My glorious Citizens – first off, allow your beloved TFD to wish all of his U.S. brethren a Happy Thanksgiving!
Always one to walk his own less-traveled path, I shall refrain from the obvious turkey day recipe and instead reach halfway across the world to bring you one of my favorite easy desserts – the mighty Indian Rose Rice Pudding, gulab ki kheer, instead!
For the uninitiated, kheer is a wonderfully rich and creamy milk-based dessert belonging to Indian cuisine. Often served at festivals, wedding ceremonies and even temples, it is believed to be the predecessor of European rice pudding.
In the Indian subcontinent, it is known by many names, including payasam, payesh, phirni, and fereni among others. In fact, payasam actually comes from payasa meaning milk. Similarly, the word “kheer” is a modified form of the Sanskrit word ksheer for milk or kshirika (meaning a dish prepared with milk).
Kheer is prepared by cooking rice, vermicelli or broken wheat in sweetened milk enriched with ghee and aromatic spices like cardamom and sometimes even saffron. For special occasions, it is sometimes garnished with cashews, almonds, and pistachios.
Some historians believe that kheer is one the world’s oldest food items, and was possibly one of the concoctions of ancient Ayurveda. The earliest mentions of this food recipe date as far back as 400 BC in the epic texts of Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Firni (or fereni) is a close variant of kheer that was created by the people of ancient Persia. Unlike kheer, firni is made from roughly ground rice, which is then boiled in milk until completely mushy. Served cold, this dish is usually infused with cardamom, saffron, and rosewater. In fact, the Persians were the first to add rosewater into rice pudding; something that was later adopted by Indians.
In the 1999 book Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson writes:
The Persian version of the food, sheer birinj, according to Kekmat…was originally the food of angels, first made in heaven when the Prophet Muhammad ascended to the 7th floor of Heaven to meet God and he was served this dish.
During the reign of the Cholas in Southern India (between 300 BC and 1279 AD), kheer was commonly offered as food to the gods at any kind of religious ceremony. Historical records show that payas, a version of kheer first made in the Indian state of Orissa has been a popular sweet dish in the city of Puri for the last 2,000 years or so.
According to some experts, the Bengali payesh is an equally old recipe. In fact, it is believed that spiritual leader Chaitanya actually took with him a pot of gurer payesh (jaggery-sweetened payesh) on his trip to Puri in the 16th century.
Shola (or sholleh) is a similar rice pudding that first appeared in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iran, and was later taken to Persia by Mongolians in approximately the 13th century AD.
Although rice as a grain was known to Greeks as well as Romans and was often imported from Egypt, western Asia, and other places, the birth of modern-day rice pudding occurred only after rice was introduced as a cultivable crop in Europe sometime between the 8th and the 10th centuries.
Baked rice pudding, flavored with nutmeg, was first made in the 16th century and quickly began a popular sweet treat. The 1596 book The Good Huswifes Jewell by Thomas Dawson features one of the oldest food recipes of baked rice pudding and it goes as follows:
To make a Tart of Ryse… boil your rice, and put in the yolks of two or three Egges into the Rice, and when it is boiled put it into a dish and season it with sugar, cinnamon, ginger, butter, and the juice of two or three Oranges, and set it on the fire again.
Citzens, I adhere closely to the traditional Indian recipe, using the holy trinity of dried rose petals, rose essence and rose jam – with one critical difference. Unless you make your own rose jam (Gulkand in Hindi), I find most versions to be at best insipid and at worst akin to chewing a bar of your grandmother’s scented soap. My solution – go to China!
Yes, I use a version of rose jam from rural Yunnan province, made solely with the most aromatic roses and the wild honey the province is renowned for! You can buy it here. You only want to use the finest dried rose petals for this – I strongly prefer this brand.
Rosewater is EXTREMELY potent – when I say two drops, I mean TWO DROPS. This is the only brand I endorse.
This is both easy and delicious – I hope you use it to offer yourself and your guests a true comforting treat!
Battle on – The Generalissimo
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