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Of Rice and Men

While elsewhere bonds may form over a beer, in this Indian region friends are often made by way of ... pudding

Author ANISH MAJUMDAR

KERALA, INDIA

IN KUMARAKOM, a sleepy backwater town surrounded by mangrove forests in Kerala, India, Shaji Malappuram arrives bearing a large metal urn in the crook of his arm. A heavy, caramel-like odor wafts out. “This is the real thing,” he says cryptically, “made special by my family.” He waxes rhapsodic about its preparation: heating ghee (clarified buffer) in a pan; breaking cashews into small pieces and frying them; adding coconut milk, rice and cardamom; and letting the mixture boil and gradually thicken. “It’s a ritual,” he says, and with that, he hands over the container and departs, too nervous to bear witness to its reception.

In most parts of the world, a container received in this fashion would hold a home-brewed alcoholic beverage — Kentucky moonshine or Costa Rican guaro or Finnish kilju. Making friends over secret family hooch recipes is the kind of thing that’s been going on for ages. But not in Kerala, a lush, predominantly rural state running along the Malabar Coast of southwest India. Here, alcohol is widely considered disreputable, so locals have turned to a rice pudding-style dessert known as payasam for their social lubrication. Usually it comes at the end of a working man’s meal called thali, an all-you-can-eat menu of rice, curried vegetables and paneer (fresh cheese curds) served on a metal platter or banana leaf. Sharing payasam in a restaurant is considered a mark of friendship, and inviting someone to try a homemade version, as Malappuram has, indicates high esteem indeed.

Though the traditional recipe calls for rice or cracked wheat and unrefined cane sugar, most restaurants add their own flourishes to encourage guests with a sweet tooth to linger after dinner. The Mount Park Inn, a popular stop along National Highway 49, for instance, employs a vermicelli-like rice noodle called semia as a thickener and adds cinnamon for extra spice, while Surya Soma, an eatery in Munnar, loads its version with raisins for extra ballast. Moreover, most Keralan families have their own idiosyncratic recipes that they prepare to mark special occasions like weddings, birthdays and major festivals.

Malappuram’s homemade payasam is so thick that it takes nearly a minute to pour into a glass. It is deep brown, dotted with flecks of cashew and popped cardamom seeds, and so rich that just a few sips satisfy completely. Knowing how much care went into its preparation, however, leads to a stomach-challenging marathon of consumption and conversation among the assembled company. And happily, unlike with moonshine, no one wakes up embarrassed the next morning.

THE BITTER END
Keralan meals aren’t complete without a mouth-puckering melon

What with all the payasam in circulation, Keralans almost had to develop a trick to stay slim. Their secret? A bitter melon so inextricably linked to the land that it goes by a near-identical name: karela. The fruit of a subtropical vine native to India, it looks like a zucchini covered in bumps and is usually served thinly sliced and fried as part of a traditional thali plate. Wincingly bitter (though made tastier with a dash of salt), it is the one dish every Keralan will finish before moving on to dessert. That’s because the fruit contains a polypeptide called gurmarin that suppresses the body’s neural response to sweet stimuli, which means satisfaction comes from only a few spoonfuls of payasam — as opposed to a second helping. —A.M.

PHOTOGRAPH BY MBI/ALAMY

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