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Tried and Tasted: This Holi, ditch gujiyas and try a different kind of kheer

Hindustan Times takes you on a guided tour, with stories about cuisines and chefs, about big and small eateries, and about food trends at home and abroad.

tried and tasted Updated: May 10, 2017 18:31 IST
Rahul Verma

A revolution knocks on the door – and it comes with a fork and knife. The world of food is more exciting than ever before. New restaurants are coming up offering novel cuisines or digging out old ones. Chefs are looking at unusual ingredients and dramatic ways of presenting food. Meanwhile, some wizened old experts continue to wield magic with their skewers and ladles in remote parts of the city. There is a world waiting to be discovered or re-embraced– new cooking styles, world food, sub-regional cuisine and tiny holes in the wall which produce the most delightful dishes. Here’s a guided tour.

Now that Holi is around the corner, you will find all our kitchens bustling with life. This is the time when various kinds of sweets are prepared at home. While the gujiya – a fried pastry with a filling of thickened milk or grated coconut with dried fruit -- is a sweet that most people link the festival with, you will also see various kinds of kheers simmering on stoves.

For most Indians, a bowl of kheer represents all that is happy – festivals, births, weddings and rituals. Indeed, if there is one sweet that you find, albeit in different forms, across the country, it is kheer. My mother, who wouldn’t step into the kitchen if she could help it, could surprisingly prepare a mean payesh – the Bengali word for kheer – with thickened milk, a fistful of rice, a generous piece of date palm jaggery and some raisins. And once it was ready, it was like ambrosia.

In many parts of India, kheer is a vital part of temple bhogs. If there is payesh in the east, the south has its payasam, similarly cooked, but not as thick as its eastern cousin. Manipur has its black rice kheer – the chak-hao kheer -- or the plain sangom or milk kheer; Assam has its Payoxh. Phirni – ground rice in thickened milk – is another much loved form of kheer that you would find at most Muslim festivals.

South India has payasam. (Shutterstock)

You can call it by any name, but it’s essentially the same – milk sweetened with sugar or gur and thickened with rice, semolina, sago or vermicelli. Instead of a cereal, the kheer can be flavoured with grated bottle gourd. In some regions, coconut milk replaces milk. In Western Uttar Pradesh, where I grew up, festivals meant ras ki kheer – rice cooked in sugarcane juice, topped with cold milk and ghee. Don’t diss it till you’ve tried it!

I am happy to say that I have named one of Delhi’s best known kheerwallahs, Bade Mian. The first time I went to his sweet shop opposite Masjid Badal Beg, in Bazar Sirkiwalan in Old Delhi, many years ago, I encountered a white bearded gentleman whom everyone called Bade Mian. Mohammed Shafi made – and still does – the most delicious kheer that you can get in Delhi. I named it Bade Mian’s kheer, and the name stuck.

Bade Mian and some friends at the shop. (HT Photo/Soumya Srivastava)

Bade Mian, his brother Jamaluddin and others in the Siddiqui family make and sell only kheer. The shop has been around since 1890, they tell me. The family earlier kept buffaloes and sold milk. They started heating the leftover milk and turning it into kheer for their consumption. But it was so good that soon people started buying it from them.

The kheer is prepared overnight. (HT Photo/Soumya Srivastava)

What makes the kheer special is the fact that the milk, with sugar, is left to simmer on a wooden fire over long hours. The milk thickens with time and gets a light pink hue which is as attractive as it is appetising. The smoke adds a mildly smoky taste to the dessert. The kheer is left to chill and then sold either per plate, or in kilos. Every day, the family prepares kheer with some 15 kilos of milk – and every day, it gets over before the stars are out.

I went back there some days ago and found that the kheer was as delectable as ever. I had my fill, and looked up at the old building where the kheer is prepared and sold. In this building the actor Madhubala was born. With the kheer bubbling below her, I am not surprised that her smile turned out to be so deliciously sweet.

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(Rahul Verma has been writing on food for over 25 years now. And, after all these years, he has come to the conclusion that the more he writes, the more there is left to be written)

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