Thursday, April 15, 2010
Coconut Milk Payasam
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.
It is not just about the ingredients or the recipe, good food happens when it is served with love!!