Kuch meetha ho jaye? Sheer khurma to celebrate Independence Day

DSC_0808As 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.

DSC_0811Thankfully, 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.

Recipe:

Ingredients:

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.

DSC_0807

DSC_0802

  • 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.

DSC_0818

Komla lebur payesh/Orange and milk pudding

Komlalebur_payesh_6_text
Winter was a prized season in Calcutta, which I’m sure, is true for many other parts of India as well. Being in a Christian missionary school for 16 years, I had the luxury of enjoying a month long winter-Christmas holiday every year. Everyday after lunch my Maa and I would go on the terrace, spread a rug on the floor and sit there as long as the sun was warm. My Maa would spread her long, black, wavy hair on her back to dry it and gently peel the skin off the komla lebu (Oranges/Clementines). I loved the orangey smell that would fill the air. We would then patiently remove the white threads from the flesh and eat one koa (skinless wedge) at a time. Sometimes my pishi (father’s sister) joined us for the afternoon sun-soaking and my Maa and Pishi shared their gossip.
Komlalebu_1
When I was a kid, winter also meant going to Calcutta for a visit to the zoo. Maa cooked food to bring with us to the zoo. We would take spread a shatoronji (a light blanket with seven colors) on the ground, dig into the food and fruits and have an elaborate lunch. As if this was not fun enough, winter also brought out another great Bengali obsession – picnics. There were several different picnic spots close to my childhood home that would be packed with people on the weekends. People played Frisbee, football and the music from several neighboring picnics blared from loudspeakers to create random overlapping melodies. A little to the side, gigantic cauldrons would be simmering with delicious chicken or mutton curries and pulaos (spiced rice) or bubbling with boiling oil for puris (fried puffed dough) with which to soak up the delicious gravy from the curries.
Komlalebur_payesh_2
Anyway, winter in the DC area, where I live now, is very different from India. It’s not very harsh but it’s still not my favorite season. In December and January it gets really windy and I hate to bundle up before leaving the house every morning. Sometimes I like the chilly freshness, but not every day. There are very few winter rituals we follow in the US. It’s mostly the season for staying at home, visiting friends and family, eating and getting fat. Personally, I long for the summer to be back. The thing I dislike the most about winter is the early sunset. I feel like my days are compressed into fewer hours shorter, because even at 6pm the darkness sends a signal to my brain that it’s time to wrap up and go to sleep. I literally have to drag myself to do anything productive around the house all winter long.
Komlalebur_payesh_4
However, not everything is bad about winter. As the dinner invitations have already started, I keep getting more and more excited about what to cook and take to the hosts. We had an invitation at our friend’s place last weekend and she asked me to bring something sweet if possible. As komla lebu was a vital part of our winter back home, I thought of making komla lebur payesh. It’s very refreshing and tasty. It takes a little bit of time to peel the oranges and separate the individual segments but the end product is well worth the time. Otherwise, it’s a very simple dessert and needs very few ingredients. When everybody is baking Christmassy things, why not a little bit of my own tradition? I make it once every year during winter and it’s become my expatriate Bengali winter ritual…or what passes for one at least.

Komla lebur payesh recipe:
Ingredients:

Komlalebu/Clementines/Oranges: 4 nos.
Sugar: To taste
Milk: A little less than 1/2 gallon
Half and half:16FL OZ
Cardamom: 2 whole
Komlalebu_2
•Bring the milk and the half n half to boil and reduce to the flame to medium.
•Boil it until the milk reduces to half of its original volume.
•Add sugar and the cardamom pods (slightly cracked) and boil again.
•Take it off the heat and let it come to room temperature.
•In the mean time, peel the clementines and discard all the white fibers. They will add a bitter taste if not properly removed. Separate the segments loosely.
•Once the milk comes to room temp., add the clementine segments, gently mix and put the container in the refrigerator overnight.
•Serve it chilled the next day.
•Garnish it with fresh clementine segments if you want.
Komlalebur_payesh_3
PS: You can add more or less orange to the milk. I like it kind of 50-50…not to orange-y, not too milky. I DO NOT add any nuts because that will interfere with the texture of the payesh. I got this recipe from my mother-in-law and she does not add nuts to it either.
You do not have to have half and half; you use whole milk or any type of milk and reduce it to the consistency you want. I like it a little creamy and prefer to add half and half.

Be very careful while adding the citrus fruits to the milk. If the milk is hot, it will curdle immediately. Wait until the milk comes to room temperature. You should always make this dessert the previous day. It takes time for the citrus-y flavor to really wok it’s magic on the milk.

Dipabolir shubhechcha Rashomalai diye/Happy Diwali with Rasmalai

Diwali, the festival of lights needs no introduction. It’s almost an international festival now. I think this is the only festival in India which is celebrated by most of the communities. Diwali is celebrated during October-mid November, around fifteen days after Durga Puja. To Bengalis, it’s Kali Puja (worshipping Goddess Kali) and dipaboli (Bengali for Diwali).

The word Diwali came from the Sanskrit word “Deepavali” which translates to ‘rows of lights’ (deep=lamp, avali=row). The entire country is illuminated on this particular festive day. There are several theories about the origin of Diwali. According to one theory, it’s the celebration of the return of Lord Rama from his fourteen years of exile. His return was celebrated in his capital Ayodhya by lighting deeps (earthen lamps) and bursting firecrackers. Another one says it’s the celebration of Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Vishnu’s marriage. In Bengal it’s the celebration of Kali, the Goddess of strength. Diwali is very significant among Jains (believer of Jainism) too; it’s the day when Lord Mahavir attained Nirvana. Whatever the history is, every Indian celebrates Diwali with equal joy and happiness. It’s another festival of the victory of Good over Evil. People exchange sweets and snacks and the sky lights up with fireworks.

Bengalis have a tradition of lighting choddo prodip (choddo=fourteen prodip=earthen lamps) on the day before Kali Puja to offer respect to fourteen generations of their forefathers. When I was a kid, we had a tradition of eating choddo shaak (a combined dish of fourteen leafy green vegetables) too. It was so much fun to collect the leafy greens. You could always buy them from the market, but that would spoil the whole fun. I was the one who will go to the neighbors and exchange the greens with the aunts. Sometimes we got them from their gardens and shared some from our garden as well. I don’t know if my mother still does it or not. On the day of deepaboli, we would light candles all over our house. It looked wonderful; the whole neighborhood was decorated with flickering lights all over. In the evening we took out our stash of fire crackers and it was so much fun to go through all of them. My Maa used to make ghugni (dry peas curry) and Baba used to buy sweets from the market. After I moved to the US, I no longer celebrate deepaboli as extensively as I used to, but I still light diyas on that day. I maintain the choddo prodip tradition because my mother-in-law wants me to (and I like it too).

I am sharing my Rasmalai/Rashomalai recipe with you all on this festive day. I hope you all are having a wonderful Diwali. May your lives light up with joy and happiness!

Recipe:

Ingredients:

Milk: 5 cups

Evaporated milk: 1 cup

Rashogolla/rasgulla: 6-8

Sugar: 11/2 cups (more or less if you prefer)

A pinch of salt

Cardamom: 2-3 nos.

Bay leaf: 2 nos.

Pistachios: 10-12 nos.

How to do it:

  • Soak the pistachios in water.
  • Mix the milk with the evaporated milk and start boiling it on mdeium flame. Add the bay leaves and the cardamoms (slightly smashed). Be very careful, otherwise it might either stick to the bottom of the pan or spil over. You have to bring the volume to 2/3 of the original volume. You can totally omit the evaporated milk. I add it to save time. You can use regular whole milk and bring the volume down.
  • Squeeze the rasgullas and drain the excess sugar syrup from them. Slightly flatten them.
  • Add the rasgullas to the boiling milk and boil for 5 minutes (put it on medium flame).
  • Add the sugar and the tiny pinch of salt. Boil for another 5 minutes. Check for sweetness and add more sugar if needed.
  • Chop the pistachios to fine pieces and add them to the milk. Turn off the heat.
  • Cool the milk and once it comes to room temperature, refrigerate it.
  • Serve chilled.

Payesh/Payasam/Rice and milk pudding

I think every community in India has their own payesh recipe. The recipe below is roughly a Bengali recipe. I didn’t follow anybody’s recipe but followed the basic cooking procedure of a Bengali payesh. I do not have a sweet tooth, so the sweetness is moderate. You can adjust it to your taste.

Ingredients:

Whole milk: 1/2 Gallon/8 cups

Evaporated milk: 1.5 cups

Atap or any short grain rice: a little less than 1/2 cup

Sugar: 1 cup (Less or more according to your taste)

Green cardamom: 3 nos.

Bay leaf: 1 no.

Cashews: around 15 nos.

Raisin: 10-15 nos.

Ghee/clarified butter: 1 tsp

A pinch of salt

How to cook:

  • Wash the rice and drain all the water. The rice should be dry.
  • Soak the cashews and raisins in water for 15-20 mns. and then chop the cashews.
  • Mix the milk with the evaporated milk and start boiling it on mdeium flame. Be very careful, otherwise it might either stick to the bottom of the pan or spil over. You have to bring the volume to 2/3 of the original volume. You can totally omit the evaporated milk. I add it to save time. You can use regualr whole milk and bring the volume down.
  • Heat up the ghee and add the bay leaf and cardamoms to it. Saute them for a minute or so and then add the rice. Saute for 2-3 mns. and then add them to the boiling milk.
  • Add sugar and a pinch of salt.
  • Let the rice cook.
  • Once the rice is cooked, add the chopped cashews and the raisins. Cook the rice and milk to your desired consistency. I like a little bit of liquid in it (not a lot) but some people like it really thick. Again, go for your instinct.
  • Chill before you serve.

Subha Mahalaya…..the hour of the goddess

It starts with “Ya devi sarbabhuteshshu, shakti rupena sanksthita Namasteshwai Namasteshwai Namasteshwai namo namaha.”

Kash phool/Kans grass

The loose translation would be “O Goddess who permeates all things and is manifested today as Strength, I bow to thee, I bow to thee, I bow to thee over and over”

Mahalaya is the first (official) day of the Bengali festive season. I am not going into the religious details because I never thought of Mahalaya as a religious occasion. As I was never too religious, Durga puja (celebration of goddess Durga) was not even a religious festival to me; it was more like a social celebration. Today am far away from home in a foreign land and all alone celebrating mahalaya. I remember my childhood days when I woke up with the magic voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra, the legend who will always be alive through his voice. An elderly uncle in our para (neighborhood) used to play the song on huge loud speakers. He didn’t care if somebody didn’t want to wake up at the wee hour and listen to it. The good thing was, no one had any problem, and we kind of looked forward to it. Maa used to turn on the radio first and then wait for the TV to start broadcasting the Mahishashur Mardini program. We were still in bed and watched it half asleep, half awake. The day felt so different than any other day. There was festivity in the air and the white clouds on the blue sky and the white feathery kashphool (Kans grass) all together made the day very special. When we moved to our new house, there was an empty land right behind us which every year used to get invaded with kashphool: it was picture perfect.

To celebrate mahalaya alone for the first time in my life, I made some payesh (rice pudding, sort of, but much more subtle) and thought of sharing the sweetness with all of you. Hope most of you are with your loved ones and waiting for the festivities to start and bring joy and happiness to your life.

You can hear the whole chandipaath (recital of the mythical story) here.

I’ll post the Payesh recipe soon.