Let me start by breaking down the name of today’s recipe – Karuppu Kavuni Aval Payasam. Kavuni is an Indian variety of glutinous high fibre black rice from Tamil Nadu. Karuppu is the Tamil word for black and Aval (or Avil) is Tamil for beaten rice flakes. Payasam is a South Indian version of milk and rice pudding.
Normally, when one thinks of black rice, the first one that comes to mind is the Forbidden Rice of China. Once the black rice escaped the walls of the Chinese Emperor’s palace, it was grown across South East Asia. Black rice is grown and eaten in mainly two parts of India. Chak-Hao is grown in Manipur in North Eastern India and Karuppu Kavuni in Chettinad in Tamilnadu in South Inda.
Black rice would have come across to North Eastern India across the border from China. How did it get to the Southern part of India? And that too the Chettinad region in particular? In the old days, the Nattukottai Chettiar community of Chettinad traded quite a bit across South East Asia especially Burma and Malaysia. They brought back Black rice from Burma and started cultivating it. This Black rice or Karuppu Kavuni is generally used in festive Chettinad recipes. Incidentally, Kavuni or Kevuni refers to the gate of a city, castle or fort. Could this perhaps be a reference to the Chinese Emperor’s palace where Black rice was grown initially?
Aval or Beaten Rice Flakes can be found in all rice growing areas of Asia. Kerala enjoys Aval in so many different ways. Aval also has a special significance for us for certain religious festivals. It is important on Ashtami Rohini or Janmashtami, Lord Krishna’s birthday, as it is one of his favourite foods. We always cook beaten rice flakes and offer it to Lord Krishna on this day. I make Paal Payasam, but with Beaten Rice Flakes instead of rice.
Aval is generally of two types – thin or thick, and can be made from white or polished rice and unpolished rice. Our preference is for the thick red variety. The thicker variety is best for making Payasam as the thinner variety will cook down to mush. The best Payasam is also made with full fat milk, so use that if you can.
Aval Payasam is one of the desserts where less is truly more. It just takes the beaten rice flakes, milk and sugar cooked down slowly and lightly flavoured with cardamom. You can use any variety of thick Aval, red or white. This recipe features Karuppu Kavuni Aval, which Jayanthi Somasundaram of The Spirit of Earth generously gifted me when I met her a couple of months ago. I would recommend using Karuppu Kavuni Aval if you can find it. The Black rice flakes give it a unique aroma/ flavour that is somewhat reminiscent of roses. It also lends it a light purple colour. The glutinous quality of Karuppu Kavuni rice helps in thickening the Payasam and the Aval doesn’t completely disintegrate into the Payasam.