if you’re not bengali, you haven’t probably heard of kheer komla. in english, i guess that would be condensed sweetened milk with orange. sounds prettier in bengali, i must say. orange has been used in many well known and much loved dishes in cuisines from all over the world. duck a l’orange and crepe suzette came promptly to mind and distracted me the moment i wrote that. both are memorable and i haven’t had either in the longest time.
but kheer komla is my favourite orange dish.
the recipe is simple. takes a bit of time, but doesn’t demand very high skill or complicated process. to make the kheer, you take some milk – not skimmed, full cream – say a litre, and pour it into a wok or pot and bring to a boil. then lower the flame as low as it is willing to go, throw in a bayleaf or two, and stir the milk as it simmers, if not constantly, frequently; for you want a smoothish feel to the home made condensed milk… the kheer.
the word kheer comes from kshir in sanskrit. say kshir and kshirsagar or the ocean of milk tale will float up. it’s all about demons and devas and the mighty churning of the ocean using a fabled serpent (oh the hold this creature has on our imaginations) and then the finding of many things, among which, deadly poison and the elixir of life. halahala and amrita.
amrita, maybe it has something to do with kheer.
while your thoughts wonder all over the place, you stand before the pot, gently stirring the rather slowly evaporating milk. you feel a little cut off from everything all around, an uncluttered calm takes over, the steam rises, the white surface is almost still but not quite, little bubbles and movement at the edges. your stainless steel spatula glides through the liquid and you go back to letting your mind roam. in a few seconds you’ll have to return again to the task of stirring, but these are the sort of seconds in which entire ages tumble through, epics get written, so much happens. there’s perhaps nothing called so little time.
when the milk is reduced by about half, you reach out for the jar of sugar. if you started with about a litre of milk, you add two and a half to three tablespoons of sugar; you don’t want the kheer to be overly sweet, but not bland either. i used three tablespoons and a bit.
then it’s back to stirring and dreaming. of course, once in a way, you must scrape the sides and add the sticky sweet dried milk back into the kheer. after a while you’ll start noticing the milk is thicker, its movement more languid, when you lift a little onto the spatula and blow on it to cool it and then drop it on your palm, it feels creamy. when you taste the bit on your palm, it’s sweet but minus the edge of raw sugar and you get the aroma of slow cooked milk melded with melting dissolving sugar. did i mention elixir?
okay, it’s time stop cooking now, you don’t want the kheer to be too heavy. kheer komla is a delicate dish. actually, it’s sort of playful. milk and tangy things don’t go together it’s said, but here they seem to be a perfect pair.
as the kheer cools, you get four large oranges, the peeling sort. the best ones for me are darjeeling oranges, which we used to get in assam where i grew up. winter meant oranges, komla nebu (some will insist “lebu not nebu“), not by the dozen, by the basket. they came mainly from the slopes of darjeeling in north bengal. sweet but with a touch of sour, they were juicy and had this fragrance i can’t forget. there was an eloquence in it and that orangey zest.
i remember eating oranges without counting how many, drinking huge glasses of orange juice for breakfast, squeezing the orange peel and feeling its zizz in my eyes, and my mother’s kheer komla.
you take the oranges, peel them, separate the segments, then grab a sharp knife and carefully remove the skin along the back of each segment, slice the segment lengthwise, and pull away the shimmery, tender, juice filled centre (think the individual pods are called vesicles, not at all a nice sounding word, alas) from the pith and skin. you can’t be impatient, you can’t be heavy handed, you can’t say, “hurry up! hurry up!” in your head. oranges don’t like to be rushed.
when you have a plate heaped with just the brilliant orange pulp, your work is more or less done.
check if the kheer is at room temperature – actually, if you can chill it in the fridge for a while, even better – then tip that plateful of orange into it. mix with a light hand and put the kheer komla into the fridge.
i can’t believe that a bengali mishti or dessert is this easy to make. that option of chilling the kheer before adding orange means you can take a break of a couple of hours or longer between getting the kheer ready and preparing the orange for the happy dunk.
indian food is rarely associated with lightness or less, but really some of the nicest things we make and love to eat are all about that. even the curry, yes yes, i know no one is going to believe me…
when you eat kheer komla, take your time and enjoy just as slowly as you stirred that kheer.
but first take the bowl out of the fridge and place it on the table. by now, the kheer has acquired a faint tinge of orange and the dish is looking great. most likely your guests (if you made the dish for a dinner as i did) have no idea what it is and there’s curiosity and many questions. someone is bound to ask how come the milk didn’t curdle with all that orange in it. you can tell them or just choose to smile mysteriously.
put a spoonful of kheer komla in your mouth, it’s sweet and light and pleasing, pop the vesicles between tongue and palate, feel the tanginess rush in and mingle with the kheer. if a beatific smile should come upon your face, i’d understand.
1 litre milk
1 or 2 bayleaves
2 1/2 to 3 tablespoons sugar
4 large peeling oranges, make sure they are sweet
serves 6 to 7 persons
ps: i used australian oranges that were sweet enough, but not that rich in fragrance. waiting for chinese new year and the mandarin oranges of that season. i noticed though, even if the aroma factor wasn’t all it could be, the texture and the play of orange and kheer were as heady as ever, something terribly fresh and subtle about this dessert.