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The Storied Dessert

Vermicelli Milk Pudding

Stories are the backbone of society. However, you look at it, the propagation of community is based on how strong and resonant it's stories are. Stories have the capacity to bring people together and bind them with the commonality of belief and faith. And, that is how religion is born; with a community of people having faith in the same set of stories. We were all told stories when we were young that we believed without questioning their logic or rationale or merely plausibility. When I was little, I genuinely believed Willie Wonka and his chocolate factory was real. :)

As we refer to stories of religion, the study of them or a collection of them is called mythology. The richer the characters of a religion the more entertaining and entirely absorbing its mythology tends to be. It is no surprise that Hinduism has a broad gamut of 'myths' owing to the spawn of gods and goddesses, and their several incarnations, that the religion epitomizes.

I have always loved Hindu mythology. The breadth of it is so huge that in today's world I doubt that any one person, even the learned Brahmin, has full knowledge of all of it. I am always researching or stumbling upon a new story. Often times, these are about the lives of various saints and how the divine intervention saved the world. Ramayana and Mahabharatha are the religion's best known epic. But, within the larger story are several smaller stories and several more offshoots and tangents. There are all absolutely amusing to listen to and they all always have a lesson ingrained in them.

Only a few of them, however, are around food. One such I recently came across is about Payasam or the milk pudding that is served on special occasions and in temples. There are several variations of payasam that is made across the country from kheer, a rich pudding made in the North to the more popular semiya (vermicelli) payasam in the south. The story I stumbled upon speaks of the rice pudding version and it is as below -

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"The ancient legend states that Lord Krishna once appeared in the form of a sage in the court of the king who ruled the region of Ambalappuzha and challenged him for a game of chess. Being a chess enthusiast and a master of the mind game’s tricks, the king gladly accepted. Asking what the sage wanted in case he wins the game, the king remained bedazzled by the sage’s request: an amount of rice grains for each square of the chess board, each pile having double the number of grains than the previous pile. So the first square would have only one grain of rice, the second would have 2 grains, the third would have 4 grains, the fourth would have 8 rice grains and so on, each pile growing at a geometrical progression from the past pile of rice grains. Hearing this request, the king was shocked that the sage wanted only what he taught were a few piles of grain, when he could have betted for his whole kingdom or the immense riches that he held.

Naturally the king lost. When he started placing grain piles on each square, starting with only one grain, he realized that the sage’s demand was more involved than he had envisioned. The number reached one million grains of rice by the 20th square. By the 40th or so square, the entire kingdom’s rice reserve was depleted and when he got to the last square he calculated that he would have to pay the sage 18,447,744 trillions of tons of rice, which he could no have paid off. The sage then revealed his true form, that of Lord Krishna, and said that the debt does not have to be paid immediately, but the king will have to serve Payasam freely in the temple of Ambalappuzha, to pilgrims, homeless or whoever comes there for peace of mind and prayer or for those seeking shelter. This is how the Payasam became famous, integrating in the Hindu culture. The tradition of freely serving Payasam in Ambalappuzha still lives today and pilgrims all over India have an easier ride knowing that a hot bowl of the sweet dessert awaits them at the end of their journey." - Sourced from

here

I have not been to either location but payasam is the choice of prasad, or blessing, served in many temples across the country, even today. In fact, I strongly believe that the best payasam is one from even a small temple. My rational mind argues that this because the cooks use the best of ingredients and cut no corners as they are cooking for gods (the prasad is offered to the god before it is blessed and distributed to the devotees and visitors). Yet, somehow, even when I get the best ingredients, I still find that the flavor does not quite match that of the prasad. :) Irony of myth! ;-)

Nevertheless, I have a distinct partiality to the version made with vermicelli. Interestingly, there are variations of this dessert across Asia and Middle East. Persians make a lighter version called Falooda, which, is another popular dessert in India. Parsis, originally of Persian origin, in India make a dessert, called Sev, that is cooked with water rather than milk, where each strand is distinct and separate. Semiya Payasam as it is called in most of the South is defintely a later derivative of the Pal Payasam (made with rice) but is rather more common these days.

So, that is story of the recipe I am sharing today! :-) Enjoy!

Semiya Payasam (Vermicelli Milk Pudding)

Semiya Payasam (Vermicelli Milk Pudding)

1/2 cup vermicelli (or angel hair pasta broken into pieces)

1/3 T sugar

1-1/2 cups whole milk

1 T condensed milk

1/2 tsp ground cardamom

3 T ghee or butter

handful of roasted nuts to top

In a deep pan, melt the ghee and roast the vermicelli until lightly toasted. Add the sugar and saute for a few minutes.

Add the milk, and bring to a boil on medium high heat. Lowe the hear and keep stirring until most of the milk is absorbed.

Stir in the condensed milk and watch as the pudding thickens.

Remove from heat and divide into bowls. Top with roasted nuts or nuts toasted in ghee.

Payasam can be served warm or cold.

When you refrigerate it, the vermicelli will absorb more milk. So add a bit more and gently heat it before serving.

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