As a country, India is now sixty -seven years old, an age when as individuals, most people have sorted themselves out and many are happy. Can we say this true at the national level as well? The British are gone, but is India independent from inner demons?
A person from Andhra Pradesh is a South Indian to me, a person from Rajasthan is Marwari (doesn’t matter if you are not from Marwar) and a person from the North East India is more alien to me than a Chinese (maybe). On top of that the difference in religion is like icing on the cake. We might be portraying a secular look on the outside but to my mind, right underneath the rather thin veneer of secularism religion is lurking like a malevolent demon.
My college hostel was in a neighborhood predominantly inhabited by Muslims from the lower socioeconomic strata of Indian society. In the two years that I lived there, two incidents shattered whatever illusions I had of the “Hindu-Muslim bhai bhai” (Hindu-Muslim brotherhood) fallacy. One was a roadside accident with an unfortunate Muslim kid being hit by a motorcyclist who happened to be Hindu. Within few minutes, the incident degenerated into a full-blown religious riot, with most participants least concerned about the kid and his treatment or recovery. Another time, a group of Muslim people started praying in front of the church and there you go, another riot. I always thought riots happened elsewhere, in strange places full of oppressed people, but no, here was one happening right in front of my eyes in kaalchar-loving Calcutta. It might have been a simple coincidence that the kid who got hit and the motorcyclist belonged to two different religions, but when it comes to our faith, I guess we Indians are still very sensitive about it. Sort of like saying to a stranger “ You there, on the street, I will kill you if you hurt my religious sentiment”. I know it’s illogical but I suppose logic can take a walk when God is involved.
Thankfully, I am an atheist (well, sort of) but I do celebrate Durga Puja, Diwali, Eid, Thanksgiving and Christmas because I like to feel good and be happy and share my happiness with others. I do like good food and I think it is a powerful agent for bringing diverse people together. So, I made a secular dessert eaten by many cultures in India and thought of sharing it with all of you. Call it semuier payesh (Bengali), semaiya payasam (South India), sevia kheer (North Indians) or sheer khurma (Urdu-speaking people), it’s the same thing. My recipe is closer to the traditional sheer khurma eaten in Muslim households, but then Eid was just last week and one never needs an excuse to make dessert, right?
Happy Independence Day to all of you. Let us be truly independent.
Whole milk: little less ½ gallon/around 1.5 liters.
Evaporated milk: 350ml/one 16oz. can
Semai/vermicelli: around 1cup
Sugar: to taste
Dates: 4-6 nos.
Salt: one tiny pinch
Saffron: a small pinch (optional)
Rose petals: few (optional)
Pistachios/cashew nuts/almonds: 10-12nos.
Raisins: 10-12 nos.
Ghee/clarified butter: 1 tbsp.
Evaporated milk is optional, if you do not have it, start with whole milk and bring the volume down. I am lazy
Just so that you know: In Persian, Sheer is milk and khurma is dates…so it literally means milk with dates.
- Mix the whole milk and the evaporated milk and put it on the stove top.
- Bring it to a boil and then bring the flame to medium.
- Take 2-3 tbsp of warm milk and add the saffron to it. Cover and the let the flavor come out.
- Boil the milk and bring it to almost half the original volume. Add sugar to taste and a tiny pinch of salt (I mean tiny).
- Heat up the ghee in a separate pan and add the raisins. They will swell after one or two minutes. Drain them and add them to the milk.
- Roast the vermicelli (break the vermicelli in smaller pieces) in the same ghee until light brown and gives a light roasted aroma.
- Add them to the milk as well.
- Chop the dry dates and add them to the milk too.
- Let everything cook on a low flame. Cook until the vermicelli is cooked. Check for sugar.
- Add crushed pistachios or whichever nut you are using and the milk-saffron mix to the pudding.
- Cover it for 5-10 minutes.
- Let it come to room temperature and then chill it in the fridge.
- Garnish it with rose petals and more crushed nuts and serve.
Remember: The whole pudding will thicken after a while and more so after you keep it in the fridge. So, keep a little bit more liquid than you would like. If it’s too thick, boil milk, let it come to room temp. and add it to the pudding. Mix and chill it again.
If you do not get access to rose petals, don’t worry, add few drops of rose water or skip it all together.