think I must have mentioned in a couple of my posts somewhere that traditional Indian cuisine, particularly South Indian, does not have the concept of dessert as it is known in the West. Yet there is never a festive occasion where some sort of a sweet dish doesn’t feature, and many cases it is “sweets” in plural!
In my community, festive meals always start with a taste of the “payasam” (a milk or coconut milk based pudding like sweet). And the sweet/ dessert is typically served as the middle course of the meal. While traditional feast still continue to be served and eaten this way, informal or non-traditional Indian meals have evolved so that the sweet dish is served as dessert at the end of the meal.
For us Palakkad Iyers, the sweet/ dessert at all family celebrations and festivities is almost always “payasam”, even if there are other sweet dishes on the menu. The closest I can translate a “payasam” as, is a pudding. Given that rice is the mainstay of our cuisine, the basic payasam and the one made most often traditionally, features rice. This one is usually made with milk and is like the Western rice pudding except that it is not as thick but more of a “drinkable” sort of consistency.
Our payasams can be very broadly divided into “paal payasams (made with milk), “thengapaal payasams (made with coconut milk”). There is also the “ney payasam (made with jaggery and a higher proportion of ghee) which uses neither milk nor coconut milk and is very thick in consistency.
Birthdays are always traditionally celebrated with a “payasam”. The most recent birthday here was Akshaya’s and she doesn’t really like payasam very much except “ney payasam” or “chakkara pongal”. Since it was her birthday, I asked her what kind of payasam she would like, in the hope that she would at least taste some of her “birthday sweet”!
She wrinkled her nose, gave it some thought and asked for semiya (vermicelli) payasam. This payasam is not one traditional to our cuisine, as vermicelli was never an ingredient that featured in our traditional cooking. I have a feeling it must have come in as a variation of the “Sevaiyaan”, a similar but much thicker pudding-like dish made by the Muslim community especially to celebrate Id-Ul-Fitr.
This payasam is made by cooking the slightly thicker type of roasted vermicelli in milk and sugar intil it is a bit thick. The consistency of the milk in the finished payasam should somewhat like that of evaporated milk yet drinkable. Traditionally we always serve payasam a bit warm, but this one can be served chilled too and also makes a very easy to cook and serve dessert to finish an Indian meal.
Make sure you use the slightly thicker variety of vermicelli, otherwise you will not get the desired consistency. If you can find pre-roasted vermicelli, do use it as this prevents the vermicelli from becoming “sticky” and clumping in the milk. Otherwise you can always buy the unroasted variety and do it yourself at home.
You will find the ingredient measurements for the vermicelli and the sugar as a range (1/2 to 3/4 cups), in my recipe below. This because some people like their payasam to be a bit more liquid in consistency. If that’s how you would like yours use only 1/2 cup. Similarly some people likeit really sweet whereas I personally prefer it a little less. So please use as much sugar as you would like.
Semiya Payasam (A South Indian Style Vermicelli And Milk Sweet/ Pudding)Ingredients:1 1/2 to 2 tbsp gheeA small handful of golden raisinsA small handful of broken cashewnuts (unroasted, unsalted)1 litre milk (I used 3% fat)1/2 to 3/4 cup vermicelli1/2 to 3/4 cup sugar3 to 4 cardamom pods, powderedMethod:If you are using unroasted vermicelli, heat 1 tbsp of ghee and roast the vermicelli, over medium heat, till it firsts turns white and then golden brown. Do not let it brown too much. Remove from the pan and keep aside.Heat the remaining ghee in the same pan and, over low heat, fry the raisins till they plump up. Remove and keep aside. In the same ghee, fry the broken cashewnuts till they turn uniformly golden brown. Do not let them become dark brown. Remove them from the pan and keep aside.In another heavy bottomed pan, pour the milk and bring it to boil. Add the roasted vermicelli and stir well. Allow the vermicelli-milk mixture to come to a boil, stirring frequently and then let it simmer until the vermicelli has cooked well. Stir frequently so that the vermicelli does not settle to the bottom of the pan, clump and burn.Once the vermicelli has cooked and the milk has thickened a bit (this should take about 20 minutes or so), add the sugar and stir. Let it cook for a further 5 to 10 minutes. The consistency of the payasam should be a bit thick but still reasonably liquid when you stir it. It will thicken a little more once it cools. Add the cardamom, cashewnuts and raisins, stir a couple of times and take it off the heat.Let it cool, stirring occasionally to prevent a skin from forming on the top. Serve warm or let it chill before serving if you prefer.This recipe serves 6 to 8 people.