Tasty tales about what makes the Bengali Payesh such an outstanding gastronomic phenomenon
Have you ever looked at a bowl of kheer or payesh as Bengalis would say, and wondered what is it about this humble sweetmeat that makes it so prolifically endearing? After all, it is just a basic dish of rice, milk, sugar, and cardamom. But that is one way of looking at a dish that both in ancestry and versatility has ruled the dessert roost of edible history of India. Kheer, in its years of existence that easily pre-dates earlier years of Spice (and Silk) route, has been one of the significant influences when it comes to the trade route cuisine. A sweet dish made by boiling rice and palm gur (jaggery) and milk together had inspired many a version across the length and breadth of the route. The Romans, an ardent aficionado of the rich, velvety kheer, would adopt it as an antidote soothing the frayed nerves and stomach – much the way they were introduced to it. In fact, it was the only way that the kingdom makers allowed milk, till then a drink of the barbarians, on their tables. Similarly, Persians adopted it as Sholeh Zard and Sher Berinj that many believe resulted in modern day version of the loaded kheer and phirni.
Such was the soulfulness of the kheer that even when Emperor Babar decided to settle in India, one of the few things that he took an instant liking to from the culinary world – much like Ibn Batuta and Fa-Hien before him – was kheer. It is said that the version that he tasted then was a basic kheer that was made with locally grown, short grain rice (fragrant usually) sweetened with gur or misri (crystal sugar) and cardamom. Grown on a generous helping of Sher Berinj, kheer became the first dish that was retweaked in the Mughal kitchen with the cooks from Ferguna adding a handful of dry fruits, nuts and rose petal that could be grown in plentiful.
Interestingly, Emperor Babur wasn’t the only one who was fascinated with the humble rice pudding; the Delhi Sultanate too was fond of kheer – which thanks to its calming nature and balmy taste soon earned the moniker, “tranquillity in a bowl’ and was soon made part of the royal feast as well. But how is it that kheer exerted such dominance in a country known for its sweets? The reason was its plentifulness. Rice even though introduced by the Chinese had soon became so omnipresent that it had earned a place not only among the food staple, but with stains growing around, a prime position in the religious ritual as well. And in doing so, had the same revered status as milk that is believed to be the amrit that had come out of the mythological samundra manthan. Kheer, a beautiful melange of the two, was an obvious ambrosia.
But was creation of kheer that obvious, and what was the first iteration like? The answer to this question is hard to find. But if anthropologist and researchers are to be believed than the first kheer was an adaptation from an earlier potage made of barley and jaggery. A celebratory dish, it looked more like a modern-day pudding than the delicate kheer that came forth as a result. The making, according to culinary researchers like Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, “ was once rice became a commonly grown ingredient with its origin lying mostly around the rice growing areas of the south, north east, west and eastern parts of India – regions that were known for their jaggery as well. It was here that khirsa was born once the goodness of rice and milk was ascertained. What made them a perfect pair was that both milk and rice are reputed natural coolant and have this amazing ability to calming the system effectively along with culling any signs of acidity that may rise due to fast eating or too many spices. The addition of jaggery was also the byproduct of our ancestors search for food that heal. The trio along with cardamom did the work so effectively that the sweet dish that may have had its beginning as a Sunday Happy Meal soon transformed into a prasad – and eventually as a post meal coolant.
It was somewhere in between kheer’s untraceable origin and its avatar as “prasad” that the humble rice pudding had a series of innovation, mostly in terms of using local produce – be it with the version of rice, cardamom, milk, but specially in form of the sweetener. While North took to misri and sugarcane juice, the palm tree-producing regions rooted for their local jaggery.
Enter Nolen Gur.
A speciality of the coastal expanse across Tamralipta, the gateway for sailors, merchants and missionary into ancient India, this winter jaggery was prized both for its brilliant taste and the ability to lend this great nutty flavour to anything that it was added to. So prized was the jaggery that was made from the first flush of palm sap that it was kept for special occasions. Story has it that traders and missionaries would often stay the winter in the port to taste Nolen Gur that was mostly used for kheer that was made for special occasion. In fact, those who mastered the art of turning the sap famed for its ability to turn rancid with a hint of sunlight into a golden hued, gooey sweetener were prized akin to a goldsmith of the time or even a poet. The reason for this was the precision that was involved in creating Nolen Gur, which has often been described by the likes of Chef Sharad Dewan, “as a jaggery that is alive in its flavours much like a fine Shiraz or Merlot.”
Fascinatingly, that wine-like quality is what gives Nolen Gur and Nolen Gur Kheer it’s spoonful of stories and supremacy as the queen of kheers. Unlike most rice pudding versions where the rice played the decisive role in creation of that varietal, when it comes to the payesh, it was Nolen Gur that determined the creation. And understandably so.
The making of Nolen Gur is like poetry in action and needs mastery both in the art of jaggery making and an intuitive understanding of sap. The making of the gur prized for its taste begins with the collection of palm sap by siuli, expert tree climbers, during night. Each siuli ascends the tree, makes slits in the stem just where the leaves branch out, and attaches a narrow pipe into them. Small clay pots are tied beneath the free end of the pipes to collect the juices around dawn. Once the sun rises the sap begins to ferment and is considered unsuitable for making the gur. Such is the skill involved in making high quality Nolen Gur that it made its debut in the literary world – not just as an adjective to superlative goodness but also as the core theme of writer Narendranath Mitra’s short story Raas that in 1973 was turned into a movie called Saudagar starring Nutan & Amitabh Bachchan.
This brings us to another reason why Nolen Gur Payesh holds such a prime position in the realm of rice pudding – the sap worthy of making the jaggery drips only for the first two weeks of winters. Another factor of course is the Gobindobhog rice itself. Inherently sweet and fragrant, this short-grain rice is native to the region, and much like the jaggery is grown only in Burdwan region of West Bengal traditionally in the farmlands of the Setts. Legend has it that the rice is so fragrant that when cooked its aroma would weave and waft through several homes ahead. Since the cultivation is limited the rice, itself became a prized commodity but what made its debut and existence invincible in the edible epicentre of kheer is its buttery nature.
The GI tagged variety was said to be an equivalent to muziris popular celebratory kernel, Mullan Kazhama and the Jasmine Rice. Legend has it that the Nawabs of Murshidabad would often book the first harvest for their consumption, especially during the mango season when they could relish the scented rice pudding with the Kohitur mango, a stain specially grafted during the reign of Nawab Siraj Ud Daulah, who was known to love his kheer made of Nolen Gur.
Loved for its balmy taste and nutty aroma, Nolen Gur kheer soon became the synonym for celebrations. Even in its simplest form, the Bong version was a tasty tale of a rich, velvety gourmet sweet. The healthfulness being a bonus.
No wonder that even today a good Nolen Gur Payesh is the classic – a tasteful melange of Gobindobhog rice and Nolen Gur.