payasam (sweet porridge)

Waking up long before sunrise even before the cockerel gets a chance to crow, twigs and husk or any old thing, are piled in front of the house and a bonfire is made.
…while the winter fog is still very thick and embers are crackling, neighbors join in with a broken chair in one hand and a weathered basket in another and as the fire grows stronger swallowing one remnant of past at a time, we look forward to fresh beginnings... it is the morning of Bhogi - the first day of 4 day harvest festival.

This festival also chimes in with winter solstice bidding farewell to winter and welcoming spring.

I love the morning of Bhogi… no one worries about wrinkled clothes or bed heads... simply roll out of bed and walk into the street only to be greeted by friendly smiles and warm hugs. We all huddle around the bonfire chitchatting idly, mothers keeping a weary eye on troublesome kids, girls giggling, men trying to wake up from the slumber until the first rays of sun appear and the sparrows begin to stir.

If it's not a communal fire but the one you and your next door neighbor share, then water is heated on the same fire in the early morning to take baths. It symbolizes cleansing the inside and out.

While the women folk get busy decorating the house fronts with rice flour or chalk, ‘Haridasu’ (one who chants Lord Vishnu/Hari) stops by at every house for a handful of newly harvested rice and gives his blessings.
Oxen are decked with beaded necklaces and colorful cloth to be paraded around the town by pipers playing classical tunes. Boys fly kites and girls put on their silk skirts and silver anklets.

The second day is Pongal or Makara Sankranthi. On this day, sweet Pongal is prepared with milk, rice and jaggery as an offering to nature at sunrise and then shared with family and friends… hence the name. Milk is allowed to boil over the stove to purify before putting in other ingredients.
If we prepare this sweet on regular days we don't follow these rituals.

But the recipe I'm posting today is the one given to me by Meenakshi aunty when we were living in a portion of their Noida apartment. She's been a doting mother, nurturing sister and a caring friend as we were going through some tumbling times then. Most memorable to me are the leisurely evenings we spent together on the roof. She was very excited when I told her that I’ll be sharing this recipe here ( ' v ' )

I made a few changes to the original recipe to bring out the best of both South and North Indian versions. The main difference is, in South ~ jaggery is used to sweeten the rice, flavored with cardamom and topped with just cashews & raisins while in North ~ sugar is the sweetener and also a wide variety of nuts and raisins are used to garnish along with a pinch of Saffron transforming a simple sweet into decedent dessert. So, this is not exactly sweet pongal but we can call this payasam (sweet porridge or pudding or kheer).

Payasam is an essential sweet for any festival or special occasion in south Indian households and is very versatile. It can be had very warm for breakfast or as a starter during traditional nine course meals or can also be served as a chilled dessert.

A taste of payasam is given to babies by all the relatives & friends who come to celebrate their 'First Rice' which we call Annaprasana.

serves 6.

Milk - half gallon (preferably whole milk)
Rice - ½ cup (the pudding is creamier if less rice is used but takes longer to reach that consistency and vice versa.)
Jaggery (coarsely chopped or pounded) or Sugar - about 1 cup (adjust to taste)
Ground Cardamom – ½ tsp
Saffron - a pinch (optional)
Ghee (clarified butter) - 2 tbsp
Cashews, pistachios (coarsely chopped), almond slivers - ¼ cup
Raisins - 1 tbsp

We normally use medium grain rice called 'sona masoori' but Basmati rice works fine too.


Cardamom: To make Cardamom powder, grind Cardamom pods along with 2 or 3 spoons of sugar to get a fine powder. You can leave the husk as it is.
Store it in an air-tight container to preserve the sweet scent.

Jaggery is a natural sugar made from the concentrate of sugarcane juice and is full of minerals and vitamins. The earthiness of it can be felt in its texture, taste and the smell. To me it smells of festival days and visits to the temple.
It could be an acquired taste though. Sample some and see if you like it ( ‘ u ‘ )

It is also known as medicinal sugar and is often used in home remedies and traditional medicine (ayurveda). Jaggery is available in small cubes or in molds and should be stored in an air-tight container or else they’ll turn hard.

If you are using jaggery in this recipe, chop the cubes coarsely into smaller pieces with a serrated knife or place the cubes in-between layers of newspaper and pound with pestle.

Ghee: So much has been written about goodness of ghee at ‘My new roots’ also with a recipe to make it at home.
I recently came across this blog and fell in love instantly. There is a wealth of information on wholesome foods and whole living.

Heat the ghee in a small pan. Add chopped cashews and pistachios. When they are beginning to turn golden, toss in almond slivers and raisins.

When the raisins are puffed, turn off the heat and set them aside.

Saffron: These handpicked stigmas of Saffron crocus are the most precious of all spices for their labor intensive cultivation. When used in tiny amounts, each grain of pilaf or kheer takes on a saffron glow and tickles us with an alluring aroma… but it can easily overpower the dish if not careful with the measure.

Take 2 tbsp. of hot milk in a bowl. Add a pinch of saffron strands and let it rest until needed (even 2 or 3 strands go a long way).

Within a few minutes you can notice the deep yellow hues seeping into the milk.


Note: using a heavy non-stick sauce pan avoids milk from sticking to the bottom as the milk and rice needs to be simmered for a long time, stirring often.

Take a sauce pan and heat milk on low flame till it comes to a boil.
Keep stirring occasionally or else a brown leathery layer will form at the bottom which will make the pudding clumpy.

Rinse rice once or twice. Drain the water and add rice to the boiling milk.

Continue to simmer and stir often until rice is cooked and the milk comes to a creamier consistency.
At this point, milk shouldn’t be runny but still somewhat loose.

Add jaggery or sugar. I usually add 3 parts jaggery and 1 part sugar for this recipe as I noticed adding that little bit of sugar mellows the rawness that comes with the jaggery and gives it a different kind of sweetness which feels complete although I wouldn’t mind skipping sugar.
Feel free to use sugar alone if you are not used to the taste of jaggery.
Combine well until the jaggery melts.

Sprinkle ground cardamom. Stir in saffron milk along with the strands.

Add nuts & raisins. Combine well and turn off the heat.

Serve warm or chilled. It can be stored in the refrigerator up to 3 or 4 days.

~ Although time taking, this is a foolproof recipe that you cannot go wrong with. Take care not to cook it on high heat though. On a scale of 1 to 10, maybe 2 or 3.
By all means, you can cut down on cooking time by increasing the rice quantity. It tastes equally good but a little less rich.
~ Rice continues to absorb some of the milk and the porridge thickens while cooling.
~ You could substitute ground cardamom with grated nutmeg or ground cinnamon if that is what you have at hand. But cardamom is the commonly used spice in Indian sweets.

I hope this payasam would add a sweeter note to your fresh beginnings this New Year ( ‘ u ‘ )

Happy Pongal!
sankranthi subhakankshalu


Stephanie said...

Beautifully written and photographed. A recipe I will certaily try as I happened to have a pinch of saffron from a friend whose husband made a trip to India. Thank you for always sharing your culture with us.

Martha said...

Thank you, Pratima, for another fabulous recipe. I love the way you always include lots of information and history about the dish and the ingredients, and, of course, your photographs are so beautiful. Tomorrow my daughter and I are shopping in Seattle, and I am going to check in the International District for jaggery. The porridge sounds and looks so delicious -- now I can't wait to taste it!

Maureen T. said...

Pratima thank you so much for sharing your memories of the harvest festival with us. They are wonderful. The step by step instructions for the recipe will make it easy for me to try!! I really love being able compare my process with with photographs along the way!!

Sujata said...


If I could satisfy my craving through your pictures this would be so perfect! It is interesting that you posted this recipe. I just made some Kheer not too long ago. I never knew that they were so similar!
Thanks for sharing the story behind the festival. Often times, the significance of the festival gets ignored.
You are a wonderful writer. I always enjoy reading about our culture and seeing it all through another set of eyes.

Thanu said...

As always, your details are just great Pratima. Feel so good after reading your post. And yes...a big Thank you for sharing this recipe. Will make this for J's b'day. She will love it.

Nanette Merrill and daughters said...

I love the story of this. Things that have gone on from generation to generation. The story behind that is so compelling to me. The rice looks so delicious. There is a restaurant near me that makes a sweet Indian rice dish that is so so so good. It reminds me of this. I love saffron. I use it when I make chicken dishes. That comes from my Pennsylvania dutch heritage, they use saffron in a lot of dishes. Love the photos in this post too.

sewplay said...

Pratima, thank you so much for writing about the festival and explaining it's significance. Your writing is such that I feel like if I walk downstairs I'll smell spices and hear rustling silks and tinkling anklets. Looking forward to the next snippets of recipe, quilting, India whatever!Best wishes Kathy

ayumills said...

This is such a nice post, Pratima! Thank you for sharing your memory and this recipe. It must taste really good because you are using "real" everything. Not butter but ghee, not cane sugar but Jaggery..! I love a recipe like this! Speaking of Jaggery, I didn't know I was supposed to store in an air-tight container. Mine turned so hard that I had to throw it away. Next time I get it, I'll store it in the right way - you totally gave me an opportunity to buy it again too!