It is our daughter’s birthday today, even though she wasn’t born on the 3rd of July! As improbable as that sounds, it is possible if you are Indian and follow the traditional Indian lunar-solar calendar.
Like the English calendar year, our traditional calendar also has 12 months in a year, but each month has 29.5 days. Each of the 29.5 days has a date and is also marked by a “star” or “nakshatram”. There are 27 of these “stars” which follow a particular order and appear in that order periodically every lunar month throughout the year.
This means that in an English calendar month, a “nakshathram/ star” may occasionally appear twice. All traditional celebrations/ religious observances are decided based on this solar-lunar calendar.
The long and short of this is that in Hindu families in India, when a child is born, the month (on the Indian calendar), time and day of birth decides the birth “nakshathram/ star” of the child. For us, this then is the day that is celebrated as a child/ person’s birthday, and it does not fall on the same date every year.
When we were children, our families celebrated only “star birthdays” as we called them. On this day, one got up early in the morning, had a ritual bath and wore new clothes, then sought the blessings of all the elders at home and then visited the temple for special prayers and blessings. Special birthdays, like a first birthday, are more elaborate celebrations.
For all other purposes we follow the English calendar in India, so as we grew older we came to know of birthdays celebrated on the same day every year with cake, blowing out of candles and birthday gifts.
At some point in time, especially after our daughter was born, we were a bit undecided on which of the two birthdays to celebrate. While cultural traditions definitely have a place in our lives, our more "modern" and changinglifestyles meant that it made sense to celebrate one’s birthday according to the English calendar.
We finally got around this dilemma by celebrating two birthdays in a year each - a “date of birth” birthday and a “nakshathram/ star” birthday!
As I mentioned, traditional birthdays are celebrated with “payasam” and the other birthday means cake or dessert.
A “payasam”, also known as “kheer”, is a milk/ coconut milk and rice/ wheat pudding-like sweet celebratory dish. It is usually sweetened with sugar/ jaggery depending on the kind of payasam being made.
Akshaya does not like payasam very much, but a traditional birthday is just not the same without it. When given a choice of payasam, this birthday girl settled for “ney payasam”, as this is about the only payasam she does like.
Funnily enough, this is not a payasam that’s usually made for birthdays. Ney payasam, as the name suggests is has a lot of ghee (called "ney" in Tamil and Malayalam) is normally made and offered to God in temples, or at home during special poojas (ritual worship), and then distributed as prasadham (blessed food) to devotees. In fact, for a long time I used to call it “kovil” payasam where kovil means temple because that’s where most of the ney payasam that we ate came from.
The best tasting ney payasam is always slow-cooked in an uruli and requires a bit of an arm workout in the form of constant stirring. This pudding-like payasam is quite sweet, very rich and is meant to be (and can only be) eaten in small quantities.
Ghee ("ney" or browned butter), raisins, cashewnuts and cardamom
In this version I have added cardamom, cashewnuts and raisins which are really not part of an authentic ney payasam. A true ney payasam is deep brown (from the jaggery) and shiny (from the ghee), with a bit of crunch that comes from the ghee-fried coconut pieces in it. My ney payasam is quite pale in colour, because the jaggery I get here in Goa is very light unlike the dark jaggery available back home.
"Payasam ari" (a variety of raw rice used for making payasam)
Do not use long grain aromatic rice like basmati for this recipe. A short to medium grain raw rice is best. I used what is locally (in Kerala) called “payasam ari" or rice for making payasam, which is unpolished and brown-streaked raw rice.
If you cannot find the coconut to slice and chop into thin bits, do make this payasam without it. It might not be authentic but is still pretty good.
3/4 cup raw rice
3/4 cup powdered jaggery*
1/4 cup water
1/3 cup ghee (browned butter)
2 tbsp broken cashewnuts
2 tbsp raisins
2 tbsp thinly sliced coconut pieces
4 to 5 pods cardamom (optional)
*You might need up to 1 cup of jaggery. The jaggery I get here is very sweet so I used only 3/4 cup.
Wash and cook the rice and well cooked but the grains are still separate and not mushy. The rice must be cooked till very soft and you can test this by pressing a couple of cooked rice grains between your thumb and index finger. You should be able to mash into almost a paste.
If at this point your rice is not cooked enough (or to the right texture), when you cook it with jaggery, the rice will become tough and your payasam/ rice pudding will not have a soft texture.
Heat about 1 1/2 tbsp of the ghee in a pan and fry raisins till the puff up and become golden (not brown). Remove and keep aside. In the same ghee, fry the cshewnuts till golden. Remove and keep with the raisins. Similarly fry the small coconut pieces till brown and crisp. Keep this also with the raisins and cashewnuts.
Now dissolve the jaggery in the water and strain to remove any impurities. Pour the jaggery solution into a thick walled pan and bring to boil, while stirring occasionally. Turn down the heat to medium and allow to simmer for about 2 or 3 minutes.
Add the rice to this and stir well, ensuring there are no lumps. Continue to cook the rice over medium heat and add about a tbsp of ghee. Keep stirring till the ghee gets absorbed. Use up all the ghee in this way, adding a tbsp at a time.
By now the payasam/ rice pudding would have thickened and start leaving the sides of the pan when stirred.
Once the payasam is thick yet still moist, about the consistency of a very thick sauce, take it off the heat. Add the powdered cardamom, the fried coconut pieces, raisins and cashewnuts and mix well.
Serve warm. Remember that this rice pudding is very rich and so the servings need to smaller than most other desserts or sweet dishes. This payasam, as all others we make, are traditionally served slightly warm and taste the best this way. It can also be served at room temperature or chilled, if you prefer.
This recipe will serve about 8.
Other payasams on this blog:
Aval Payasam (Beaten rice flakes in sweetened milk)
Parippu Pradhaman (Lentils in jaggery sweetened coconut milk)
Cabbage Payasam (A modern twist to the traditional payasam)