My mother was never big on making kheer, hence my childhood was spent eating it at homes of family and friends. That's when I developed a love affair with it.
Every Ramazan and Eid, it was a staple at my aunty's house, which is where I learnt the simple art of kheer making, through tasting.
But it was my neighbour's that was the 'manna from heaven kind of kheer', the kind one tastes once a year, Eid kay Eid.
Before the arrival of the flour or nut-based halwa in the subcontinent, the chefs local to the area were experts in making desserts with milk, sugar, cheese, honey, sugar syrup and jaggery.
Travellers such as Ibn-e-Batuta and Vasco da Gama were surprised at the abundance of sweetness and milk in the region.
Hence, we can rightly assume that the dense evaporated milk and sweet mixture used as the base ingredient of the kulfi existed as a milky kheer earlier on, and has been playing host to the sweet tooth of the subcontinent for millenniums.
Kheer is the subcontinental name for sweet milk pudding usually made with rice, although it can also be made with fine noodles called saviyaan, or semolina, carrots or sage.
Take a look: Food Stories: Saviyaan
The people of the subcontinent have grown up eating kheer from baked clay earthen bowls, colloquially referred to as mitti key katoree.
Offshoots of kheer
Kheer is sometimes also referred to as sheer, which means milk in Persian. It probably originated in Persia, where a similar dessert is known as sheer birinj (rice pudding).
There are many flavour variations in kheer, featuring the subtle or sharp essence of raisins, cardamom, cinnamon, almond, pistachio, saffron, kewra, and rose water. For special occasions, it is customary to decorate the chilled kheer with an edible silver or gold leaf called chandi kay warq.
According to the Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson, the Persian version sheer birinj was originally thought to be the food of angels. Sheer birinj, usually, has no added sugar and is laced with honey or jam for added sweetness.
The Middle Eastern region has a similar sweet dish called firni. It seems to have originated in ancient Persia or the Middle East and was introduced to the subcontinent by the Mughals and is now a popular dish in the South Asian region.
Alan Davidson — in The Oxford Companion to Food — defines firni as:
"A sweet milky dessert, to be eaten cold, made either with corn-flour or rice flour or sometimes both, and usually flavoured with rose water and/or ground cardamom. The dish is decorated with chopped or ground almonds or pistachio nuts."
Another off-shoot of kheer is sholah-e-zard, which is a sweet yellow rice pudding. The main ingredient is short-grain rice, cooked and thickened to softness in milk.
Having religious significance, it is made on the 10th day of Muharram (the Muslim month of mourning); and also made as nazr, which is a custom of thanksgiving, or pledge practiced in Iran and Afghanistan.
When cooked for nazr, sholah is cooked and distributed among the poor, neighbours and relatives.
Food historian K.T. Achaya in his book, A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food, says the following about celebratory kheer:
"Kheer is a sweet rice confection. When prepared as a ritual food, the rice is first lightly fried in ghee before boiling with sweetened milk until thickened. Kheer made with jowar is mentioned in the fourteenth century Padmavat of Gujarat, and other cereal products (vermicelli, cev, pheni) may be used as well."
The kheer recipe I share with you today is simple, delicious and a perfect dessert to celebrate Eidul Fitr.
Here it is, from my kitchen to yours:
1 gallon full crème milk
1 quart half and half (substitute for half and half, mix 2 2/3 cup skim milk with 1 1/3 cup heavy cream) 14 oz. can of condensed milk
½ cup sugar, or sugar to taste
1 cup to 1 ½ cup boiled rice
15 green cardamoms
1/4 to ½ cup blanched almonds and pistachios for garnish
Pour milk, half and half, and condensed milk in a large pot and let it simmer for 3 to 4 hours, stirring occasionally.
Blend rice, with a cup of hot cooking kheer mix in a blender, and pour into a pot.
Add sugar, cardamom pods and cook for another three to five hours, until milk mix is reduced to half and the colour is a light golden brown.
Pour out in dishes, garnish, chill and serve.
Bisma Tirmizi is a former Dawn staffer, currently a freelance journalist. She loves food, music and simple pleasures. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Facebook here.