Payasam (kheer) – food for the gods

Andal sang நூறு தடா நிறைந்த அக்கார அடிசில் சொன்னேன் (I promise to make 100 pots of akkara adisil); Dasaratha’s wives were given payasam from the Puthrakameshti yagam in order that they beget sons. It is also said (Bhavartha Ramayana of Eknath Maharaj) that Hanuman was born as a result of Anjana Devi drinking a drop of this very same payasam. As Dasharatha’s queens were having the payasam, the pot containing some of the payasam was carried away by a bird, which was then taken from the bird by Vayu, the wind God and the remaining payasam was dropped in the palm of Anjana Devi as she sat praying to Lord Siva for a son.

Payasam is a sweet dish that is made with rice, milk and sugar and enjoyed in all parts of India and even in countries outside India. The rice pudding is a favourite dessert in western cuisine, the Chinese dessert of eight jewel rice is another variation and was a celebratory dish in the Ming dynasty. The Romans had rice pudding. The Persians have the Shir-berenj. Sholeh-zard is a dairy free version in Afghanistan. Sufi singers have praised this delectable sweet and in the epic poem Padmavat, Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi refers to kheer made with jowar. It has been offered to the various Gods and goddesses as neivedya in Hindu traditions. Dikshitar sings, “पायसान्नपूरित माणिक्यपात्र हेमदर्वी विध्रुतकरे (paayasaanna maanikya paathra hemadarvi vidhrutakare”, the goddess Visalakshi holds a gem studded vessel filled with payasam in one hand and a golden spoon in the other. Purandara Dasa sings “Rama naama payasake”, Rama’s name is as sweet as payasam. In the Lalithasahasranamam, Devi is described as पायसान्नप्रिय and it is only befitting that there be a Kheer Bhavani temple some 27 km from Srinagar (Kashmir). Payasam is the ultimate in sweet dishes, the word payasam being derived from पीयूषं (peeyusham) which the Sanskrit word for nectar or ambrosia. Payasam, payas, payash, payesh or kheer are names used in different parts of India for this dish that is always associated with all celebrations like weddings, annaprashnam (a child’s first solid food) etc. and is indeed worthy of offering to the Gods.

Kasi Visalakshi with the gem studded pot of payasam

Harold McGee, a favourite among Michelin starred chefs writes “for sheer inventiveness with milk as the primary ingredient, no country on earth can match India”. Just the amazing number of varieties in a single milk dish, the payasam stands testimony to that. Let us look at some of the popular types of payasam.

PAAL PAYASAM (KHEER)
This is the traditional and most popular payasam made with rice, milk and sugar. A small amount of payasam is always served first in a traditional South Indian meal and a second larger serving after the rasam sadam.

AKKARAVADISAL
My favourite is the akkaravadisal. It is said that Ramanujar, one of the great Acharyans in the Srivaishnava tradition made good Andal’s promise of a 100 pots of akkaravadisal to the Lord Azhagar by offering the same to the Lord, many hundreds of years after Andal had made the promise. Even today, many Vaishnava temples are known for this dish, especially the akkaravadisal made during the Panguni Uthiram celebrations at Srirangam Ranganathar temple.

akkaravadisal in the making

BADAM KHEER
This was my mother’s go to payasam whenever there was an occasion that warranted making large quantities of payasam. One time in Delhi, His Holiness Srimad Andavan Swamigal had graced our house for a dolothsavam. I remember her making badam kheer for the occasion. Her method was to make the badam paste with sugar, saffron and cardamom in advance and just mix it with milk and allow to boil before serving it. I do this even now, especially when I have many people coming over.

PAYATHAM PARUPPU (MOONG DAL) PAYASAM
A favourite of my father and especially known to be made as a neivediyam or offering to Saraswati Devi during Navarathri. My Guru, Vidwan Shri T R Subrahmanyam would always say that payatham paruppu is very good for the voice and this used to be a favourite payasam of his. This is a very easy payasam to make and some nights, my father would just have this for dinner.

PAAL KOZHUKATTAI
A favourite of my first Guru, Vidwan Shri N Gopala Iyer, this is made with small round steamed balls of rice and a gravy of rich sweet and flavoursome coconut milk payasam.

 

paal kozhukattai

THENGAI PAL
Made with coconut milk and jaggery, this is another favourite of mine similar to the paal kozhukattai without the balls of rice.

TIRUPPULLANI PAYASAM
King Dasaratha is said to have performed the Puthrakameshti yagam at this Vaishnava Divya Desam (Ramanathapuram District). Agni devata is said to have given the prasadam of payasam that was distributed among his wives. Even today, this payasam is prepared on a daily basis and after offering to the reigning deity around 10 am, is then distributed among devotees. It is said that a childless couple would be blessed with a child after partaking of this payasam.

AMBALAPUZHA PAYASAM
How can one not mention the payasams of Kerala, the most famous of which is the Ambalapuzha payasam at the Krishnan temple? We had gone on a temple trip of Kerala with my parents many years back and of course we went to the Ambalapuzha temple. We were running late but we managed to reach in time to watch the noon time ceremony of the priests offering this neivedyam to the reigning deity and then partaking of the same was indeed memorable.

ambalapuzha paysam

OTHER KERALA PAYASAMS

With the abundance of jackfruit in Kerala, the epic chakka pradhaman, usually made with the chakka varatti or jackfruit preserve/jam is no surprise. The adai pradhaman, a variation with thin wafers made out of rice flour in the jaggery and coconut milk is another finger licking payasam. Made with jaggery in place of sugar, these payasams have a distinctive appetising flavour. The ney payasam or aravanai payasam of the Sabarimala temple and the pal payasam of Guruvayur are other very well known payasams from this state. Payasam is a must have item in the sadya, the traditional meal of Kerala.

 

aravanai payasam

OTHER PARTS OF INDIA

The gil-e-firdaus (clay of paradise), a thick kheer made with bottle gourd, sugar and milk is a result of the Nawabi influence in Hyderabad. Similarly the phirni, which is a rose water infused kheer with plenty of dry fruits is said to have originated in Persia and is traditionally served cold in kulhads or individual mud pots in North India. The paneer kheer or kheera at the Jagannath temple is a part of the Mahaprasadam at this temple. The goyinta godi is a signature dish from Orissa associated with the Konark temple. It is said that the foundation of this temple which was supposed to have been built above the anchoring place in the ocean couldn’t be done as all the stones kept disappearing into the water. The architect’s son showed how it could be done and he used rice balls dropped in warm milk to illustrate his point. And that was the basis of laying the foundation for the Konark temple. Legend has it that post Kalinga war, this payesh became one of the staples in emperor Ashoka’s palace. The Bengali payesh is usually made with gobindo bhog rice and the Manipuri payash is made with the Chak Hao, a black rice called the forbidden rice as it was originally eaten only by royalty.

 

Manipuri black rice payash

Quite often I make the elaneer payasam (coconut water) and nongu payasam (palm fruit) both of which are very light and refreshing. With my fondness for turmeric, any time I get fresh turmeric, I make turmeric payasam, another favourite. Of course we have the mango payasam, chana dal payasam, aval payasam, semiya payasam, rava or sooji payasam, sago payasam, broken wheat, paneer payasam, khus khus payasam, carrot payasam and the list goes on and on.

 

This list of payasams is by no means exhaustive and I am sure there are many more interesting types of payasams. Do feel free to share any other interesting payasam recipes.

turmeric payasam
elaneer payasam

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