The extensive and varied menu of sweet recipes that play an important role in Indian cuisine have the ability to keep a smile on the face of even the most discerning dessert lover. Peruse the offerings at one of Londons best Indian fine dining restaurants and you are guaranteed to find tempting, decadent dishes that are impossible to resist. Whether it is the icy sweetness of a creamy kulfi, the sugary chewiness of gulab jamun or the buttery soft texture of barfi that holds the most appeal, Indian desserts have got every taste covered.
However, there is one particular speciality that is held in high esteem in South India and is considered to be so heavenly that the Hindu gods themselves delight in it. The dish is known as payasam and it plays an integral role in the many religious occasions and festivals that occur throughout the southern states.
It is commonly believed that the word payasam comes from the word peeyusham which translates as ambrosia the food of the gods. Payasam is the South Indian version of the northern favourite, kheer a recipe of rice or thin strands of vermicelli, boiled in creamy milk and flavoured with different toppings and spices.
Typical additions to the recipe include dried fruit and nuts or jaggery. Spices like saffron might be chosen for special occasions and others such as cloves and cardamom add a distinctively Indian twist to this rice pudding. When spooning down this velvety soft dish, rich in milk and sweetness, it is not hard to believe the legends that this is a favourite of the celestial beings.
A taste of authentic India
If you visit temples in the southern states of India, it is likely you will see payasam being offered to deities. The food offered to the gods is known as prasadam; payasam is a key dish on the prasadam menu and is considered an important and highly regarded dish of South Indian cuisine. In fact, in Kerala, you will also find a specific slot for payasam in the traditional South Indian feast, sadhya, where each dish is brought out and served in a careful order.
Traditional recipes of India are unique, in part due to the fact that they tend to be passed down through the generations with different families putting their own little spin on a dish. Recipes differ according to state as well due to the availability of ingredients and the preferences of the people for example, coconut milk is preferred in the southern states over dairy as coconut palms grow in abundance on these shores. In fact, you will find that coconut features in much of South Indian cooking for this very reason.
Some of the more popular payasam variations include: semiya payasam, made from vermicelli instead of rice; arisi tengaay payasam, a favourite of the Tamil Nadu New Year celebrations; thengai payasam, rich with coconut; and moong dal payasam, a combination of moong dal, coconut milk, spices and plenty of sugar and ghee. With the endless versions of this mouth-watering dish it would appear the Hindu gods not only have excellent taste but are spoiled for choice.