Any sweet-toothed fan of exotic food will understand the irresistible nature of Indian desserts. As well as offering an extensive list of delicious savoury meals, Indian cuisine also encapsulates a rather decadent menu of sweet treats that are guaranteed to leave even those with a small appetite perusing the dessert section at one of London’s best Indian brasseries.
Utilising an array of ingredients indigenous to the country, such as palm sugar, coconut, milk, fruit and nuts, Indian desserts range from the deep-fried caramel goodness of a crunchy jalebi to the melt-in-your-mouth texture of barfi. But there is one type of dessert that enjoys great popularity throughout the different states, taking on many guises, names and forms.
Payasam, a word which originates from the Sanskrit for milk, is revered throughout India. So much so, in fact, that this creamy, luxurious dessert is often offered to the Hindu gods in temples throughout the country on important religious occasions. If a dessert is worthy of the gods, you can be sure that it will taste like ambrosia.
Traditional payasam is made from rice or vermicelli, cooked in milk with sugar or jaggery and garnished with dried fruit and nuts, according to taste. Regional variations differ depending on the availability of ingredients. For example, the southern states, like Kerala, prefer to use coconut milk in their payasam, whereas the northern states might favour buffalo milk.
However, inventive chefs are always experimenting with this classic dish, infusing the recipes with fresh, new flavours based on authentic Indian cuisine. Here are some favourites you might want to try…
1. Paruppu Payasam
This payasam recipe is popular in the southern states, predominantly in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. It uses moong dal as its main ingredient which packs plenty of fibre into the dish, forming a healthy dessert that doesn’t compromise on taste. Yellow moong dal are favoured and these are cooked with milk, jaggery, cardamom and perhaps a dash of ghee for a smooth taste. Garnish with cashew nuts, et voila!
2. Sevian Payasam
This pudding uses vermicelli as its key ingredient, instead of the traditional rice. These long, thin strands are cooked in ghee and creamy, full fat milk, whilst almonds and dried fruit provide a chewy yet crunchy texture.
3. Paal Payasam
This is a classic dessert straight out of Pongol and a firm favourite at celebratory occasions such as festivals and weddings. Rich and creamy, this traditional dish uses basmati rice with ghee, sugar and ground cardamom. For a little touch of luxury, a few strands of saffron might be included.
4. Makhana Payasam
This super healthy version of payasam is consumed during the fasting of navrati as well as at religious festivals. Makhana is not as easy to purchase as rice or vermicelli; the demand has fallen and so fewer farmers are cultivating these puffed seeds despite their versatile nature. These are cooked in thickened milk and flavoured with green cardamom, cashews, almonds and sugar to taste.
5. Gajar Payasam
Brighten up your dinner table with a serving of gajar payasam. This sweet treat uses carrots as a key ingredient, a vegetable that lends itself well to sweet dishes (carrot cake anyone?) Carrot and coconut milk can be blended together and cooked until smooth. Jaggery provides the sugary hit whilst nuts and raisins also work well in this dish.