The monsoons have slowly started bidding us goodbye here, even as they haven't paid their scheduled visits to other parts of the country. This withdrawal of the rains signals the beginning of a long season of festivities and celebrations all over India.
In our home, it started last week and this month shall be very busy. Today we're celebrating the birthday of Lord Krishna as Srikrishna Jayanthi (also called Gokulashtami/ Janmashtami/ Ashtami Rohini). This weekend all of India will be celebrating its 62nd Independence Day and a week later it will be Vinayaka/ Ganesh Chathurthi.
On the personal front, this month also includes a birthday and an anniversary.
Festivals mean a lot of work for the womenfolk in most families. Daily chores notwithstanding, women have to contend with a lot of extra work in the form of festive cooking, preparations for pujas (ritual worship), welcoming and entertaining guests.
With extended families giving way to nuclear families, much has changed from this scenario. Fewer members in a family mean less cooking and work. Perhaps it also means less fun, because I don't see children nowadays having a chance to enjoy all this like we used to.
We enjoy celebrations (it almost always comes down to the food, doesn’t it?) and I always make it a point to do my best to celebrate such festivities in as traditional a manner as is practically possible. I feel this is one way to ensure that our daughter learns about our traditions.
Belonging to the Palakkad Iyer community also means that we celebrate most Tamil festivals and traditions and most of those in Kerala as well. So that means almost double the festivities and sometimes a bit of extra work too Or you could look at it from our daughter's point of view, who says "Yummy" when I tell her what we're celebrating and what I'm going to be cooking!!!
Going back to the matter of this post, Lord Krishna's birthday is celebrated in differently in different parts of India. In our home, "kolams" (auspicious patterns drawn on festive occasions, with a rice flour paste) are drawn along with a pattern of a small pair of footprints coming from the outside into the house. These feet represent and signify that the Lord Krishna has come into our home. Pooja (ritual worship and offering) is done, the temple is visited for prayers and blessings and food is specially made for this day.
No offering to Lord Krishna is complete without his favourites, "vennai" (fresh home-made unsalted butter) and "aval" (beaten rice flakes).
As children, most of us in India grew up hearing stories about young Krishna's love for butter and butter milk and the mischievous exploits he undertook in pursuit of this fondness. His partiality for beaten rice flakes is tied to his childhood friendship with Sudama.
I still remember impatiently waiting, as a child, for my maternal Grandfather to finish his dinner and sit down in his wooden easy-chair so that we could get on with our daily story-telling sessions from the Puranas.
Celebrating Janmashatami in our home means making (sharing and eating, too) traditional festive fare such as murukku (savoury and crisp rice and lentil snack), pokkuvadam, muthusaram (another savoury and buttery crisp snack), paal payasam and cheedais (recipes follow).
All these would take too much of time and effort so I usually make the last two mentioned items. Since I made paal payasam just last week, this time I chose to make a payasam with "aval" (beaten rice flakes) instead.
While most recipes for the following preparations would have, more or less, the same ingredients you might find that the proportions may differ. These recipes have been handed down to me by my mother and grandmother.
As usual, with all my traditional sweet and snack recipes I have used "glass" as a measurement. Please scroll down to the bottom of this page to see what 1 glass measures as.
Aval Payasam (A Milk-based Sweet With Beaten Rice Flakes)
As I have mentioned previously, a payasam (also known as "kheer") is a milk or coconut milk based Indian sweet. We make a variety of payasam in India and this is just one of them.
Aval (beaten rice flakes) are commonly used in Indian cooking and are of different types. You can get those made from white or polished rice and from red or unpolished rice. Beaten rice flakes can be very thin or a slightly thick. Red coloured aval is the best if you can find it, but the white variety works just as well. Always use the the thicker variety of "aval" as the thinner one will turn to mush in this payasam.
1 litre milk (full fat is always best; I used 3% fat)
3/4 glass beaten rice flakes, the thicker variety (not cereal)
1 glass granulated sugar
powdered cardamom from 3 or 4 pods
2 tsp ghee (optional)
1 tbsp each broken cashewnuts and golden raisins each (optional)
Wash the aval (beaten rice flakes) and drain the water completely. Do not leave even the smallest amount of water in the rice flakes, or they will absorb it and become mushy. Keep aside.
Aval (beaten rice flakes)
In a heavy bottomed/ thick-walled pan, pour the one litre of milk and bring it to boil. Add the aval/ beaten rice flakes to it, stir well and then turn down the heat a bit. Allow the rice to cook in the milk for about 15 to 20 minutes or till the milk has reduced, in volume, to about half.
Now add the sugar and stir till it dissolves. Allow the milk-beaten rice flakes-sugar mixture/ payasam to cook for another 10 minutes till it thickens slightly. Take it off the heat.
Once it cools to room temperature, it will thicken a little more. The milk in the cooked payasam should be slightly thicker, like evaporated milk.
Add the powdered cardamom and stir well. You may also add some ghee if you choose. Otherwise, heat the ghee and fry the golden raisins in it till they puff up. Remove them and then fry the broken cashewnuts till golden, in the same ghee. Pour this and the raisins into the payasam and stir.
Serve slightly warm. Otherwise, chill and serve as dessert. This recipe will serve about 4 people.
Vella Cheedai (Deep-fried Rice Flour & Jaggery Cookies)
Vella cheedai are small deep fried cookies (that's the best I can do to describe them in English) made from rice flour and jaggery (which we call "vellam" in Tamil). They are a bit tricky to make and it takes mostly practice and a bit of luck to get them right. For the first time, this year, my vella cheedai broke in the hot oil! It took an extra 3 tbsp of rice flour to get it right (see the method for further information regarding this).
You can make the rice flour used in this and the following recipe at home. Soak raw rice in water for about an hour, drain and spread the rice on a kitchen towel to dry out a bit. Then run the rice in your mixer/ grinder jar to a slightly coarse (almost fine) powder. Sieve the powdered rice to remove larger pieces and powder again.
Then proceed with the recipe. You can also use packaged rice flour for this but roast it before use. The packaged "rice puttu powder" that's available in the stores works just fine.
For the lentil powder (for both recipes), roast about 4 tbsps lentils till golden brown. Cool a bit and run in your mixer/ grinder jar till finely powdered.
1 glass slightly coarse rice powder
1 tbsp roasted and powdered black gram lentils (urad dal)
3/4 cup powdered jaggery
1 1/2 tsp white sesame seeds
2 tbsp very fine slivers of coconut
1/2 tsp cardamom powder
oil for deep frying
Lightly roast the rice powder, over low to medium heat, till it gives off an aroma. Do not brown. Keep aside.
Put 1 glass of water and the powdered jaggery in a pan. Over medium heat, stir the mixture till the jaggery dissolves and boils till the syrup reaches the "soft ball" stage.
Note: Getting the syrup to the right texture is very important, or else these cheedais will not turn out right.
Allow the syrup to cool a bit. Add the rice powder, lentil (urad dal) powder, sesame seeds, coconut slivers and cardamom powder and mix/ knead well into a somewhat stiff dough. Pinch off pieces of the dough and roll into smooth balls about 1" in diameter.
Heat the oil and then down the heat to medium. Drop the balls, about six at a time, and fry them, turning them constantly, till they're cooked.
If the oil is too hot they will brown quickly but remain uncooked inside.These vella cheedai will be quite dark when done, almost the colour of dark chocolate. The jaggery makes them darken easily, so make sure they don't burn.
Note: Sometimes, these sweet little balls have a tendency to break in the oil, while frying. So start with one or two. If they don't break, go ahead and deep fry the whole lot.
If they do break in the oil, it usually means that the proportion of jaggery in the dough might be a bit on the higher side. So add a little rice flour to the dough and mix/ knead well. Then shape them into balls and deep fry. They will have slightly cracked appearance on the surface.
Drain on paper towels and serve when they have cooled to room temperature. This recipe makes about 15 vella cheedais.
Uppu Cheedai (Deep-fried Savoury Rice Flour Cookies)
"Uppu" means salt in Tamil, and so these "cookies" are savoury (I am describing these cheedai as cookies as well). The addition of crushed cumin seeds, black pepper, asafetida and coconut gives these cheedai a unique taste. Unlike their sweet counterpart in the recipe above, these are very easy to make and also very good to snack on, accompanied by coffee or tea.
2 glasses slightly coarse rice flour
4 tbsp finely grated fresh coconut
1 tbsp roasted and finely powdered black gram lentils (urad dal)
2 tsp crushed cumin seeds
1/4 tsp asafetida powder
3/4 tsp freshly crushed black pepper
1 tbsp unsalted butter
salt to taste
oil for deep frying
Mix all the ingredients together, with just enough water, to make a easily kneaded but slightly stiff dough. Remember this dough is made of rice flour and will be different from a regular cookie dough.
Pinch off small pieces of dough and roll into smooth balls about 1/2" in diameter and keep them on a cotton kitchen towel. This will help to draw out any excess moisture in the dough and result in crisp, crunchy cheedai.
Heat the oil and turn down the heat to medium. Drop the balls into the oil and fry them, turning them constantly, till they're a golden brown and done.
Drain on paper towels. Allow to cool and serve. This recipe makes lots of uppu cheedai, too many for me to count but enough for about 4 people to eat!
Festive greetings to everyone who is celebrating Janmashtami.