Citizens! It is a fact of incontrovertible veracity that I – the Maharajah of Munificence, the Sultan of Supremacy, YOUR TFD! – am inordinately fond of rice pudding in all its myriad forms! I am especially fond of this particularly lavish version from Muslim India, where saffron-tinged rice pudding, aka phirnee on the subcontinent, is perhaps the most evolved and seductive version of this classic dessert found throughout the world! When garnished with pistachios, dried rose petals and bits of edible silver foil (known as varq), it is truly a dish worthy to serve on the table of any member of royalty – or even My own! 😀
Despite the dearth of evidence, it is believed that phirni originates from ancient Persia or elsewhere within the Middle East – it’s believed to be the Mughals (India’s Muslim rulers from several hundred years ago and all the way into the 20th century!)) who introduced it to the region. The Mughal Empire relished the regal milk-based dish and made it wildly popular. In Persia, the creamy rice pudding was believed to the veritable food of the angels and was known as Sheer Birinj. It was first offered to the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him!) when He soared to the 7th floor of heaven to meet God Himself.
In India, phirni has many versions with kheer and payasam being the most popular ones. In Iran, the rich indulgence is known as Fereni while in Egypt and Turkey the sinful delicacy is called Muhallabia. In Afghanistan, a version is also known by the similarly-spelt in English ‘firnee‘ though the Afghan recipe does not call for saffron (or even rice!).
In Europe, the rice pudding was first introduced by the Romans, who mainly used it to cure stomach ailments and digestion issues. They were considered more as ‘rice pottages’ where the rice was boiled and mixed with cow’s milk and then sugar to lend it a sweet taste. The medieval blancmange is a strange branch indeed on the rice pudding genealogical tree!
Blancmange (from French: blanc-manger) is a sweet dessert popular throughout Europe commonly made today with milk or cream and sugar thickened with rice flour, gelatin, corn starch, or Irish moss (a source of carrageenan), and often flavored with almonds. It is usually set in a mold and served cold. Although traditionally white (hence the name, in English literally “white eating”), blancmanges are frequently given alternative colors. Some similar desserts are French chef Marie-Antoine Carême’s Bavarian cream, Italy’s panna cotta, the Middle East’s muhallebi, China’s annin tofu, Hawaiʻi’s haupia and Puerto Rico’s tembleque.
The historical blancmange originated at some time during the Middle Ages and in addition to all of the previously-noted ingredients, also usually added in capon or chicken (!) and was considered to be an ideal food for the sick. Tavuk göğsü is a sweet, contemporary Turkish pudding made with shredded chicken, similar to the medieval European dish.
The origin of the blancmange is believed by some to be a result of the Arab introduction of rice and almonds to early medieval Europe. However, there is no evidence of the existence of any similar Arab dishes from that period; though the Persian muhallebi (more below on this) is indeed similar.
As further noted in a fascinating article I found on thebiryanicentral.com (excerpted below) concerning the history of phirni:
“If you look at the sound of the word phirni, it is not ‘ph’ but ‘f’.” This is the first thing historian Sohail Hashmi tells me when I call him to understand the history of phirni in India of which I found too little written evidence. “Given the sound and the name,” says Mr. Hashmi, “it is clear that phirni came to us from Central Asia where many such milk based dishes exist even today.” While from the name one can guess it came from Persia, current day Iran, phirni, says Mr. Hashmi, cannot be claimed by any one country, neither can its route to India be traced to one person or regime.
No one has been able to point out who brought phirni to India and whether it came before the Mughal sultanate or with them. The spread of phirni in India does however indicate its journey with the sultanate. Traditionally found in Punjab, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Calcutta, and parts of central and western India, its presence is charts the journey of the Mughals and their descendants. Phirni as we know it is totally indigenous and has paved into every Indian household with touch of various cultures
“I am certain phirni came from the middle east or Persia,” says Muhammad Ahsan Ali Qureshi, co-founder Cross Border Kitchens. “There are prominent references like sheer birinj which literally translates to milk rice and are very similar to phirni. Phirni as we know it today however is totally indigenous,” the man behind some of the finest Mughlai food in Delhi today, asserts.
“Phirni used to be a simple dish of milk and rice but as time passed it evolved into this exotic delicacy with nuts, fragrances, and silver varq,” author and historian Salma Yusuf Husain tells me when I request her to talk about one of North India’s favourite desserts. Its origin, according Ms. Husain, can be found in muhallabia, a rice, milk and sugar dish decorated with dry-fruit and scented with attars. A dessert popular in Turkey, Israel, and other Mediterranean countries, muhallabia, is anecdotally attributed to the Sasanian Empire and indeed turns out to be similar to phirni in the way of preparation and presentation.
It is not impossible that phirni is a distant cousin of the same. But how did it reach the Middle East? “There is a preparation in Iran called Shola. It was brought by the Mongols to Persia and is still served there on the 10th day of Ramzaan,” informs Mr. Hashmi when we explore the possibility of the rice used in phirni reaching central Asia via the Far East since rice isn’t traditionally a Central Asian crop. It is therefore quite possible that phirni travelled to the Middle East from Mongolia came to India in the form of present day phirni.
There are two ways of making phirni. One is made with the kinki, naturally broken pieces of the fragrant basmati of the ganga-jamuni belt in Uttar Pradesh, the other is made by grinding long grained basmati and then adding it to thickened milk. That is not all, authentic phirni has soaked and peeled ground almond, soaked, peeled and ground chironji, and rose water, and decorated with varq.
Cooked on a low flame until it becomes a smooth, thick mixture, phirni is set in earthen bowls, sakoras, that were once floated in ice-cold water but now go inside refrigerators. The sakoras add a mellow scent of petrichor and soak excess water, as a result phirni ends up being thicker and creamier by the time it is consumed.
Phirni is best served in clay cups, a unique feature that helps absorb excess water besides lending phirni its characteristic fragrance.
This elaborate process and umpteen steps make creation of the perfect phirni a skill not everyone possesses. “There is a lane in Chitli Qabar area of Old Delhi called kheer wali gali,” veteran food columnist, Rahul Verma tells me when I call him to talk about phirni. There are many phirni shops, but one is especially good. He sells the same thing for 10 rupees that others do for 100,” Mr. Verma tells me in his trademark style. “There are not many people left who can make the perfect phirni.”
As much as I agreed with Mr. Verma until few months ago, now I tell him I differ with him. Having eaten the phirni at Dum Pukht in ITC’s signature hotels and at Biryani Central, Cross Border Kitchen’s signature franchise, I have totally forgotten the phirnis of Old Delhi.
“We make our phirni in the traditional vessels and with traditional recipes. After long and slow cooking it is set in specially designed sakoras.” I remember Ahsan telling me when I asked him about how the phirni they make at Biryani Central is so creamy and delectable. The silver Varq, an Avdhi specialty, and sliced pistachios add a distinct look and character to their phirni, which in my opinion is the best phirni in the country today.
My version of phirni definitely bears many of the classic hallmarks of Awadhi cuisine (the style of food descended from Maharajah kitchens) and the use of saffron, an exceedingly expensive spice even in India where it is a staple, marks it as a dish of royalty. The use of dried rose petals, expensive nuts, pure silver edible foil and rare scented essences cements that pedigree and I have every confidence you will enjoy this magnificent dessert (which is actually quite easy-to-make!) at your own tables soon enough, Citizens!
I have – to the shock of exactly zero long-time members of TFD Nation! – made several optional but recommended tweaks to the classic recipe. First off, you will need long-grain rice, preferably fragrant Jasmine rice – this is a good brand, IMHO. You will also need some khoya, which is whole milk powder that is a classic ingredient in many Indian desserts – this is a superior product.
Instead of just plain white sugar, I also call for the unique Indian dark brown sugar known as jaggery in addition. It adds an additional ‘bass’ note in the flavor symphony that I find irresistible, though it isn’t authentic. This is a good brand to purchase.
I took the liberty of adding two additional spices beyond the standard cardamom to better reflect the Middle Eastern (probable) origin of this dessert. The first spice is called mahlab, and is the ground pit of a type of wild, sour cherry frequently used in Greek, Levantine and Arabic cooking. The spice adds strong notes of marzipan and cherry flavor to anything it is used in, and I adore the flavor profile in this recipe – this is an excellent choice as a brand.
Mace is another spice I’ve added to the baseline recipe (grind the whole mace in a spice grinder before adding to the recipe), along with the one spice that defines the very soul of this dessert – saffron.
Edible .999 fine silver foil is a classic garnish for this dessert – this brand is food-grade and totally safe to eat, your guests will be blown away by your use of it! Typically, the floral essence used in this dessert is from the pandan leaf, giving an aroma similar to vanilla or rose essence – but I have deviated here to instead include Iris flower essence! It is a very rare scent in Indian cooking and to my parfumier-enhanced proboscis, it is ideal in this recipe – just 3 drops should be enough, it is POTENT stuff!
As a unique way to add even more layers of incense-style aromas to this dessert, I also recommend a touch unique to My recipe – to perfume not the pudding itself further, but instead to add rose aroma to the BOWLS it is served in!
The best way to do that is to use top-quality rose-only incense from an Indian scent atelier – and this is My preferred brand to use! Just pass the OUTSIDE of the bowls through the smoke of the incense twice – that is more than enough! This is My respectful homage to the meditative worship ritual called puja in which one offers all of their pleasures of the senses back to their source, the Divine, thus purifying one’s mind and heart.
You will need some food-grade, unsprayed dried rose petals as garnish for this dessert, as well as some chopped pistachios and cashews of top-quality. Lastly, some salted ghee is needed, which is just clarified butter – either make it yourself or this is a good brand to have around the house. I also added a bit of heavy cream to enrich the dessert as well because that is how TFD rolls!
Citizens, this is both a stunningly-beautiful dessert with flavors, scents and garnishes worthy of the Maharajahs of old – I hope you see fit to try it forthwith!
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
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