Thursday, September 21, 2006

Payasam - Food of the gods and the worlds oldest dessert...

Milk - not just the earth’s first sattvic food, but also the most complete food, nutritionally speaking. And the source of other wonder foods like curd, buttermilk and ghee. Rice - one of the first foods of the earth, so much so that in Sanskrit, the word for food and cooked rice is the same – “anna”. So, when you combine the two with sugar or jaggery and ghee and slow cook for hours, what do you get? A result so heavenly that it is food fit for the gods! We mortals call it payasam. Kshirika in Sanskrit. Kheer in North India. Naturally, India’s association with it goes back to...well, at least to the Ramayana. When the childless King Dashratha was performing the putra yameshti yagya to plead for progeny, a divine purusha appeared holding a golden pot of payasam, which he gave to the king. On the advice of sage Vasistha, Dashratha distributed the payasam among his queens. According to one version, all three of them got a share, but before she could eat hers, an eagle swooped down and took away Sumitra’s share. So Kaushalya and Kaikeyi each gave her half theirs. Soon, the news that all the three queens were with child filled the kingdom of Ayodhya with joy! The scene of King Dashratha distributing the payasam to his queens is part of the fabulous sculptured panels of the fabulous Chola temples in Tamil Nadu.
And so, payasam is a universal offering to the gods all over India. From Kashmir to Kanyakumari. In temple, mosque, church and gurudwara, sometimes a sacred ritual thousands of years old. And often so delicious that its fame makes the devotees flock as much for darshan of the deity as for a potion of this earthly ambrosia. Today, we take a slow boat down the river of this divine food…

“Payasannapriya” meaning She who loves payasam. That is how the Devi is described in the Lalithashasranama. And so it is only befitting that there should be a temple dedicated to her called Kheer Bhawani! Situated in the Tulla Mula village just 27 kms from Srinagar, surrounded by beautiful chinar trees, this temple is one of Kashmir’s most sacred Hindu shrines, its antiquity going back to the time when, as the story goes, Lord Rama prayed here during his vanvas. Twice a year, thousands of devotees gather here, once in June to celebrate the Kheer Bhawani festival and then during all 9 nights of Navarati, a tradition among the Kashmiri pundits. But how did the temple get its name? Because of the kheer and milk that devotees offer to the Goddess, pouring it into the serene sacred waters on which the temple complex is built. It is said that the waters change colour to warn of imminent disaster!

One of Islam’s holiest spots is the dargah or tomb of the famous Sufi saint, Khwaja Moin-ud-din Chishti in Ajmer. Built over 3 centuries, the great shrine of marble, silver, gold was completed by Akbar’s father, Humayun. But the dargah became famous as Akbar’s favorite place of worship, who would often vow to make the 150 km journey from Agra to Ajmer on foot if a wish was fulfilled or a mission successfully completed. Like he did when he conquered Chittor in 1568. After reaching the dargah, he ordered the construction of a massive cauldron or “deg”. With a circumference of over 10 feet, it could hold 4,480 kgs of rice and was placed west of the main door or Buland Darwaza. 50 years later, his son, Jahangir, for whose birth he prayed at this very dargah, added a smaller one of half the capacity. Since then, every year, during the Urs festival marking the death anniversary of the saint, it is in these massive degs that the dargah’s famous kheer is made. Rice, ghee, milk, sugar and dry fruits are cooked together to become the dargah’s tabarruk or blessing and served to all pilgrims. Such is the rush that it is called the “looting of the kheer” because the degs are emptied within a matter of minutes, devotees even jumping into them to scrape whatever kheer remains at the bottom!

What else would abound in God’s own country but God’s own food? Not only do mortals quaff it in prodigious quantities at every possible opportunity but some of Kerala’s most famous payasams are made in …of course in its temples, but also in many of the churches as well!
Mulanthuruthy in Ernakulam district. Where the ancient Mar Thoman Syrian Orthodox Church stands, established in the early part of 12th century. Every year, payasam is an integral part of the annual celebrations of the church. A small portion is blessed, mixed with the rest and served to all the parishioners at the feast. Also in the Ernakulam district is St. Antony’s Church and the festival to mark St. Joseph’s Day is so famous that the church is known as St. Joseph’s Church. Thousands attend the festival, many to feast particularly on the delicious kadum payasam. Wealthy devotees “sponsor” and pay for the payasam, which incidentally ‘keeps’ for a year without spoiling – till the next feast!

Which brings us to Kerala’s famous temple payasams. The payasams at the Guruvayur and Sabrimalai temples are famous enough, but the one made at Sri Krishna Temple in Ambalappuzha near Alleppey has a wonderful story attached to it. Lord Krishna once appeared as a sage to the king of the region and challenged him to a game of chess. The king accepted the challenge, agreeing to the sage’s condition that that the prize should be decided before the game. The rishi’s prize, in case he won, was what seemed to be just a few grains of rice. He asked that one grain of rice be placed in the first square of the chessboard and then each subsequent square would have double the number of grains of the previous one. Whatever number of rice grains would thus fit on the chessboard would be his.
The king agreed – he had to because his opponent wanted nothing else. Naturally the rishi won. But when the king started adding the grains, he realized how he had underestimated his opponent. The number of rice grains multiplied in geometric progression and the “few grains of rice” finally beacme 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains, amounting to trillions of tons of rice! The king realised that even if he got all the rice in his kingdom and the adjacent ones, there was no way he could pay up. Seeing the king’s consternation, Lord Krishna revealed himself and put the king out of his misery by allowing the debt to be paid off over time – as free payasam to pilgrims. And so the famous paal payasam of the Ambalappuzha Sri Krishna temple is made and distributed as prasadam everyday to this very day! (Source :


And finally, what is often called the world’s oldest payasam. If the Jagannatha Temple in Puri, Orissa is one of our most ancient, famous and sacred temples, the prasadam made there is equally so – so much so that it is called “mahaprasadam”. Every single day, hundreds of temple cooks and their assistants, working on 752 chulas in a kitchen that sprawls over 2500 sq. ft, cook an awesome 100 different dishes, enough to feed at least 10,000 people! Everything from steamed rice to dals and vegetables and a mind-boggling array of sweets including one named after Lord Jagannatha himself! And of course, payasam or bhat payasa . Kurma Dasa, celebrity gourmet chef and who is called 'Australia's Vegetarian Guru', found the original recipe for it, one that hasn’t changed in two thousand years. Here it is….

2 tablespoons ghee
3/4 cup long grained rice, washed and dried1/2 bay leaf2 litres milk1/2 cup ground rock sugar, or raw sugar 1/4 cup currants1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom seedsone pin-head quantity of pure cooking camphor (optional)1 tablespoon toasted nuts for garnish

Heat the ghee in a heavy pot over medium heat, and toast the rice for a minute.
Add the bay leaf and milk. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until reduced to half its original volume.
Add sugar, currants, and cardamom, and simmer the mixture until it reaches one fourth of its original volume, and is thick and creamy.
Stir in the optional camphor, and cool to room temperature, or refrigerate until chilled.
Serve garnished with the toasted nuts.

Grateful thanks to Mr. Kurma Dasa -, Elizabeth Ninan

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