Payesh. A Bengali grandmother's rice pudding of love

Payesh at the Bandra Durga Pujo
Works when I miss my grandmom's cooking


Cakes were a big part of our birthday celebrations when we moved into Kolkata in the early 1980s after my dad's stint abroad. 
Things changed after my father passed away soon after we moved into Kolkata. In the years following that we would not have a whole cake but my mother would still make sure to get pastries from the local Jalojog shop on our birthdays. You can read more about my Jalojog memories here
I later found out that birthday cakes were yet to be a part of Bengali customs in those days especially in the suburbs.
Instead, what was probably popular in most Bengali houses on birthdays then was ‘payesh’. This is normally a rice and milk pudding, similar to what is called kheer in North India and payasam in the South. Unlike in the latter, there is no coconut milk in the Bengali version.
I remember seeing pictures of chaaler payesh that my mom had for my second birthday when we were still in the UK. Expats do try to hold on to their native customs after all.
Variants to the rice version (chaaler payesh) were the shujir payesh (made with semolina and thinner in consistency that halva in the North) and shemoiyer payesh made with noodle-like sevia. 
The chaaler payesh is possibly the more preferred Bengali choice. I sometimes wonder if these (shemoi and shooji) featured in our family’s repertoire because my mom grew up in Delhi. 
The jury is out on whether payesh is best enjoyed hot, fresh off the stove, or chilled from the fridge. Fridges entered Kokata households post the mid-1980s I think. We had brought ours, a small German Bosch, from Iran.
Milk was not as readily available in Kolkata in the 80s and early 90s. We used to depend on rationed Horinghata milk bottles which we would pick up in the mornings from the local milk booth by showing a card and by returning the previous day's bottles. Added to this were the polythene pouches of Mother Dairy Milk that the milk wallah would drop at our place in the mornings. My mom would use the empty Mother Dairy pouches later to store fish in the fridge in!
The milk was used for us kids (though I did try unsuccessfully to pour it down the sink) and for tea for grown ups. Bournvita and later coffee was added to my milk to make me drink it. Kolkata was a milk deficit city which is why MFDs like Horlicks and Complan are very popular there.
Sometimes my mom and granny would make me different forms of payesh to make me have milk.
I remember that in one of my recent trips to Kolkata, I had gone to visit my granny, whom I call Didu. She had made me a shoojir payesh for me though she barely cooks these days because of old age.
The memories of that payesh came back when I bumped into some Mother Dairy milk packs in a local milk booth while buying milk. The shop keeper told me that there is a Rs 2 price off on it.
I  had first come across Mother Dairy milk when we had come to Delhi from the UK to visit my grandparents in the mid 1970s. My grandfather would go and buy milk from the Mother Dairy milk depots and my granny would make me pantuas (Bengali gulab jamuns). I would finish them by the dozen as a chubby toddler. The pack of Mother Dairy at the local milk booth in Bandra reminded me of my first trip to India.
So I called up my granny and asked her for recipes to make payesh as I felt making pantuas were beyond me!
 
Didu is always amused when I ask her for recipes. She is not used to giving recipes in exact measures so I normally have to interpret them into what works and can never replicate the taste of her cooking. She fondly remembered how I love payesh, unlike my younger brother who avoids milk, when I asked her for the recipe.
Shoojir Payesh as told by Didu
Heat some shooji (semolina) in a pan with ghee or shada tel (vegetable oil).
Then add milk. Don’t add too much shooji as it will become thick and like a halwa then.
Bring the milk to boil and then reduce the flame and let it cook.
Add some sugar at the end and let it boil.
Before serving add some kishmish (I used to love raisins in payesh) and ground elaichi (cardamom).
Chaaler payesh as told by didu
"This is tougher" she told me.
Heat milk, bring to a boil. Then reduce the flame. Add pre- washed rice.
The rice has to be short grained. Ideally Gobindo bhog. Use a mutho (fistful) of rice to half a litre of milk.
Let the rice cook.
Add sugar only when the rice is cooked. This is important. The milk will curdle otherwise
Add some kishmish and kaju (cashew) before it’s done and broken cardamom (green elaich).
Funnily enough, when Didu told me the recipes over the phone from Kolkata, while I was out on a walk in Mumbai’s Almeida Park, it almost felt as if is she was cooking the dishes for me!
This post was done in association with Mother Dairy. They have done a #TooGoodInTwoLess move by dropping the price of the milk by Rs 2 a packet


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