Ithink 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.