Aravana or Nei Payasam is a sweet made with raw red rice, jaggery and ghee. It is traditionally made in Bhagavathy or Devi temples in Kerala for ritual offering or Prasadham. This Prasadham or food that is blessed and sacred is served to devotees. Aravana Payasam is perhaps most famous as the offering made to Lord Ayyappa at Sabarimala in Kerala.
Payasam, also known as “kheer” in Hindi, is a festive Indian rice pudding of sorts. In Kerala, it is usually made with rice, milk and sugar or rice, coconut milk and jaggery. Aravana or Nei Payasam is different from Chakkara Pongal though it may feel similar. It does not contain any milk or lentils, and rather larger quantities of ghee than usual in payasam/ kheer.
Though mostly made as temple prasadham this Payasam is also made at home to offer for various religious Pooja or rituals. Other names for this dish include Ambala Payasam (temple payasam), Katti Payasam (katti means thick), Sharkara Payasam (sharkara = jaggery) and Neivedhya Payasam. Aravana or Nei Payasam is also made in some homes for Saraswathy Pooja/ Vidhyarambham during Navarathri. I also understand some homes serve this for the Onam Sadya.
There are a couple of legends about the origin of Aravana Payasam, but there’s probably very little truth in them. The more popular version attributes the sweet preparation to Sage or Maharshi Aravanan. He supposedly cooked this payasam with the rice he was carrying and offered it at the Sabarimala temple. Dry rice is the main ingredient in the Aravana Payasam. Another explanation is that the word ‘Aravanan’ means God and got its name from being offered to Lord Ayappa.
Our daughter doesn’t like payasam very much but Aravana or Nei Payasam is one she does like very much. Though not made for birthdays, I used to make it for her traditional birthday celebration as a child. Our traditional birthdays are marked by the day, star and month according the lunar-solar calendar we follow for such things. So we celebrate birthdays on the Gregorian calendar with cake and the traditional ones with payasam/ kheer.
As the name suggests, there is a lot of ghee (nei) in this payasam. It is also a lot sweeter than the other kinds of payasam. For this reason this payasam is also sometimes called Kadu Madhuram meaning very sweet! The amount of ghee and jaggery in it give it a longer shelf life, so to speak. This payasam is never served as dessert and is not eaten often. Its richness and sweetness means it can be eaten only a spoonful or two at a time. The best Aravana or Nei Payasam is always slow-cooked in an uruli or thick walled pot allowing the full flavor tos to develop.
Aravana or Nei Payasam from the temples, especially Sabarimala, are usually a very deep brown in colour. This is due to the dark coloured jaggery used. Sabarimala Aravana Payasam is also more syrupy in texture, and the rice chewier in texture. The traditional payasam from the temples and made made for religious rituals is always made with only rice, jaggery, ghee and ghee toasted coconut bits. Cardamom, raisins, cashewnuts, etc are all later additions are not authentic but do add to the flavor. Only raw rice (not processed or parboiled) is used if cooked in temples or for religious rituals.
Unakkalari or Chemba rice, a semi polished pinkish tinged rice is the rice of choice. It is available usually labelled as Payasam Rice in most stores. If you cannot find this variety, a short to medium grain raw white rice is acceptable. You will get neither the texture nor taste with Basmati rice so that is not an option.
I like adding ripe plantain pieces to this payasam as it adds a lovely flavor, though not traditional. If you would like to do this, then leave the raisins out. Also leave the coconut bits out if using cashewnuts. Some people like to add a bit of dried ginger powder. This is a very easy recipe and comes together quite quickly without much effort. My version is a little less rich and sweet and has a consistency close to a risotto.
This post was originally published in July, 2010. It has since been updated with text, images and republished.
Aravana or Nei Payasam
- 3/4 cup raw payasam rice
- 3 tbsps thinly sliced slivers of coconut
- 2 ripe plantains
- 3/4 to 1 cup powdered jaggery
- 3/4 cup water
- 1/2 cup ghee
- 2 tbsps cashewnuts broken
- 2 tbsps raisins
- 4 to 5 pods cardamom crushed
- 2 tbsp ghee
- Wash the rice and cook it with enough water so that it well cooked and soft but not mushy. I do this in a pressure cooker. 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 the rice is not cooked soft, it will become chewy and tough when cooked with the jaggery.
- While the rice is cooking, peel and cut the ripe plantains into quarters lengthwise. Then cut them into 3/4-inch pieces.Heat 1 tbsp ghee in a small pan, and toast the coconut slivers till deep golden brown. Do not let them get darker. Keep aside. Add the other 1 tbsp of ghee, and over medium heat cook the plantain pieces till soft but not mushy. Keep this aside as well.If using cashewnuts and raisins instead, then brown the cashewnuts in the ghee. Remove and keep aside. Then fry the raisins as well till they puff up. Remove and keep aside. Add the remaining ghee to the payasam while adding the rest of the ghee.
- Dissolve the jaggery in the water and strain to remove any impurities. Pour the jaggery solution into a thick walled largish pan and bring to boil, while stirring occasionally. Turn down the heat to medium and allow to simmer for about 2 or 3 minutes. It doesn't have to be cooked to a syrup.
- Add the cooked rice to this and stir well, ensuring there are no lumps. Also add the cooked plantain pieces at this point, if using. Continue to cook over medium heat and add the ghee remaining from the cashews and raisins.. Also stir in about 1/3rd the 1/2 cup of ghee. Stir till the ghee gets absorbed. Use up all the ghee in this way, adding 1/3rd each time and cook till it all absorbed.
- The Aravana or Nei Payasam would have thickened and reached the consistency of a risotto. It will thicken further somewhat on cooling and should have a final consistency of a rather thick porridge.
- Mix in the crushed cardamom and the toasted coconut pieces, or raisins and cashewnuts, whichever you're using. Remove from the stove.
- Serve warm. This Payasam is quite rich and the servings should be smaller. so the servings need to smaller than most other desserts or sweet dishes.
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)