more than 3,300 years ago it is believed, god gave the torah to the jewish people on mount sinai. shavuot celebrates this deeply spiritual moment, with prayer, joy, gratitude, the reading of the commandments, and of course, food. in this case, food with dairy is customary.
every year, just before shavuot, which is celebrated in may/june, my husband reminds me we must have lots of nice dairy dishes and desserts at home. clearly thoughts of buckets of ice cream, cheese, chocolates, etc., invade his mind. across the two days of shavuot, after every meal, there’s clamour for dessert.
this year, i thought, why not make a bengali favourite for shavuot? a delicacy that is a part of almost all our celebrations. weddings and birthdays are never quite complete without it. and as a bengali, i think it is almost mandatory to have one’s own take on it… if one is into cooking, that is. i can’t say i am besotted by the idea of spending hours in the kitchen, but every once in a while, this funny desire…
this time it was to make payesh for shavuot.
payesh, that bengali favourite i mentioned, will i guess in english translate to rice pudding. ah, a translation that sounds mechanical, most wanting. nothing of that nature must be allowed to come anywhere near payesh. especially nolen gurer payesh: payesh sweetened with new date palm jaggery, nolen gur. (pronounced: no – len like pen; gur like good, but when you come to the d, let your tongue roll back against the palate and you’ll get the sound of the bengali consonant “ড়” ḍô.)
now there are flavours much spoken of and oohed and aahed over, like truffle oil or salted caramel or green tea. and every now and then, some new smell or taste makes us go all meditative; in recent years, even the ubiquitous (in indian food) turmeric has been elevated to another level. but promise you, till you’ve lost yourself in the delicate, slightly smoky, utterly slaying aroma of nolen gur and its gentle, poised sweetness, you haven’t tasted the finest and most exhilarating of indian flavours. i don’t exaggerate.
and like all really beautiful produce, the nolen gur or new jaggery, or khejurer gur (date palm jaggery), has a season. winter. come the pleasantly chilly months of november, december, january, and the shelves in sweet shops of kolkata are filling up with kancha golla, roshogolla, jol bhora talshaansh, and other sweets flavoured with this delightful gur. in the markets, the patali or tablets of jaggery arrive. round, solid, brown tablets, not much to look at, but go near one and the aroma will lure you to a sylvan high. choosing the right patali is important. those who know how to buy quality gur are deployed, usually the finicky and uppity cook or an aunt, or some acquaintance who’s an expert at such things.
i carry back a prized patali every time i am in kolkata in the winter. it is stored in the freezer and used sparingly. of course, the aroma diminishes gradually as time goes by, but thanks to last century’s technology, a very important ingredient that makes a bengali happy, manages to keep itself almost intact for months. i sometimes think in our excitement over new tech, ai, alexa, siri, google, apple, amazon and all that, we forget to thank the tech of yore for its sturdy, undemanding service… we may never write a paean to a fridge or a ted talk to a light bulb, but they bring much goodness to life.
my husband is an iraqi jew, who was born and raised in india. his great-grandparents had migrated to kolkata (then calcutta) from iraq. kolkata had a large and prominent iraqi jewish community till the middle of the last century. there are notes of bengali cuisine, of indian methods of cooking in many iraqi/baghdadi jewish dishes that were further embellished or even created in kolkata. i don’t know what was considered a shavuot specialty for the iraqi jews, but since our daughter has both iraqi jewish and bengali heritage, i felt payesh would be fitting for the occasion. and add a new note to a joyous tradition.
payesh needs only a few ingredients, and they’re simple ingredients, but it asks of you a certain involvement, and time. you can’t make a good payesh if you’re hurrying, your mind elsewhere, impatient even in the slightest bit.
nolen gur adds a note of eternity to payesh. the other lovely ingredient is gobindobhog rice. this is a short grain, aromatic, wonderful rice variety, grown in west bengal. it has a pleasing, mellow texture and a buttery aroma, i am mad about this rice. you can use basmati instead or any other rice, but nolen gurer payesh is really most authentic when gobindobhog swirls and cooks in the milk ever so slowly and then meets and melds with the sweetness of the new jaggery at the right moment.
the payesh was made for shavuot. my husband seemed quite pleased with it, possibly a little amused at the bengali touch to the festival. my daughter was the chief taster, she felt the sweetness could be a little less, so i have cut down the sugar quantity in the recipe.
shavuot has just ended in the east, it’s still being celebrated in the west. chag sameach, happy shavuot.
nolen gurer payesh
1 litre full cream milk
2 handfuls of gobindobhog rice, washed (around 50 g, a little less rice is better than too much of it)
a table spoon and a bit of raisins, the green variety (optional)
2 big teaspoons of sugar (i used 3 and both my husband and i liked the taste)
half a cup or so of flaked nolen gur (you can use a knife and slice off slivers easily)
in a wide saucepan, heat the milk and bring it to a boil. now lower the flame and let the milk simmer very gently, for a few minutes. if you can’t see any bubbles at the edges but the steam rises steadily, it’s a good level of simmer. stir every now and then. the idea is to make the consistency creamy as the milk reduces, without letting the thin layer of cream form on the surface, that makes the texture uneven and not so great.
add the bayleaf and stir for a few more minutes.
now add the rice. stir. let the rice cook in the milk while the milk reduces. the flame must remain low, do not allow the payesh to come to a boil, it’s all slow poised simmer, no “fire burn and cauldron bubble.” you watch over the rice and milk as they come together, and languidly stir from time to time. you imagine how smooth the texture will be, how delighted your daughter or envious your not favourite somebody or the other, you ponder, you sometimes check messages on the phone, or just inhale the aroma of reducing milk mixed with rice getting all fluffed up and glossy. something quite heavenly there.
at some point, add in the raisins, and let them simmer along.
it is important that the rice cooks well and is soft, before any sugar is added. this should take between, i’d say, 45 minutes to an hour. once the milk is almost at half of what it was at the beginning and the rice is done, add the of sugar.
let a few minutes pass. let the water from the sugar evaporate.
when it all looks nice and melded, a thick condensed feel to the milk with gleaming rice swirling as you stir, add the nolen gur. adjust the sweetness according to your preference. stir the payesh for a couple of minutes till the gur has blended in well.
note: the payesh will taste sweeter after it cools and the sugars settle in nicely. so if you like a mild sweetness, don’t add too much gur, and cut down on the sugar as well. also, the payesh will thicken as it cools.
let the payesh be for a while. then serve. or chill and serve.
this makes about four helpings.
payesh without gur
if you’re not using nolen gur, increase the amount of sugar, add maybe 6 or 7 teaspoons and see how that works. for a little flavour, sprinkle ground cardamom once the payesh is done. you can also add roasted/fried cashew nuts to the payesh, if you like.
there are many kinds of payesh, made with vermicelli, chhana or cottage cheese, roshogolla, and other things.