Happy Sri Lankan/Tamil New Year and Happy Vishu!
Payasam (as it’s known in the South) or kheer as it’s known in North India is a very popular and amazingly luscious dish often served on special occasions or during festivals. It’s a milky pudding that comes in many different versions, but this version is definitely one of my favourites. It combines two of my favourite traditional payasam ingredients, vermicelli/semiya and sago/javarasi, into one thick, creamy and flavourful dessert. Semiya is a thin vermicelli noodle, which can be substituted with angel hair pasta and sago is a type of rolled starch that comes from the centre of the sago palm. Sago also comes in different sizes and it’s up to you what to use, but I like the medium sized ones. They may look small in the package, but they absorb a lot of liquid and puff up nicely.
I grew up with sago payasam made with coconut milk and have come to associate it with special occasions, but the saffron and mangoes in this version definitely make this even more exquisitely exotic, wonderfully full bodied and rich. Saffron imparts a unique and much talked of flavor while the mango’s slight tartness balances the sweet dessert nicely. It’s aromatic, scrumptious, tasty and decadent. It’s comfort food with an exquisite twist so let’s get started.
Semiya and Javarasi Payasam – Recipe
- 1 Tbsp. ghee, divided (substitute butter)
- 2 Tbsp. nuts, chopped (I used pistachios and cashews but you can use what you prefer) and more to garnish
- ½ cup vermicelli, broken into 1” long pieces (leave it long if you like to slurp the vermicelli)
- ½ cup sago (I used medium sized ones)
- 2 cups water, boiled
- 5 cups milk
- Few strands of saffron, crushed between fingers and more to garnish
- ¼ cup heavy cream (optional)
- ½ tin condensed milk, or to taste (about 1/3 – 1/2 cup)
- Pinch of ground cardamom
- 1 small mango, peeled and diced
- Heat a large, deep non-stick pan over medium-high heat and add half the ghee. Add the nuts and toast until aromatic, 1 minute. Remove to a dish.
- Add rest of the ghee and the vermicelli and sago and toast until aromatic, 2 – 3 minutes. Add boiling water, stir and cover and cook until vermicelli is tender and sago is almost cooked. At this point all the water will have been absorbed, 4 – 5 minutes. It’s important to cook the vermicelli and sago in water first as if you add in milk directly a of it will be soaked up and you’ll have to use a lot of milk to achieve similar results.
- Add milk, reduce heat to medium and cover and heat until milk comes to a simmer, stirring occasionally. Add the crushed saffron, toasted nuts and stir well, scraping the sides and bottom.
- Add heavy cream (if using) and condensed milk and stir well. Cover again and let it simmer for 8 – 10 minutes or until the milk has thickened and reduced by 1/3. It’s important not to let the milk boil as it will affect the taste.
- Add the cardamom powder, taste test and turn off heat. Let it sit uncovered for 5 – 20 minutes depending on whether you like your payasam thick or milky. The longer it sits the thicker it will become.
When ready to serve, stir to incorporate the milk solid that will have formed on top, spoon into serving dish (or individual cups), garnish with more saffron strands, nuts and the diced mango pieces. The sweetness of the payasam combined with the slight crunch of the nuts and the tang of the mango slices will hit your taste buds from almost every direction making for a sophisticated and delicious payasam experience.