It's tough to compare a traditional South Indian banana leaf meal with the course-by-course routine that defines the western cuisines. South Indian restaurants repurposed rasam as a soup or an aperitif while the payasam (payasa in Kannada), or the equivalent of kheer, became the dessert. But, that's not the way it used to be consumed earlier. For centuries, the payasam was served on the banana leaf as a side dish and not necessarily at the end of the meal. In many homes, it's still served just before the final course of curd (rice with buttermilk).
Over the last few decades, tiny cups began to appear at wedding feasts that were reserved for the payasam (in some cases, two payasams). I found these rather small, especially, while attending weddings in Kerala where the Paal Ada Payasam was cooked with rice flakes (paal ada) in large quantities over wood fires till it almost turned pale pink. While this is one of my favourite payasams, there are quite a few more South Indian payasams that are really delicious. While many of these are milk-based, there are some that are starch or lentil-based.
(Also Read: 5 Best Payasam Recipes | Easy Payasam Recipes)
Here's your cheat sheet on some of the South Indian payasams you must try:
Paal Payasam: Every corner of South India has its version of the simple rice payasam. This is a 'go to' dish for auspicious occasions and usually involves just three key ingredients, just like in most parts of India - rice, milk and sugar. There are many variations that add cashews and raisins or use red rice - like the famous Amabalapuzha Paal Paysam in Kerala (see recipe).
Vermicelli Payasam: Also known as Semiya payasam, it is very similar to paal payasam where the rice makes way for vermicelli. This sometimes tends to be thicker and also works equally well as a cold dessert.
Sago Rice Payasam: An ingredient that's used extensively in Maharashtrian cuisine, sago rice is also used as a substitute for rice in payasam.
Poori Payasam: This is one of the dishes that takes me right back to my childhood. This used to be one of the specialties of my paternal grandmother. It's a culinary delicacy that's associated with regions across South India from Chettinad to coastal Karnataka - it's called Appe payasam in some parts of Karnataka. The pooris are almost fried to a biscuit-like consistency and then crumbled into the paysam. The pooris almost integrate with milk to create a very thick payasam.
Chakka Pradhaman: Kerala probably has more distinct varieties of payasams than any other region across South India. First, there are payasams and pradhamans. Payasams are usually made with milk, involving a single boiling process and are offered as part of the naivedhya at temples. Pradhamans are usually made with jaggery and coconut milk and are usually double boiled. The chakka (jackfruit) pradhaman is one of the most popular dishes and combines coconut milk with jackfruit, and a hint of spices that add a lovely contrast to the cloyingly sweet jackfruit.
Parippu Pradhaman: A lentil-based kheer from Kerala that uses coconut milk (combining thick and thin coconut milk) and blends it with split yellow moong dal.
Rice And Coconut Payasam: Also called as Arisi Thengai payasam, it is a traditional payasam made in many homes in Tamil Nadu. This has a slightly different texture and flavour, thanks to the mix of rice, grated coconut and the use of jaggery instead of sugar.
(Also Read: Jigarthanda: Madurai's Favourite Dessert)
How To Make Ambalapuzha Paal Payasam
Recipe Courtesy: Savya Rasa, Chennai
I sampled this payasam at Savya Rasa that serves authentic South Indian cuisine, including many authentic and traditional recipes at its restaurants in Pune and Chennai. The Ambalapuzha payasam is probably Kerala's most famous temple payasam. A good paal payasam requires a lot of patience and time to craft; this one is no exception.
- Raw Broken Red Rice - 500gms
- Milk - 3 litres
- Sugar - 1.5 kg
- Ghee - 200 gms
- Cashew nuts - 100 gms
- Wash and soak the broken red rice at least for an hour.
- In a thick bottomed vessel or Kerala uruli (custom made cast iron/copper vessel to make Kerala dishes), add the 1/4 of the sugar and caramelise it.
- Add the soaked rice and saute for a while.
- Now, add little water and allow the rice to cook till 60% in the water and then add the milk and cook the rice till it is mushy.
- Post that, add the milk and stir constantly.
- Finally, add the remaining sugar and allow the mixture to thicken.
- Keep stirring constantly, since this is a long process.
- Fry the cashew nuts in ghee and add it to the mixture. (This is optional but adds a great dimension to the payasam.)
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About Ashwin RajagopalanI am the proverbial slashie - a content architect, writer, speaker and cultural intelligence coach. School lunch boxes are usually the beginning of our culinary discoveries.That curiosity hasn’t waned. It’s only got stronger as I’ve explored culinary cultures, street food and fine dining restaurants across the world. I’ve discovered cultures and destinations through culinary motifs. I am equally passionate about writing on consumer tech and travel.