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A truly international dessert

Kheer is the greatest rice pudding in the world, an international dessert combining three cooking traditions: India, the Middle East and the West. Vir Sanghvi tells us more.

india Updated: Oct 03, 2009 19:36 IST
Vir Sanghvi

Kheer is the greatest rice pudding in the world, an international dessert combining three cooking traditions: India, the Middle East and the West. Kheer

Can you think of a dessert that is truly international? One contender would be bread pudding, which turns up in various guises (shahi tukra, bread and butter pudding etc. all over the world but suffers – at least in my view – because wheat is not regarded as a staple in many parts of the world. That leaves us with rice. Nearly everywhere you go, you’ll find some kind of rice dessert, even if it is as simple as say, Mango With Sticky Rice, the sort of sweet you come across all over the Far East where sweet sticky rice is an important constituent of desserts. My own vote, however, goes to kheer.

Yes, I know it sounds odd to think of kheer as an international dessert and certainly, it is not known by that name outside of India. But kheer unites three different cooking traditions: India, the Middle East and the West. We may use different names for the dessert but it is, essentially, the same dish.

If you take the defining characteristic of kheer: that it is a mixture of sweetened (often reduced and thickened) milk with whole rice, then you’ll find that it is not very different from the rice pudding of Western cookery. And of course, in the Middle East, there is a long and glorious rice-and-milk dessert tradition.

Kheer differs from many Indian desserts because it has two quite distinct origins. The first is the ancient Indian tradition of payas, which survives to this day in South India as payasam. And the second is the Middle Eastern sheer brought to India by Arabs in the medieval age. According to the late great K T Achaya, still our most reliable source on the food of ancient India, we find mentions of payas in Buddhist-era literature. At that stage it was a mixture of rice, milk and sugar, a formula that has endured for over two thousand years.

When Hinduism returned to India and drove Buddhism out to the Far East, the payas became a staple temple food. In particular, it was associated with Lord Shiva and served as prasad to his devotees. But even while this tradition endured, another was on its way.

In the Middle East, rice puddings have been around for a very long time. In Persia, their version of kheer, the sheer biring was – according to legend – made by angels on the Seventh Floor of Heaven when the Prophet ascended there to meet Allah. But there are many other kinds of Middle Eastern rice pudding. Shola (or sholleh) is the name given to several rice dishes, most of them savoury, but which allow for sweet variations. Then there is the muhallabia, also essentially a kheer but one where the rice is ground. And of course we know one variation of muhallabia, the Mughal phirni which also uses ground rice, rather than whole, as the thickener for sweetened milk.

The name kheer suggests that the dish came to India from the Middle East because sheer means milk in Farsi. Also, the fact that many Muslim communities in India make it with seviyan (certainly a Middle Eastern import) suggests a West Asian or Arab origin. So is the kheer related to the sheer biring or the payas? It is an interesting question that admits of no easy answer because the Hindu and Muslim cuisine traditions have always flourished side by side.

My guess would be that, as with so many other foods, the dishes merged at some stage. For instance, many Muslim chefs will use kewra as an aromatic flavouring for their kheer. But kewra is not from West Asia. It is part of the genus pandanus which we see all over East Asia and India. (It turns up in Thai cooking again and again and is much prized in Bali for its vanilla-esque flavour.) As the Arabs rarely used pandanus, it is safe to say that the tradition of using such flavourings as kewra came about because of Hindu influences on Muslim kitchens.

But kheer is just one kind of rice pudding. The dish turns up in Western cuisine in various forms. It is often prescribed as a dish for sick people or children (which is understandable given its comforting texture and reassuring sweetness) but also (less understandably) as an aphrodisiac! The “aphrodisiac property” may have reflected a great truism of all cuisine: whenever a dish is based on expensive or hard-to-find ingredients, mystical erotic properties are instantly ascribed to it.

In medieval Europe, rice was an expensive import and consumed only on special occasions. Sugar was also expensive and the spices required for flavouring (cinnamon and nutmeg were frequently used in rice puddings) also came from the East and often were regarded on par with gold – sometimes they cost as much as gold, ounce for ounce.

Consequently, Western cuisines combined rice with cheaper meat products (this was common in those days, many desserts included meat, a tradition that only survives today in the jellies made from animal bones) to create rice puddings that sound too disgusting for modern tastes. According to Alan Davidson’s Penguin Companion to Food, one seventeenth century recipe included sugar, bread crumbs, eggs, rosewater, nutmeg and bone marrow! A traditional Cumberland rice pudding included suet, marrow and other animal products.

Fortunately, as time went on and rice, sugar and spices became readily available, the rice pudding also became largely vegetarian. Today’s Western rice puddings differ from our kheers in only one basic respect: they usually include egg which would hardly be appropriate in India where the dish is often used as prasad.

But otherwise, chefs all over the world are the same. Ask an Indian chef to make kheer and he will do his best to tart up the dish by adding new flavours (fruit kheers are a cliché these days), reducing the milk so much that the dish loses much of the liquid that is so essential to its enjoyment or putting it in the oven before serving so that it looks like a Western pudding.

Western chefs use the same tricks. They muck around with flavours (real vanilla, liqueurs etc.), use milk that is reduced or condensed, and try fancy presentation tricks. Some chefs even make their rice puddings risotto style claiming that this is a traditional Italian recipe (which it may well be). The usual trick however is to ‘souffle’ the pudding which is to say, that the chef adds eggs, puts it in the oven and waits for it to rise. This looks fancy but misses – at least from my perspective – the point of a rice pudding. And what is the point?

Well, according to me, several things are obvious. The first is that the English and the French do not know how to cook rice. (I’ll grant the Italians, the Spaniards and other truly Mediterranean people – though not the Greeks – their rice dishes.) Their rice puddings are, at origin, rather dull. And these days, they are overdone and needlessly fancy.

Secondly, the Middle Eastern rice pudding tradition, though worthy, has none of the richness of our mix-of-religions traditions. Indians make the best rice puddings in the world which, given that we grow so much rice (unlike the Middle East), is only fair enough. I respect the Chinese/Far Eastern way with rice but according to me, to simply mix glutinous rice with fruit (which is what all of their rice puddings consist of) is not a very creative way of making a dessert.

Far better therefore, to stick with the Indian tradition where rice is slow cooked with milk and spices. My view is that a good kheer should learn from the delicacy of the South Indian payasam. It should not be made with condensed milk, your tongue should not be coated with milk fat, and it should not spend time in the oven.

Rather, the point of a great rice pudding – and especially a kheer – is the contrast between milk that has been sweetened and delicately flavoured with spices and the texture of rice. You can add extra textures of course: raisins, coconut (a nod to the South) or nuts. But the point must be the rice.

But of course, chefs don’t bother with kheer these days. They have contempt for it, treat it as a dish any housewife or temple pandit can cook and refuse to put it on their menus. South Indian chefs have more respect for their traditions – which is why it is easier to get a good payasam at a restaurant than it is to get a good kheer.

Which is a shame because (a) the kheer is the greatest rice pudding in the world and (b) it is a truly secular dish, marrying Muslim and Hindu traditions. If we can’t even protect, nourish and restore the kheer to its former glory, then there is something wrong with the way in which we treat our cooking traditions.