it class-ic
A staple sweet treat for any occasion, the classic rice kheer is as good as it gets, whether you eat it hot or cold. The dessert is made from basmati rice and milk and topped with dried fruits and saffron to elevate the all-time favourite.
TIME: 12 pm to 3.30 pm; 7pm to 10.30 pm
AT: Crystal, Easter Emporium, near Wilson College, Chowpatty.
CALL 23691482
COST: Rs 65


From the northern echelons
Phirni is made with ground rice and is boiled with milk, spices and sugar till it thickens. It is then set in clay pots. Garnished with chopped nuts and rose petals, the dish is a legacy of the Mughal rule in India and found predominantly in the northern regions.
TIME: 12 pm to 12.45 am
AT: Yasin's Food Inn, Lokhandwala, Andheri West.
CALL: 30150887
COST: Rs 55


Tropical delight
For those who love a tropical twist to their dessert, the elaneer payasam is a must try. A lighter version of kheer, in this dish ground tender coconut replaces rice giving the treat a refreshing change.
TIME: 8 am to 11.30 pm
AT: Madras Diaries, Linking Road, Bandra West.
CALL: 26400967
COST: Rs 175

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