Rice pudding and its 8000-year-old journey

Rice pudding and its 8000-year-old journey

India’s kheer, China’s eight treasures and Arabic Muhalabia… the legacy continues!

Kheer, phirni, muhalabia… tales behind rice puddings Image Credit: Shutterstock

Where is the rice pudding from?

The Indians would call it theirs. So will the Chinese, the Germans, the Greeks, the Romans, and the world over. Even after several millennia, the question still stands with no answer and yet, it comforts the heart of those who eat it.

Much loved by all, rice puddings come in various avatars and each of them, with a different story to tell. Kheer, payesh, phirini, payasam, gil-e-firdaus, muhalabia, arroz con leche, riz bi haleeb, milchreis, are some of the names given to it. But here’s the catch, the core of the dessert lies in three ingredients – milk, sugar and rice – all of which when combined gives you an indulgent dish that touches your heart.

Food by Gulf News decided to take you around the world with us, as we discover how this pudding came from the past into our homes.

First stop, India

India's rice puddings vary from region to region Image Credit: Shutterstock

India and its love for rice pudding goes way back to 6000 BCE. The first mentions of it were recorded in the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana, as ksheer or kshirika in Sanskrit, which translated to a dish made with milk. However, the more updated version of the word – kheer – is what we use to describe the dish. And yet again, the name varies from region to region.

According to chemist and Indian food historian K. T. Acharya, kheer or payas (as known in south India), was quite popular and the first mentions of it in Indian literature used rice, milk and sugar. Payas was (and continues to be) is a staple in the Hindu temples of the country, and is served as prasad or idol offering to devotees.

There is also a story behind how it was served as an offering as well. Legend has it that the Hindu deity Krishna presented himself in the form of a sage before the king of Ambalapuzha, a small town in Kerala. The sage then challenged the king to a game of chess, stating a caveat. If the sage won, the prize would be one grain of rice on the first square of the chessboard, two on the second, and four on the third and so on, doubling the amount on the previous square. The king agreed.

And undoubtedly, the sage won the game much to the king’s surprise. When the king started placing the rice grains, he ended up owing the sage tonnes of rice. Amused at the king’s defeat, the sage revealed himself in the form of the deity Krishna and said, “You don’t have to give it all today. Just provide payasam to every pilgrim who comes to my temple here, in search of comfort.”

Ever since then the king’s word to the deity is carried on until today as the famed Ambalapuzha paal (milk) payasam. However, it is not exclusive to the temple alone and carries on in various forms across the Asian country.

The Mughals were apparently the reason why kheer came to be known as firni or phirni with its roots in Farsi. When served, phirni is served topped with dried fruits, rose petals and chaandi ka varq or edible silver leaves, placed in an earthenware, which is called shikoras or kulhar. However, one cannot put a pin on who brought phirni to India and whether it came before the Mughals or with them, although, the popularity of the dessert under this name does tell us all a little of its journey with the sultanate. But to explore this journey, dear reader, we will have to travel to the Middle East…

Visiting the Middle East

Packed with good nutrition and easy digestion... Image Credit: Shutterstock

Rice puddings in the Middle East trace back to the grain pottages made by Middle Eastern cooks. Only then, it was called sheer berinj and was considered to be the food of the angels. The first mentions of it, however, can be found in medical texts rather than in cookery books because it was packed with good nutrition and easy digestion.

While it began as a cure for people, it soon began to be made as a royal dish. However, as time progressed, the dessert was consumed on special occasions by all. Not to mention, as it grew popular in the region, phirni was addressed as shola, where short-grained rice was used for cooking the dessert, until soft and thick. The addition of other ingredients was chosen depending on if the shola was made as a savoury or sweet dish. In the 13th century, shola was brought to Iran by the Mongolians, under a different name. Shola-e-zard was the name given to sweet saffron and rosewater (or orange flower water) flavoured rice dish, and was distributed among families and relatives, along with the poor and needy.

Next stop, China

the rice-based dessert called ‘eight treasures’ or fruits and raisins soaked in honey was to honour eight knights Image Credit: Shutterstock

Mongolia takes us to China, which traces its rice pudding back to the Western Zhou Dynasty in 1047 BC China. While the country is known for being the first cultivator of rice, the Chinese rice pudding is known as the ‘eight treasure’ or ‘eight jeweled’ rice porridge. And as with all things Chinese food, there lies a story behind it.

A tale of deceit or triumph (we’ll never know), the dish was born when Chinese emperor Zhou was overthrown by eight scholars. The scholars were recruited by an emperor (King Wu) from the neighbouring kingdom, and were successful in removing the despotic king from power. To reward the knights for their bravery in doing so, they were rewarded with a rice-based dessert called ‘eight treasures’ or fruits and raisins soaked in honey, to honour the men. In addition to this, the number eight is considered lucky in Chinese culture because it sounds similar to the Chinese word for prosperity and good fortune.

However, another tale narrates a mystery and is said to have come from the Qing Dynasty. It is said that the rice pudding was a well-kept family secret in an obscure Chinese community up until a smart lawyer discovered it and presented it as a birthday gift to a widowed queen. The queen, on consuming the dish, loved it so much that she gave the lawyer a promotion. While this tale seems a little convoluted, this is how rice pudding or sweet rice porridge became widespread in China. Only there it goes by the name ‘Ba Bao Fan’ and has a resemblance to the Chinese comfort bowl – congee.

Rice pudding is a ubiquitous dish

The Germans call it milchreis, the Spaniards call it arroz con leche, Malaysians pulut hitam and the Greeks call it rizogalo... Image Credit: Shutterstock

If you were to Google the origins of rice puddings, you will end up with one word – ‘world’. The Romans used to prepare the dish as a coolant for their stomachs instead of a dessert. They were considered as rice pottages where rice was boiled and mixed with cow’s milk and then sugar to lend it a sweet taste.

However, as time progressed, eating this transitioned into a formal affair, wherein it is served as a celebratory dish – be it a wedding, a birthday, or even a lazy Friday afternoon. In Italy, several chefs make rice puddings with the risotto cooking style, making it a sublime blend of sweet ingredients.

The Germans call it milchreis, the Spaniards call it arroz con leche, Malaysians pulut hitam and the Greeks call it rizogalo. Today, each continent, country and town has a different version of rice pudding. Let’s just say it is a mystery too complex to solve….

Looking to try out a few recipes for rice puddings? Here are phirni, payasam, muhalabia and payesh.

Do you have a recipe you would like to share with us? Email us on food@gulfnews.com

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