What happens when creamy milk assimilates the rice grains boiling on a low flame for hours, with trailing saffron threads imparting a lovely hue, swirling with a dash of cardamom? Garnished with slivers of almonds and rose petals, it transforms into a sweet temptation impossible to resist called kheer. No wonder the Gods love it!
Kheer or Kshirika in Sanskrit is the food for Gods. It is first mentioned as kheer made with jowar, in Padmavat the epic poem written by the Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi in 1540 CE. The word kheer conjures a vision of temples and ceremonies, Gods and Goddesses, happiness and laughter. No Indian religious ceremony is complete without the kheer, also known as payasam, payasa, payas or payesh in different parts of the country. It is the ancient sweet offering of the Hindu culture, truly pan-Indian.
Translating the word kheer in English is impossible as no word can describe the richness of its delicate flavour and the soulful experience of eating. Calling it a milk custard or pudding makes it sound too mundane without doing any justice to its glory.
Making kheer is almost a revered ceremony. It requires patience and devotion. The simplicity of the recipe can often misguide a novice. However, expert cooks understand that achieving that divine taste and consistency involves enthusiasm laced with perseverance.
Boiling rice, milk and sugar make rice kheer. It is cooked slowly by continuously stirring to avoid it sticking to the bottom of the pan. A medium flame provides time for milk and rice to get acquainted. If they remain strangers, the rice will sulk and sink to the bottom of the pan. Then instead of kheer you have rice grains cooked in milk.
When milk thickens to a velvety consistency and rice grains float on the top, the kheer is done. Garnish it with raisins, almonds and saffron or nuts of your choice. The texture should be soft and dense so that even the spoon is reluctant to let it go. Every Indian state has a signature recipe for kheer and every family has its own kheer recipe handed down from generations.
As a child, I always looked forward to relishing kheer on auspicious days. On few festivals in the month of August, there would be school, and it was lovely to come home to relish the creamy kheer with puris (deep fried Indian bread).
On such occasions, the silver bhog thaal would have everything laid out neatly and offered to the Gods. We would bow our head obediently with no thought of God but the temptations in the thaal.
My grandmother would prepare mango kheer on Janmashthami for Lord Krishna. It is prepared by boiling the milk. When it starts thickening, cashew nut powder is added and cooked for few minutes. Peeled and thickly grated ripe mango is cooked with sugar until the mango acquires a glaze. Add it to the milk mixture when cool. The trick is to pour the mango mixture at the right temperature to assimilate the flavour of langda aam, one of the most flavourful mangoes in India. The milk should not be hot while adding. The kheer is garnished with saffron. It dissolves in your mouth with the lovely essence of langda aam.
For Makar Sankranti, we have sugarcane kheer. It has sugarcane juice, rice and cardamom powder. It is made without milk.
The sheer variety of kheer in India is mind boggling and so are the legends, myths, history, ceremonies and traditions attached to it. From the famous rice kheer to gehun ki kheer, paneer ki kheer, chana dal kheer, vermicelli, and sago, there exist numerous variations. There are also interesting variants such as lehsun ki kheer and pyaz ki kheer.
It is fascinating to see how cuisines and rituals developed in tune with the seasons, local harvest combining health and convenience. However, every kheer is different with a range of flavourings from cardamom, nutmeg, raisins to saffron, rose petals, rose water, kewra water and garnishing of almonds, pistachios and cashews.
Whatever the ingredients of kheer are, one thing is certain, just one spoon, and you are sold. Kheer is served as a part of festive cuisine and mostly eaten at the end to be relished with great gusto.
Text by Nupur Roopa