History of Quintessential Payasam Of Festivals In Southern India
Image Credit: Payasam | Image Credit: Freepik.com

In most cultures, a festive meal is incomplete without dessert. In the southern parts of the country, that dessert has traditionally been Payasam. For instance, it is considered the graceful, understated queen of sweet dishes that provides the perfect denouement to an elaborate sadya(traditional festival meal or banquet) during Onam in Kerala. For a simple dish comprised of just three main ingredients, payasam has remained an enduring presence in south Indian festivities over eons. Or is it the very same simplicity that makes it endure?

The origins of Payasam

Payasam is, in modern terms, a rice congee or porridge. It has its origins in southern India. The most interesting of these origin stories is likely the chess-related one from Kerala. Way back in ancient times, the king of Ambalapuzha (now a part of Alappuzha district), a chess enthusiast, was visited by a sage who challenged him to a game of chess. The generous king offered anything the sage requested, so the pious man asked that the king "place a grain of rice on the first chess square, and then double it on every consequent one."

The king agreed, and the game proceeded. The royal lost the first game and had the rice grains stacked as agreed. Due to the 64 squares, the rice grains numbered in the trillions. The king was perplexed, after which the sage revealed himself as Lord Krisha in disguise. He said the kind needn’t pay him all the rice at once, but instead serve payasam to every pilgrim who visited the Krishna temple nearby. The Krishna temple in Ambalapuzha follows this tradition to this day.

That’s not to say payasam is a Malayali dish. According to Indian food historian KT Achaya's writings, the name Payasam may be derived from the older Indian name "payas." Payasam is also known as payasa in Kannada.

There are references to a payasam-like sweet dish in Vedic texts as well as other literary sources. Valmiki’s Ramayana tells of a payasam bowl emerging from the sacrificial flame. After his wife Kaushalya consumes half of the payasam and his other wives Kaikeyi and Sumitra get larger portions, the childless King Dasharatha is blessed with children. Achaya also mentions a reference to a very similar dish in the Mahabharata, where Yudhistara treats a large number of scholars to an elaborate meal.

The people of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Tamil Nadu love their versions of payasam equally. In Andhra, it is common to use semiya (vermicelli) in payasam these days. Payasam’s north Indian cousin is the humble and much-loved kheer. The name kheer is said to have been derived from the Farsi word "sheer" (milk). If we take into account every variation of this sweet dish across India, our list of payasams/kheer would go beyond 60 recipes. The popular payasam types you might come across are paal payasam, sago payasam, gothambupayasam, chakka pradhaman, parupupayasam, and jaavarisipayasam. The main distinction between payasam and kheer is that payasam is made with jaggery and, in some cases, coconut milk, while kheer is generally made with regular cow milk and sugar.

The cultures of most Indian states are pretty distinctive, with each boasting variations on most dishes, if not entirely new cuisines. But one recipe lies at the heart of this ancient dessert, which we’re listing below. We’ve added some "modern" ingredients like cashews and raisins for taste, but this recipe is very close to the traditional paal payasam nonetheless.


50 grams rice

1 liter milk

5 grams cardamom powder 

100 grams sugar or jaggery

50 ml ghee

50 grams cashews

25 grams raisins


    Soak the rice for 30 minutes after washing it.

    Cook the rice in the milk until it turns soft.

    Add cardamom, sugar, or jaggery. Stir until the sugar or jaggery dissolves.

    Heat the ghee in a pan. Add the cashews.

    Once the cashews turn a mild yellow or golden color, add the raisins. Sauté for 60 seconds.

    Add all these to a bowl.

    Serve warm. 

Stir the payasam often to prevent clumping. Serving payasam warm is the conventional method, but many people will have you know that cold payasam is a thing of beauty all its own. It’s a great way to cool off after a meal on a hot festival day. Whether served hot, cold, or chilled, this dessert tends to retain its flavor pretty well. You can substitute the milk with condensed milk for a richer flavor, or make your payasam vegan by using thin coconut milk.

Garnishing is where you can work your own magic into the payasam. (If you know what you’re doing, of course.) Ruining a perfectly good payasam is a punishable offence. Or, at least, it should be.) Saffron is a great addition to the traditional flavor. You can also experiment with fruits. Adding a banana or any other fruit that blends well with milk can help "specialize" the dessert. If it’s tasty, you might even score brownie points within the family! Badam (almond) adds crunch and embellishes the taste of payasam very well, lending a royal flourish.

Payasam is an essential part of festivals and wedding feasts, and its absence from a Deepavali lunch is near-inexcusable in many south Indian homes.