It's not a mistake that all four - yes, only four - ingredients in Ammini's Paal Paayasam are white.
White is the color of meditation
How does this fit in with food and the satiation of discerning taste buds, one might wonder! Well, I have a theory that there there are certain foods in Indian cuisine that are deliberately slow-cooked, and it is not just for the enhanced flavor. These foods require a fair amount of interaction from the cook, unlike foods cooked in the slow-cooker. Think back to the days when families were not nuclear, when the stoves in the kitchen were lit well before dawn, in preparation for the first meal of the day. There may have been a cook, or there may have been several women who cooked together. Grandmother, mother, daughter-in-law, unmarried daughter, niece, sister-in-law and so on. Every woman needed a periodic break, pun intended, and that is how the isolation during the monthly menses can be explained away. But what about the rest of the month? I think that in order to give the women a break from the fast and exhausting pace of cooking and serving meals for a large family, they were sometimes given a chance to sit by and stir the same pot and perhaps get a chance to reflect on their own needs. Maybe find some inspiration in the continuous swirls and bubbles in the pot they sat by.
I could be totally wrong, of course. Maybe I need to call it a hypothesis, and not a theory! But I found this little piece of nirvana when I made Ammini's Paal Paayasam. I let go of time. I stirred and stirred. I enjoyed the constant motion in the food and my chosen immobility. The smell of milk as it neared boiling point has never seemed so divine. Add to it the incredible aroma of rice as it cooks. The sloshing white liquid had me enthralled. At the end of it all, I was incredibly relaxed, very rejuvenated and I also had a creamy silken delight to serve with dinner.
Of course, another reason for the all-white ingredients could a symbolic toast to purity since it is a dish offered to the Gods at the temple.
Paal paayasam is believed to be the favorite dessert of Lord Krishna. On Janmashtami, Lord Krishna's birthday, paal paayasam is offered at all Krishna temples across the country.
Perhaps this was not the right dish to make at a cook together and it would have been preferable if I had cooked it in advance, with the desserts. It took up one whole burner for the entire duration of the cook together. So I was very lucky that Lee brought her induction burner and its special pot and we were able to include it anyway. My friend Charlotte stirred away and did not complain even once. Given how active the kitchen was and how involved she was with the rest of the dishes, I don't think she quite got a piece of the meditation I was talking about earlier. But the circumstances were different so my hypothesis still holds. According to me, anyway!
Ammini's Paal Paayasam
From Ammini Ramachandran's Grains, Greens and Grated Coconuts.
Much is made of rice in Kerala, and in its best incarnation, it becomes amazingly delicate and creamy, nestled in a pool of slowly simmered, condensed, and sweetened milk. Traditionally, paayasam is cooked over a slow-burning wood fire for several hours, so that the milk cooks down and thickens. Once the sugar is added, the rice stops cooking, and the long, slow simmer will not make it into a soggy lump. Instead, the milk will condense and develop a reddish hue.
Ammini's recipe is a simpler and quicker version of the traditional slow-cooked version.
- 1/2 cup long-grain rice
- 1/2 gallon whole milk
- 2 and 1/4 cups sugar
- 2 cups heavy cream
- Wash and rinse the rice in several changes of water until the water runs clear. Do not drain the water completely just yet.
- Heat the milk in a large pot or saucepan over medium heat. Do not leave it unattended as it can get scorched. I lowered the heat to medium-low and stirred every so often.
- When it comes to a boil - about an hour or so - drain the water from the rice and add only the rice to the pot. Lower the heat further, and cook stirring continually to prevent scorching. It will take between 15 to 20 minutes for the rice to cook. To test if the rice is ready, try to mash some rice grains with a spoon after taking them out into a katori. It is done if it is very soft to touch and gives way easily. Cook for another five to ten minutes, if necessary. Remember that the rice will stop cooking once you add sugar!
- Stir in the sugar, and cook for another ten to twelve minutes.
- Pour in the heavy cream, and bring it to a boil.
- Reduce the heat, and simmer for twenty-five to thirty minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Remove the pan from the stove, and keep it covered to prevent the milk from forming a skin.
- Served either warm or cold but preferably along with the meal and not after the meal.
- Unless you are sure you like paal paayasam very sweet, add 1 cup of sugar, stir till it is dissolved and do a taste test. Add more sugar, 1/4 cup at a time until you are sure it is at the level of sweetness you like. For us, 1 cup of sugar was not quite enough and 1 and 1/2 cups were too sweet.
- A pint of heavy cream is a little over 2 cups, so you can just go ahead and add the entire pint.
- Why were we stirring so much? The pots we were cooking in seemed likely to scorch the milk if it was not stirred. Unless you have cooked down milk before and are sure that it will not get scorched, keep stirring the milk as you bring it to a boil.
- Resist the urge to add cardamom powder or to sprinkle cinnamom powder. Also resist the urge to add raisins or cashew nuts. Trust me, this paal paayasam simply does not need anything besides the four pure white ingredients.
- Paal paayasam, made the traditional way, has a gorgeous pinkish hue. The sugars caramelize as it cooks slowly for a longer period of time. As Priya of Akshayapaatram mentioned in her comments to this post, paal paayasam can be made using condensed milk instead of heavy cream and sugar. And, you can get that coveted pinkish color within a much shorter cooking time! Ammini suggests that you first cook the rice in the whole milk, then pour a can of condensed milk in a thin stream as you stir continuously. Keep stirring until the condensed milk is properly incorporated. Simmer for another fifteen minutes, and add more sugar if you like it sweeter.
I am reluctant to call this rice pudding because it is in a class of its own. No rice pudding can touch this! And that is from someone who does not care much for Indian sweets, especially our Maharashtrian version of Paal Paayasam, also called kheer. It is certainly not ye olde rice pudding, the western version for which multiple recipes abound.
The quality of ingredients always makes a great difference in the end product; the rice used for paayasam is no different. Back home, hand-pounded unakkalari, the aristocrat of rice varieties, is used for making paayasam. But like all true aristocrats, it is scarce, and I believe it is never exported abroad. It has a delicate flavor and a consistency that has just the right cling, and it cooks into a perfect paayasam. The clinging consistency of the paayasam depends on the starchiness of the rice. The rice should possess just enough starch to cling in cooking, but not too much to become gummy.
The authentic pot for cooking paayasam is the uruli, a heavy and shallow bell-metal pan with a curved interior. A heavy pot that transmits consistent, even heat is a perfect substitute. Do not use parboiled rice for paayasam; those grains always stay separate. In the absence of the real stuff, medium-grain or long-grain white rice is the preferred substitute.
We may not have wood fires in our kitchens but I would urge you to take time off from your daily chores and sit awhile by a pot of milk and stir. Put the phone off the hook, turn off your cellphone, take off that headset, turn off that computer, let the light stream into your kitchen and let go!
From Ammini Ramachandran's Grains, Greens and Grated Coconuts