Wondering what is up with that title, well let me explain. Nei Payasam is a cherished offering of Kerala temples. The gods love Nei Paysasam , so do the devotees, the non religious folks and even the atheists. Nei in Malayalam means ghee or clarified butter, and Nei payasam is a sweet desert made with rice , jaggery and ghee. When slowly cooked over wood fire, a handful of ingredients take on a heavenly dimensions. No wonder it is such a favorite of gods and mortals !
Rice , jaggery , a pinch of cardamom , water and coconut bits , these are all the ingredients that goes into this dish. Usually the temple kitchens don’t add anything else. This recipe when made with much less ghee and a few extra ingredients like raisins , cashewnuts and rock sugar is known as Sharkkara Payasam or Kadum Payasam.
The truth is Nei Payasam and Kadum Payasam are the main reasons for some in my family to make a trip to the temple. Especially from a temple near my paren’s place . I remember in the olden days mom sending the supplies to the temple. If you are visiting Kerala and looking to get a taste of this dish, do not look for it in your restaurant menu. But the friendly hotel staff or your home stay host will be glad to help you procure some.
All this talk of temples does not mean that Nei Payasam is served only on religious occasions. It is a symbol of good times, celebrations like Onam and Vishu or just plain indulgence . My dad is a fan and Kadum Payasam is his choice of desert for every birthday. DH loves it and the kids are developing a taste for it as they get older. Well well somethings don’t understand generation gap!
On to the ingredients – Jaggery is essentially evaporated cane juice. Along with the sweetness it contains minerals and vitamins and is believed to have medicinal properties as well. time to say “Move over sugar, pass me some Jaggery” ! A good substitute for jaggery will be a mix of raw sugar and molasses.
Typically this dish is made with payasam rice – Unakkalari in Malayalam. This is broken raw rice, cooks much faster then the par-boiled rice used in the region. If you don’t find this rice , use any white rice. Wash and dry the rice. Pulse once or twice in a blender to break up the grains, not powder, and proceed with the recipe
Wash and pressure cook the rice in more water than required. For the payasam rice I use 3 times the amount of water, by volume. You don’t need a pressure cooker, it just speeds up the process. While the rice is cooking , dissolve the jaggery in a little water and boil. All the jaggery will not dissolve in cold water, but as you heat it up it melts and becomes a uniform solution. Often times the jaggery contains bits of sugar cane threads and other unwanted things. It is recommended to strain the dissolved jaggery. Return it back to he fire and reduce to a thick syrup. Turn off the heat but keep it warm. Fry the coconut bits in a little ghee and powder the cardamom.
Once the rice is cooked , add the jaggery syrup and mix in. If needed add more water, up to 1 cup. Return it back to heat and cook over low heat for 20 minutes stirring occasionally. Stir in 3 tablespoons of ghee along with the fried coconut pieces and cardamom powder. Cover, let it sit for 10 minutes before serving.