In our vastly diverse food customs, there is one delicious dish that finds its honourable place in most kinds of Indian cuisine. I am talking about the kheer - which, with some variations here and there - is quite a pan-Indian phenomenon. In the South, it's known as payasam, and in the East, payesh. And right here in the North, this dessert made essentially out of milk, is known as kheer.
A good bowl of kheer has been a part of my childhood, and, I am happy to say, still plays an important role now that I am over-the-hill (a small hillock, really - but let's not quibble). My Bengali mother makes a delicious payesh with fresh date palm jaggery. And as a child growing up in a village in Uttar Pradesh, there was nothing that I relished more than a generous helping of some North Indian kheer.
Now, this kheer is not for the faint-hearted. The recipe itself is different - first, a fistful of rice is boiled with sugar-cane juice till the rice is done. Over this, you pour cold milk and some heated desi ghee. And `some' is an understatement; for the helping of the ghee has to be large enough to make even some of our well-developed wrestlers break out into a cold sweat. Over the years, as a diligent researcher, I have tasted different kinds of kheer - made with or without rice, with boondi, oranges, rasgullahs and even chunks of bottle gourd. At one point of time, I was such an addict that I used to time my trips to Himachal Pradesh in such a way that I reached Ahuja's in Murthal, on the Delhi-Chandigarh highway, right in time for breakfast. And breakfast started with paranthas and ended with a bowl of kheer.
Way to Bade Mian's
But the Bengali payesh was an all-time favourite of mine - till I discovered Bade Mian's kheer shop in Old Delhi. I came to hear about it one day when, as I waxed eloquent about the `khejur gurer' (palm jaggery) payesh, a few of my friends from the Walled City started sniggering. Have you, one of them asked me gently, ever tried the kheer at Bade Mian's?
I hadn't, and looked suitable abashed. So, very kindly, they led me to his shop. To get to Bade Mian's, you have to reach Hauz Quazi Chowk and then start walking towards Lal Kuan. After some time, you will see a mosque on your left called Masjid Badal Beg. The kheer shop is bang opposite the mosque. It is a very small shop, so you can very easily miss it. In that case, of course, you can ask any passer-by to direct you to Bade Mian's. And if I know the people of the area well, they will personally escort you there and look at you approvingly as you demolish your first bowlful.
Bade Mian's shop is about 125 years old. They have been making kheer in the traditional North Indian way there - the milk and rice are cooked slowly over a wooden fire till the milk thickens. The milk is cooked till the kheer turns a beautiful shade of light brown.
And I love it because it has the smoky flavour of a wood fire. The kheer is then chilled and you can have a plateful for Rs.10. The first time I was there, I remember eating one plate after another while my friends stood around me, looking as proud as Sachin Tendulkar's folks must have been when, as a toddler, he was hitting his first fours. The times have changed since then, for Sachin is no more the batsman he was. And since change can often be scary, I occasionally relish those things that remain the same.
The last time I was at Bade Mian's, I gladdened all the locals' hearts by breaking my own record of kheer-eating. So, eat your heart out, Sachin!