‘Pais’ or ‘Rice Pudding’ is a thick, creamy and fragrant dessert that’s often made to celebrate festivals in Goa. It is traditionally flavoured with pieces of Turmeric (Haldi) leaf and is relished either warm or cold. In the northern parts of India, the rice pudding is called ‘Firni’ or ‘Phirni’ while further south, the pudding is referred to as ‘Payasam’, at times prepared with jaggery and coconut milk. The Bengalis call this dish ‘Payesh’, but to us Goans, it’ll always be known as delicious ‘Pais’.
The Pais is easy and quick to prepare, using basic ingredients that you will probably have on hand. We’ve scaled down Maa’s recipe to make two small bowlfuls of the delicious dessert. Coincidentally, rice pudding is the first thing I ever cooked for my husband, trying my best to impress him when we’d just met. We hope you find the creamy sweet pudding as comforting as we do!
“Millions of years ago, Space lay in darkness and silence, black and bleak in its emptiness. Prithvi Mata (Mother Earth) did not exist and there was no form of life. While Lord Shiva, the God of eternal sleep, meditated peacefully in the dark void, the other Gods in the heavens searched for light, brightness and colour. And so Lord Brahma, the Creator, made an enormous sphere of raging fire. And from the burning embers of the fire itself, Prithvi was born. But She was dense and dusty, filled with barren soil and loneliness.”
“And so Her empty craters were filled with divine oceans and Her soil gave life to an abundance of forests. Animals came into creation, as did birds of every colour imaginable. And Lord Brahma’s most unique creation of all was human life. Lord Vishnu, the eternal nurturer, gave Man the ability to find food and shelter. And so humans thrived for thousands of years and continue to live, love, die and be reborn in an endless cycle.”
“But where there is sparkling beauty, there must be repulsive ugliness as well. And where there is light, so darkness must co-exist. Love, brotherhood and selflessness soon gave way to pride, anger, greed and lust. And thus the brave and handsome God King- Lord Ram, waged a decisive war against the demonic Ravan. Having successfully defeated the monster, Lord Ram returned to his palace, his beautiful wife and loyal brother by his side.”
Prakash watched and listened intently as the actors on the stage played out their colourful parts. He sat beside his younger siblings and cousins watching the ‘Natak’, a traditional play, filled with the most intriguing mythological tales. The darkness of the night made the colourful costumes of the actors seem even more vibrant, as they shone in the light of torches and lamps. While crickets chirped insistently in the fields nearby, the entire village gathered in the central square to enjoy this colourful display!
The ‘theatre’ lay open to the sky above. And the audience took seats on the ground while the better-placed residents rested on a shendri (straw mat). The stage was a simple one, made out of bamboo sticks tied together with lengths of rope. And the actors were a part of a troupe that travelled from village to village, enacting a variety of mythological scenes. The villagers bestowed them with gifts of food and grains, enough for the troupe to carry on its performances. Life was simple and a ‘Natak’ was looked forward to with great enthusiasm.
Gudi Padwa, the Hindu New Year, had just been celebrated across Goa. Aai (grandmother) had hoisted a ‘Gudi’ to mark the festival, a traditional doll created with a bamboo stick, leaves of mango and neem and a garland of bright flowers. A copper kalash (pot) had been inverted over this base, decorated with holy motifs in red kumkum (vermillion) while a length of beautiful silk was wrapped around it. Prayers had been offered for the happiness, health and prosperity of the family in the coming year and the children had devoured platefuls of hot deep-fried puris (circles of dough) with sweet Shrikhand!
It would soon be ‘Ram Navmi‘, a time to celebrate and honour the heroic Lord Ram’s victory over the evil demon Ravan. The family would celebrate with prayers and a sweet pudding made of thickened milk and rice. Spring always brought with it a festive spirit along with new life and vigour!
That night, while Prakash’s siblings and cousins slept soundly, he lay awake with dreams in his eyes. He’d watched his favourite mythological heroes come to life in the firelight and he dreamed of growing up to be just like them- brave, victorious, powerful and adored. That night, while the rest of Goa lay asleep, lulled by the gentle ocean breeze, a young boy stayed awake filled with sparkling hopes and dreams!
Rice Pudding Recipe
- 1/2 cup Rice
- 1 cup full-fat Milk
- 1/2 cup warm Water
- 3/4 cup Sugar, or to taste
- A pinch of Salt
- 7-8 Green Cardamom Pods (Elaichi)
Wash the grains of rice and soak in water for half an hour. Pour the milk into a deep metal pot (or a deep non-stick pan). Heat the milk on low flame and stir often to prevent it from sticking and scorching on the bottom or sides of the pan. Heat gently until the milk begins to simmer, with small bubble appearing along the edges of the pan.
Add the rice to the pan and continue to cook on low-medium heat, stirring often to prevent the milk or rice from burning. Once the rice seems to have absorbed most of the milk, pour in half a cup of warm water, stir well and continue to cook. Meanwhile, use a mortar and pestle to grind the cardamom seeds with a tablespoon of sugar.
When the grains of rice are almost soft and cooked through, add in the cardamom powder and the rest of the sugar. Stir well and cook for a further 2-3 minutes. Take the pan off the heat and serve the delicious pudding with a garnish of chopped dried fruits.
We’ve used long-grain Basmati Rice to make our dessert, although you could use pudding rice as well. The Rice Pudding will thicken as it cools and tastes wonderful when served warm or cold.
When made for festivals in Goa, small pieces of fragrant Turmeric (Haldi) leaf are added to to the pot while the rice pudding is cooking. The leaves impart a lovely fragrance and flavour to the thick, creamy pudding. Moreover, we consider Turmeric a holy ingredient, used often to prepare a variety of sweets for our Gods.
We’ve used Cardamom to flavour our pudding but you could replace it with a generous pinch of Saffron or even a teaspoon of Vanilla Essence.
Our stories, set in the early 1900s, are entirely fictional & inspired by childhood tales, local legends and books.