Phirni: An ode to the 'cooling' nature of rice

Seasoned chefs on what excites them most about this simple affair of rice, milk, sugar and cardamom?

By Madhulika Dash

The tale of how a simple sweet treat of milk, rice, cardamom, sugar called Sheer Berenj transformed into the exotically luscious phirni may not be an exciting story to hear – there is after all no mention of a toothless Nawab wanting an indulgence – but that lacuna has done little to damp the rise of this rice pudding as one of the finest creation of the Mughal kitchen. In fact, the late Jiggs Kalra would often call phirni, the finest example of “culinary deception.” The outcome of this exquisitely simple dessert, he said, “often belies the simple ingredients and techniques that are used to bring it to life.”

True as well. Some of the finest phirnis, those that you wouldn’t forget once tasted, are often a great play of simple ingredients – especially the rice and milk.

But how did a simple recipe that had its genesis in Khirsa or Kheer became such an important highlight of the Mughal feast – even earning a spot in their celebrations? It is said that both

Humayun, the emperor who is credited for bringing the Sheer Berenj to India, and Jahangir, whose patronage gave birth to the idea and concept of Mughal cuisine, were so fond of this soul satiating treat that they had special chefs brought in from Iran, Palestine and even from down south to elevate this simple dish into something visually and palate-wise brilliant.

It was, say the guides of Agra Fort, “while experimenting with different options that the phirni we know today was created. It so happened that one of the rakhbadar created a kheer like pudding and then left it on a slab to cool down in small bowls awaiting the master’s order to come. By the time, the dish was presented, it needed unmoulding and had this mousse-like consistency thanks to the trick of pounding the soaked rice that allowed it to cook fast and take on that grainy mouthfeel, which today is a benchmark of a good phirni.”

The sheer uniqueness of the dessert ensured that the royal family had a taste for it, and it became a part of the evening treat. The simplicity of it made Akbar choose it to be a part of their post iftari meal and eventually under Shah Jahan, who commissioned the creation of over five dozen variation, it became an essential part of Eid Celebration including the Kesar Phirni, Badami Phirni and the Gulkhand Phirni. Of course, it was in the reign of Emperor Muhammed Shah Rangeela that this royal treat reached out to the masses and became a celebratory sweet that was enjoyed during Eid. Since then, phirni has seen several recreations with new flavours and textures that included its appearance as a crème brulee. But what is about phirni that makes is such an exciting dish for the indulger and the creator?

The foreplay of rice and milk, says Chef Sabyasachi Gorai (Chefpreneur, Fabrica By Saby), “no where else one can see how beautiful wedding of rice and milk than in a phirni, which is an ode to both these ingredients.” Chef Gorai, who has worked with a variety of rice grains finds his work with the Manipuri black rice one of the finest. “It has a peculiar earthy taste that lends the phirni a unique taste and character.”

Agrees Chef Shantanu Mehrotra (Executive Chef, Indian Accent). “Even though the recipe has an interestingly semblance to the traditional kheer that we would find in temples, what makes phirni a masterpiece, even royal to some extent, is the use of pounded rice that gives the dish its natural texture and taste.” The brilliance, adds Chef Mehrotra, “is of course the use of the earthen bowls to set it in pudding style, which also enhances the earthy aroma of the dish making it addictive.”

In fact, adds Chef Praveen Shetty (Executive Chef, Conrad), who likes using traditional short grains to like Jeerige Sanna or Ambemore to create his versions of the dish, “the thing about making phirni is that the process enables to elevate the nuances of an ingredient, in this case that of the rice. And hence I love to experiment with rice with textures that can be built on.”

It is a thought that even Chef Sharad Dewan concurs to. “Phirni, which many believe inspired the creation of the Hyderabadi Gil-e-Firdaus was often seen as a benchmark to test a royal cook’s understanding of good quality ingredients as well as ingenuity to replicate the result with whatever was available. And hence, it was one of the few dishes that were created in a way that could take on not only new additions like nuts, saffron and other spices, but also adapt to the changing weather and grains. One such creation with khuda was popularized by Wajid Ali Shah chef while the Nawab was in exile. Given that most khuda are naturally short grain, their ability to cook faster without losing the texture made it a favourite.”

Chef Dewan too likes to use such short grains that are not only fragrant and nutrient dense but also gelatinous enough to give the phirni, its pudding like setting later.