Thursday, April 15, 2010

Coconut Milk Payasam

Yesterday was Vishu. To all my friends who celebrate, a very happy new year. So what did we do? Well the previous night we, my daughter and I, arranged the vishukkani - bananas, flowers, coins, a small prayer book, rice, pulses and at her insistence, even a bar of chocolate- in a metal tray and placed it in front of a mirror.

In the morning, much to her bewilderment, we covered her eyes and led her to view the vishukkani.

Just as my mother in law had led me for my first Vishu. It has been 6 years, but the memories of my first Vishu are fresh in my mind, as if it were yesterday.

“Vishu is our new year,” she explained, leading me into the puja room. “We believe that if the vishukkani is the first thing we see on this day, it brings good luck. I hope you will observe all our festivals when you return home,” she concluded.

"That's right. Try and learn as much as you can so you can continue our tradition," chorused the relatives. Relatives who had come from all over to meet Anand who was visiting India after 4 years. But more than Anand, they had come to see his wife. Me. Kate.

Their voices filled the air as they chatted loudly and excitedly. I basked in their love; I was happy to have found a family that had welcomed me with open arms. I did know of some who were not so accepting. In fact, soon after viewing the vishukkani, the family (and much to my dismay, Anand as well), would be off for a puja where I, a foreigner and a believer of a different religion, was not welcome.

"I am sorry Kate that you had to face this. But we really cannot snub them, after all mom and dad have to live here," Anand reasoned with me. One by one, they said apologetic goodbyes to me and left.

They would be back in the afternoon, but the silence in the enormous house was overwhelming. Sunlight streamed in through the slats of the windows and I sunk into a wooden armchair, soaking in the warmth of the sun and inhaling the aroma of the sandalwood and camphor that permeated through the house.

I must have dozed off for a bit; when I opened my eyes, I was shocked to see an old woman sitting in front of me, staring and smiling, rather fondly, at me. But then I reasoned that she must be one of the many servants that worked around here and smiled back at her. The rays of the sun fell on her face and illuminated it in a soft glow; her face certainly looked very familiar though I couldn't quite place her.

Seeing me awake, she got me a cup of coffee and started talking to me. She knew I couldn’t understand a word of what she was saying; likewise even I knew that she couldn’t follow me, but I was glad for her company in this empty house.

The clock chimed 10 O’clock and I realised that through gestures, we had been having a conversation of sorts for about an hour! The old lady looked at the time and motioned me to get up and follow her into the kitchen. Obviously, she wanted me to do something. “Watch and learn,” she seemed to say.

She cracked open a couple of coconuts and started scraping them. She was old and her movements were slow, but her hands steady as she worked on the scrapings to extract some coconut milk. When she mixed the thinnest of the coconut milk with some uncooked rice, I realised she was making – or rather, teaching me to make payasam, a sweet not quite unlike rice pudding. You see Anand had been tutoring me on the basics of Tamil cuisine for quite a while!

By the time the payasam was done, I was ravenous. She quickly made some dosas –thin rice crepes - for me. As I ate, she came and stood beside me. Her eyes were kind and full of love; occasionally, she would run her hand over my head.

It was past noon and I was tired. It was the heat that sapped me out even though I had done nothing since morning. Making my apologies to this old lady, I headed to the bedroom for a siesta.

I woke just up just as the family returned. “I see you made some coconut milk payasam,” beamed Anand as he fondly spooned it into bowls for everyone.

I felt almost like a child as I waited expectantly for their reaction but nothing could’ve prepared me for it. No sooner had they had the first spoonful, an excited chatter ensued. I understood nothing of it, but realised it had to do with the payasam. Tentatively, I tasted it – it was fantastic.

“Honey, it seems you accidentally put in cloves instead of cardamoms in the payasam,” said Anand.

"Is that what all this talk is all about? But no, I didn't put them in by mistake. The old lady who came in to work this morning told me to,” I replied.

Suddenly, the talk died down. “Kate, who are you talking about? What old woman? The only one who was supposed to come in today was Radha. The one who showed you to make kolam the other say,” said my MIL.

"Well, it wasn't Radha, but an old woman who came in the morning. Wonder where she is now."

“Maybe Radha sent in someone else in her place. Happens all the time,” said my FIL.

“What’s this (fuss) all about?” I wondered aloud.

“Oh honey, it is just those cloves in the payasam. Grandma – my mum’s mum – was rather fond of cloves. Always had a small pouch tucked into her sari. She was the only one who used cloves in payasam. This payasam you made tastes exactly like hers."

He continued, "Pity she didn't live long enough to meet you. She would have doted on you. Come, let me show you her pictures."

The sun was now setting and as we flipped the pages of the albums, the final rays of the sun streamed in and fell on Anand’s face and illuminated it in a soft glow. With a chill, I realised why the old lady had looked so familiar. “There she is, this is my grandma,” he said.

But I didn’t quite need to see her pictures for I had already met Anand's dead grandma that morning.

Six years have gone by but in all honesty, not a day goes by when I don't recall that strange encounter. And yes, every Vishu, I make the coconut milk payasam exactly the way she had taught me.

Completely fictional, this is my entry for Of Chalks and Chopsticks that I am hosting this month.

Coconut Milk Payasam


Rice: 1/2 cup
Coconut milk: 500 ml
Palm Jaggery*: 80- 100 gms
Ghee: 1 tbsp
Cloves: 6 nos
Green Cardamom: 2 nos
Nutmeg, optional: a pinch
Salt: a pinch
Dates/raisins and sliced almonds: to your taste (I use 2 tbsps of sliced dates and 1 tbsp of chopped almonds)


Wash and soak the rice for 30 mins.

In a wok, heat the ghee and add the cloves and the green cardamom. Stir for a minute.

Drain the rice and add it into the wok, stir till the grains are coated with the ghee. Add in 1 cup of water and 3/4 cup of coconut milk. Cook the rice till it turns soft and mushy; I pressure cook the rice for 5 whistles.

In the meantime, add a couple of tbsps of water to the jaggery and melt it.

Strain the melted jaggery and add it to the cooked rice. Pour in the remaining coconut milk, nutmeg, salt and the dates and almonds, if using. Bring to a boil and simmer a further 2 mins on a very low flame.

Allow to rest a couple of hours before serving, the flavours in this payasam really develop after a couple of hours.


Coconut milk spoils very easily, especially in tropical climates. As soon as the payasam cools down to room temperature, transfer it in the fridge.

If you find that the payasam is getting too thick, add in about 75 ml of plain milk.

The sweetness of jaggery keeps varying. So the amount of jaggery in this recipe is only a guideline, do a taste test to ascertain the amount of jaggery you need.

I use palm jaggery which has a lovely nutty taste, the original recipe uses cane jaggery.


  1. Coconut milk Payasam, looks truly delicious..Adding cloves sounds very new to me too.

  2. U can start writing a fiction novel perhaps ;) that was gud ...and so the payasam...Wish you all Happy New Year...glad to knw u want to be in the meet too..shall let u knw when we think of one..or u can suggest

  3. That was very intriguing ,I can almost feel the chill :) ..cloves and payasam very new to me..coconut milk payasam looks delicious..
    hugs and smiles

  4. wow lovely writeup...and the payasam looks yummy too,.

  5. lovely payasam..u hv a talent in writing..keep it up..

  6. Sooooo creamy and delicious...

  7. payasam does looks delicious, but i really love the way you write..awesome..

  8. Looks awesome. Nice feast food.

  9. You are such a nice story teller. I took it to be real till you said "completely fictional". Amazing story and more amazing recipe. I have bookmarked it and will surely try it one day.

  10. Happy Vishu Aqua. Coconut Milk Payasam brings in the old memories. Looks yumm. For a moment I thought you were Kate. Then realized it is a fiction :) Well Written

  11. The coconut payasam that I remember is what my amma used to make in the month of Ahdi but that did not have any rice in it. This one looks creamy. I was reading your write up and It took me a while to understand it was fictional.

  12. Excellent write-up, love ur short story filled with love and fiction! Keep it up! The payasam is on top !

  13. My sincere thanks to all of you for reading this long post. No seriously, I was very nervous and thought that not many would read it because it is so long. So, I am very grateful that you all read it and more importantly, liked it and commented on it.

    I am flattered by your comments, though honestly, this short story is more a 'once in a blue moon' kind of thing - a fiction novel is a long way off!

  14. I love love coconut milk payasam,my mom makes rarely but love it @

  15. paysam looks so rich and creamy..wanna grab the bowl now

  16. Lovely story and very well written! The payasam looks creamy and yum...

  17. I never caught on that it was a story till after quite a few paras, and was wondering if you agreed to your in-laws' wishes to celebrate all their festivals!!! I realised only when I came to the foreigner part :-D

  18. I absolutely love this design! And that pudding, sigh - pure love.

  19. I loved this write up to the core. It's so well framed, put across so well, with a little humor and suspense ;) It's brilliant. The coconut payasam looks very good. Really happy about coming to ur site, spending time over to read ur other posts and recipes. :)

  20. Coconut payasam looks really good. Nice fictional story. Thanks for visiting my blog. I follow you for more recipes and stories.

  21. Happy Belated Vishu! Payasam with coconut is tasty..

  22. A very beautiful piece of fiction there! I was glued to the story:). Wonderful entry.

  23. Fantastic write up! Did it really happen?? ok now i m just curious :)
    Payasam looks very festive!

  24. Wonderful write up ! Just glued me through out the post.
    Initially I did think that you were Kate :)

  25. Nice fictional story writing dear great to know abt ur first Vishu,,, payasam looks great rich n creamy dear..

  26. Nice fictional story writing dear great to know abt ur first Vishu,,, payasam looks great rich n creamy dear..

  27. I was so taken in by the story! Wow - you write so well..
    And love payasam...

  28. That payasam looks so tasty. I will be making it soon.

    Story is great too :)

  29. Wow that looks super delicious:)

  30. What a lovely story! I got so involved in it that I was sure it was real.

    Your pasayam looks delicious...I love anything coconutty.

  31. Wow Aqua, that was a lovely story. I was totally into it.


  32. Awesome writeup Aquadaze! I almost wished it were true and not fiction. :-)

  33. very nice story aqua, felt as if I was reading a page from a novel. i did not realise it was fiction, until I read the word "Kate". Hope you write more.
    The payasam is new to me, will keep this in mind the next time around.

  34. thats a lovely story and a tasty payasam

  35. What a masterpiece read..I could almost picturize she running her hand through your hair..too good!!


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