The danger of Corona virus lurking around-unknown,unfathomable has made our lives different.Different,difficult but not bad in totality.The lockdown is sure a breather for busy lives, an opportunity to rebond, spend some quality time with family,engage in long forgotten hobbies and in short reboot our lives lost in alleys of conflict and competition.The lockdown has a rather grave impact on the teeming millions who earn their livelihood by means of a daily wage. One such sector was the dairy industry where it was impossible to stop production and there was a possibility of wastage of milk in context of absence of transport and logistics.Within a week of the lockdown,the West Bengal government announced the lifting of restrictions on sweet shops across Bengal,though they were allowed to function between 12 noon to 4 pm.
The need to restock led me to the local market and seeing the queue in front of the local sweet shop or mishtir dokan I thought that Bengali’s indulge in passion and they do it with all seriousness of purpose. Bengali’s indeed have a sweet tooth and has a never dying passion for sweets which surpasses the fear of the unknown virus.People of all ages came smiling out of the shop with several packets in their hand. The smile on their face was akin to the satisfaction when one is able to crack a difficult interview or when one gets a long awaited nod from their fiance.Sweets play an important role in the everyday life of a Bengali—almost an inseparable part of the population’s cuisine and culture.No life cycle ritual is complete without an exchange of sweets.Ancient Hindu texts over two thousand years ago mention of sweet offerings to God. The Indian gods are renowned for their sweet tooth,so are their people.
The liking for sweets is hardwired among Indians irrespective of region,age and gender. Sweetness, as Sidney Mintz shows, is intrinsically linked to Britain’s colonial history. The history of sugar is closely tied to the two other global commodities that was responsible for transatlantic trade and forced labour—tea and coffee. Interestingly, sugar can be added to both tea and coffee. Mintz shows that if it were not for industrial Britain’s fetish for sweetened tea, the increase in consumption of sugar would not have achieved its peak. While on one hand sugar became synonymous with sweetness, another product that has been used across sweet dishes throughout the world is milk. Milk figure in the Old Testament as symbols of abundance and creation. Bipradas Mukhopadhyay in his book Mishtanna Pak lists different kinds of milk starting from milk of cows, goats, ewes, water buffaloes to camels. Apart from being tasty and energizing it was also the common man’s food.In Bengal milk and rice became synonymous with a prosperous comfortable life.Milk is often an analogy used in myths and folktales like rivers of milk to denote prosperity and happiness.
Much of the milk used in the kitchen disappears into a mixture-a batter, a custard mix or a pudding.India has a large number of variations on the theme of cooked down milk many of them dating back a thousand years. “For sheer inventiveness with milk as the primary ingredient, no country on earth can match India.”– Harold McGee. The warm climate and the necessity to keep the milk from souring led to two ways-either boiling it repeatedly till it cooked down to a brown ,solid paste with little moisture or by curdling them with heat and lime juice.The drained curd forms a soft moist mass known as channa which is often used as a base of sweets when mixed with a sweetening agent.
Milk is the pan-Indian intermediate base of sweet preparation.Medieval poems refer to deserts where milk was the basis. Paramanno – a concoction of rice and milk was offered to gods and became a feature of festive meals and rituals.Milk is one of the basic base to which grains of various kinds can be added to cook a pudding – a payesh or kheer. The first reference to payasam can be traced to a Jain Buddhist text from around 400BC. In the text Manasollasa ,King Someshwara mentions of payasam to be had in the middle of the meal before proceeding to other savory preparations.
In Bengal known as payesh and prepared from a special variety of short-grained sundried rice, milk and sweetening agent (sugar or molasses), this dish has many versions across Asia. There are many varieties of rice or cereals that can be used for this dish. Historian K.T. Achaya describes Kheer as the ritual food and argues that the term is derived ‘from the Sanskrit word Ksheer for milk and Kshīrika for any dish prepared with milk’ . This dish acquires a new name with each topographical region.A similar dish like payesh was used by Romans as a stomach coolant and as a detox diet.
Payesh is mostly cooked in Bengal with short grained aromatic rice and with date palm jaggery or nolengur. Variations of payesh like chhana-r payesh is also common. In the last quarter of the 19th-century, the first recipe book dedicated to sweets was Mistannapak written by Bipradas Mukherjee. This book has 26 varieties of payesh. They include Nalen gur-er payesh (made with jaggery), Luchi-r payesh (made with shredded pieces of fried discs of bread from flour called luchi), Chira r-payesh (with flattened or beaten rice), Alu-r payesh (with boiled cubes of potato), Bonde-r payesh (made with small droplets of sweet prepared from gramflour), Kancha aam-er payesh ( with raw mango), Kochi lau-er payesh (unripened bottle gourd), Suji-r payesh (payesh made with semolina), Komolalebu-r payesh (with oranges), Kanthal bichi-r payesh (the jackfruit seed) and even Piyanj-er payesh (a payesh made with onions).
Eating within available resources has been a necessity in the days of lockdown. Though the neighborhood mishti shops were doing brisk business but I preferred making some of my own from available ingredients. A morning routine for me has been to inspect the refrigerator looking for vegetables which were drying up or were lone in their existence.One afternoon, a day before the Bengali New Year came across a couple of sweet potatoes.The craving for sweets was at its maximum as well as the necessity and tradition of making a payesh for Bengali New Year made me think of a payesh made from the sweet potatoes.For this I grated the sweet potatoes and soaked it in water for an hour.I rinsed it well to get rid of the starch.In the meantime I boiled the milk and reduced it a bit.Added a few cardamoms while reducing the milk. Over ghee I sauted the rinsed and dried sweet potatoes till they were light brown in color.Added this sauted potatoes to the milk and let it boil till the potatoes were down.I had half a can of condensed milk and added this for sweetness.You can add plain sugar or jaggery according to the sweetness desired.Added some raisins and cashews.If you want you can fry the raisins and cashews in ghee before adding it to the milk.At the end I added a drop of rose water. You can add saffron too.
The fun part of doing this payesh is that it is fast,the potatoes take little time to cook and thickens the milk quick.The best part is that you will keep your guests guessing as to what went in for the payesh. My experience says that of all the times I made this payesh only once did a guest guessed it right. Do try it during these hard pressed days of lockdown and even after we have been successful in fighting this virus as part of your dinner spread.