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Sunday, 17 June 2012

Ammi's Phirni

One of the most rewarding things about knowing how to cook is cooking for others, and (believe it or not) I enjoy cooking for others even more than I enjoy cooking for myself. And you know how much I enjoy cooking for myself!

(If you want to think of this as a blanket invitation to come over for a meal, so be it – I'd be thrilled to cook for you, and that’s the truth!)

I've also mentioned in my blog profile, that Sid, my husband, is the love of my life and guinea pig for my culinary creations. This couldn’t be more true – I love, love, love cooking for him – honestly, there are few things in life that give me more pleasure. 

But sadly, I may not have that pleasure today, because in all likelihood this will one of those occasions where Sid is not going to be my guinea pig – not because he doesn't like what I'm cooking. But because he loves it so much.

And if that sounds like the greatest irony of all times, it is.

Because what I’m making today is Phirni.
And Phirni is special.

Phirni was made famous by the late and legendary Ammi.
Phirni was her trademark
Phirni was her triumph
Phirni was consummately hers.

And so it will always be.

Ammi, Sid’s grandmother and chef extraordinaire was an exceptional lady who I had the privilege of knowing and learning from, albeit too briefly. Nonetheless, I am thankful for the time I had  – beggars can't be choosers in this uncanny game of life – one takes what one gets.

Sid often tells me that he is surprised at how badly I took her death – "I don't understand why you seem more upset than me,” he says, “after all she was my grandmother."

She was his grandmother
I only knew her for three years
We lived continents apart
And yet…I felt a kinship with her that was special for a very special reason.

And that is because there is perhaps no one in Sid’s family (or for that matter, mine, barring my own grandmother) who shares my love for food as much as Ammi did.

When we spoke on the phone, we inevitably ended up talking about food - she never tired of it - her enthusiasm evident in the high notes of her voice when I'd ask her how to make this or how to make that, the unmasked delight when I'd report to her that I'd made one of her dishes for friends, and how it was universally declared a resounding success.

I miss that.
I miss her.

So yes:
She was his grandmother
I only knew her for three years
We lived continents apart

It doesn’t matter.

Passion unites like nothing else.

And so in losing her, I lost a friend and an ally.
It’s been an immeasurable loss.

There’s much I learned from Ammi; much that was still left to learn.
For she did many things exceedingly well.

But surely the thing she did best of all was to make Phirni.

When she died, Sid said in an emotional outburst, "I'm going to give up sweets forever!"

Ha! If ever there was anything that was guaranteed to have made Ammi smile, it would have been that statement of extreme bravado. Because Sid has an insatiable capacity to consume sweets (and a mouthful of cavities to show for it!)

So, give up sweets? Hmmm...

“It’s a sweet thought,” I counselled him wisely, as he smiled at my unintentional play on words, “but don't make promises you won't keep.”

He looked at me earnestly “You seriously don’t think I’ll be able to do it?”

I shook my head, no. Positively, no.

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” he admitted later. “I’m not that strong. Ok, then I will give up Phirni.”

And – as much as he loves it – he hasn’t had it since.

Which is just as well, because no one can possibly match Ammi’s Phirni. It was, quite simply, the best.

I’m going to give it a shot today – it’s a long shot, I know. But everything in life is worth a try. At least, that’s what I believe.

So, here goes nothing – this is Ammi’s Phirni.
Whether Sid chooses to try it or not, I respect his decision. We all have our different ways of showing love.

Making it is mine.

Here’s what you need:

- 4 tablespoons rice
- 1 litre milk
- Saffron, few strands, soaked in milk
- 2 tbsp sugar (you can add more if you like – I think if it’s overly sweet, it takes away from the other flavours, but that's just me)
- 4-5 crushed cardamoms    
- Nutmeg, a tiny "suspicion"
- 10-15 almonds, blanched and sliced   
- 10-15 pistachios
- 10-15 dark raisins

What I don't have, that Ammi's recipe calls for is rose water - if you can get a hold of some, please do sprinkle a few drops in - it will add a distinctive, delicate touch that will kick up the flavour a notch or two. I just have no idea where to get rose water in England!

What I am adding as an experiment, however, is the tiniest amount of nutmeg (a pinch of ground powder or a single grate of the whole nut is more than enough). Nutmeg lends a sweet, spicy, almost camphorlike aroma and I'm hoping it adds a bit of spark to the dish.

Here’s how you do it:
Soak the rice in water for half an hour, and then grind it to a coarse paste so the grains are not visible. I grind my cardamom along with the rice as a silly shortcut!

Bring milk to a boil, stirring all the while. Add rice and crushed cardamom paste and keep stirring. 

When the milk begins to thicken, add sugar and cook till the pudding is of a smooth, custard-like consistency. Add the nutmeg, saffron, nuts and raisins (and rose water, if you can get some). 

Pour into earthenware or glass bowls and chill before serving.

Ranbir watches me as the Phirni sputters and simmers on the stove, filling the kitchen with a rich, warm, comforting aroma of crushed cardamom and nutmeg.

I inhale deeply.
If love had a smell, it would smell like this.

I ruffle Ranbir’s hair with my left hand and keep stirring with my right. I can’t stop stirring for fear of the milk sticking to the bottom of the pan. This is not a difficult dish to make, guys, but it is not quick. So, I stand there, stirring constantly. I stir for a good hour and a half. (Ammi, by the way, stirred for three hours, but if mine’s half as good in half the time, I’ll be happy). So I stir and stir and stir. It is a labour of love. But when it’s done, it’s worth it.

I taste a spoonful of the delicate saffron-scented pudding and I smile to myself. I'm objective about my cooking. I know when something's good, not so good, could be better, simply sucks.
This is nowhere as good as Ammi's.
But had she tasted it, something tells me she would have approved.

It is…
Lush and light...
Warm and nutty and vibrant
A touch of sweet, a hint of spice
A deep penetrating richness
An earthy floral fruitiness
…lingering on my tongue

It is exquisite.

I offer some to Ranbir. He is hesitant at first, tentatively sticking out his tongue to try the teeniest bit. He seems startled by what he tastes – it is not what he expected. Curious now, he opens his mouth for more. And more. And more.

"Mo" he says
"Mama, mo quick."

Sid is watching us intently.
Wordlessly, he walks over to where we sit, takes the spoon from my hand and
dips it into Ranbir's bowl.
"If you made it” he says quietly, “she would have wanted me to..."
And so, he tastes a spoonful of the creamy cardamom-infused sweetness.
I hold my breath.
Then a nod, a slow smile: "It’s really good, Amu, well done."

I take a lot of pride in my cooking. And so it makes me happy when it’s appreciated. But I don’t think I’ve ever felt as happy or as proud. Or as touched.

This was no ordinary dish.

This was different.
This was special.
This was consummately hers.
This was Ammi’s Phirni.

And before I know it, it's polished off. Between father and son. Just like that.

It’s true what they say. There are some things money can never buy.

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