Arguably one of the most beloved desserts, Payasam (or the Indian rice pudding) is savoured across India, with each region beautifully concocting a local variant of it. Believed to have originated in the South Indian state of Kerala thousands of years ago, the Payasam has holy roots.
As per the pious belief, Lord Krishna once decided to test the King of Ambalapuzha (modern day Kerala) and disguised himself into a sage to challenge the king to a game of chess. The empire of Ambalapuzha was known for its deftness in chess. The king, oddly surprised by the sage’s confidence, agreed to the challenge. To top it all, as an incentive, the sage was ordered to ask for anything if he won. Krishna modestly requested that in case he won, he would demand only a few grains of rice. His only condition was that the king place a single grain on his first chess box and double it for every move he made on the board. By the end of it, the king found himself overwhelmed at his losses since the count of rice grains surpassed trillions. Flabbergasted by the sage’s abilities he immediately understood he had been played and asked Lord Krishna’s blessings. Krishna in turn blessed the kingdom and asked the royal cooks to make Payasam. After eating only a spoonful, he asked for the rest of the dish to be served to the pilgrims that visit the city. To this day, the Ambalapuzha Krishna Temple (located in the Alappuzha district) serves the dish to all its visitors on a daily basis.
The dessert has various versions across the nation. While the North Indian states of Punjab, Haryana or even the Western states like Rajasthan and Gujarat call it Kheer (a probable offshoot of the Sanskrit word 'ksheer', meaning milk), the eastern region terms it Payesh. Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have named their version Payasa, Tamil Nadu has stuck to the traditional Payasam.
Variations in recipes notwithstanding, the rice pudding is a crucial fixture during any Hindu puja or festival. Rice, milk and sugar—the holy tripartite of Indian cuisine, is considered auspicious for any occasion. Hence Payasam is served at a child’s Annaprasana, an event marking the baby’s first bites of cooked food.
While the northern part of the country sticks to the humble trio, South India adds jaggery. In fact, the eastern state of West Bengal has also birthed the iconic Nolen Gur-er Paayesh, a rice pudding cooked in a soup of milk and palm jaggery. In the neighbouring state of Odisha was invented yet another unique variant of rice pudding called Goyinda Godi, believed to have been first cooked at the famous Sun Temple of Konark. The legend dates back almost 2,000 years, when the temple was being constructed. The foundation of the structure refused to be built as men tried hard to think of ways to engineer a mammoth structure amidst an ocean. It is then that the chief engineer’s son explained a method of building a bridge by using the dessert as a prime example during his demonstration. He dropped a few rice balls into a bowl of dense pudding and enumerated how water’s buoyancy could play a part in building the framework.