My first published article came out in Edible Toronto’s Summer Issue. Edible is a magazine based on sustainable food and the farm scene with over 65 chapters across the United States. The inimitable Gail Gordon Oliver is the founder of the Edible Toronto chapter in Canada. The article was about my move from Rome, Italy to Toronto, Canada a year and a half ago, and the aromas of my childhood which made me feel at home in a new city.
Here is the link to the article, which I have also pasted below, with the recipe and a video of myself talking about kheer.
Here I am talking to my friend Jodi about the kheer I brought to the Mother’s Day Brunch. Kheer is known as sheer berenj in Afghanistan.
The text from the Edible Toronto article:
Kheer: A Milky Spoonful Of Home
I swirl my wooden spoon in a pool of rose-hued rhubarb, soft and glossy, gently bubbling away. In go the strawberries, deepening the colour and spreading their bubble gum-sweet smell through the kitchen. Soon the guests in our home will be drizzling this coulis over kheer, a Pakistani dessert of cardamom-spiced rice pudding, each spoonful milky and sugary, with the crunch of flaky sliced almonds. And the fragrance of cardamom, the smell I associate with childhood and home – my mother’s creamy vermicelli puddings on Eid day marking the end of Ramadan, scented with whole cardamom pods. Or maybe a pod or two steamed with the basmati rice my mother’s sister – Khala Neelo – makes especially for me. The kind of rice you eat with a mere dollop of Greek yogurt on a rainy afternoon.
As I remove the coulis from the flame, I turn to my window. I can see the summer sun hanging in the sky like a plump apricot. It has been a year-and-a-half since my move to Toronto from Rome, Italy, as a new bride.
On that January day – my first morning in my new home – I stood there alone staring out the window, looking at the snow particles whirling around outside. Turning towards the fridge, I found it barren and cold, just like Toronto on that wintery morning. With my husband at work and no friends in the same time zone to call, I stared at the suitcases lying in the hallway flaccid and empty, waiting to be stored. After two weeks of traditional wedding celebrations in Pakistan: silence.
No leftovers in the fridge from the night before. No dahl, that Pakistani-style lentil dish I love, infused with fresh ginger and garlic and tempered with a spiced cumin oil; the cold, congealed dahl that I smear on a piece of hot toast some mornings. Alongside a cup of milky tea with a fragrant cardamom pod popped in.
Every morning before my wedding in Lahore, I would sit in front of the gas heater in my grandmother’s home, watching the BBC news. Our cook would bring in the fruit basket on a tray with my grandmother’s paring knife, the one with the ivory handle. Fragrant lemon tinted guavas, with an interior like soft-ripened cheese; mandarins with oily flesh, the kind that clings to your fingertips as you peel them; and petite bananas, their yellow skin soft, with black flecks. My mother would peel a mandarin for me and steal a few slices for herself.
We would come together every night in our home for the dholki –a pre-wedding dance and song celebration of family and friends: I, in my traditional pre-wedding citrus yellow cotton kurta shalwar and the girls in their silk attire in lollipop-like colours of grape, cherry and lime. They would gather around in the drawing room and sway in unison to the beats of the current Bollywood tunes as we clapped and watched on.
Food would be served every day on the terrace under a magenta and green enclosed canopy. Fresh chicken tikkas impaled on iron skewers, cooked over coal embers, charred perfectly on their edges; beef seekh kebabs lacquered with oil, glistening and ready to be dunked in a cool mint raita. From the dome-shaped earthen tandoor would emerge some fresh naan, small sesame seeds pressed neatly into each one. And in a bain-marie, a heady mutton biryani – braised meat layered and steamed with basmati rice, its notes of saffron, cardamom, clove and cinnamon mingling with the smell of that crisp Lahore winter night.
Everyone would enter the drawing room again, lean against the burgundy velvet cushions on the floor and tear away chubby pieces of naan, wrapping them around spicy, unctuous pieces of chicken tikka and seekh kebabs. Shortly thereafter, the dinner plates would be replaced with dainty crystal dessert bowls filled with kheer, this particular one infused with rosewater and adorned with chandi ka varak, edible real silver, a specialty at weddings.
My youngest sister, Maria, in the midst of her dancing and too busy to eat, would steal a spoonful or two from my bowl. Nearing the end of my kheer, I would greedily smear my finger across the bowl for that last drop of creaminess. It didn’t matter if someone was watching. I was the dulhan after all: the bride.
The dinner would be rounded off with cups of a dusty pink tea – Kashmiri chai. Sitting there sipping this salty spiced tea, I’d swallow the crushed jade-green pistachios floating atop the chai, family and friends around me, the beats of the Bollywood songs going on till our eyelids would begin to wilt, the clinking sound of the cup against the saucer being the familiar sound of home.
Back on that first January morning in Toronto, I needed to be comforted. I opened the fridge again and took out a carton of milk. From the pantry, some sugar, and then a sack of basmati rice from under the sink. I had entered the home of a former bachelor with a sparsely stocked pantry, but marrying a Pakistani has the advantage of knowing there is always basmati to be found. I reached into my purse for cardamom pods, which I always keep for an after-meal breath freshener.
I wrapped the cardamoms in a newspaper and crushed them into smaller fragments with the back of a frying pan, discarding the tough, green skin. In a large pot on the stove, I threw in the crushed black seeds along with a generous pour of milk, spoonfuls of sugar, and a handful of basmati rice. The milk started to gently roll, like soft cotton cloth. I stirred and stirred in silence as the cardamom’s sweet and musky smell filled the kitchen. The steam from the milk turned the window opaque, with the snow continuing to fall outside silently, now hidden from plain sight.
Slowly over the year I learnt things about Toronto: that wearing 5-inch-heel boots out in the snow is probably not advisable; that a small gourmet shop, Pusateri’s, has a café that serves my favourite Illy caffé macchiato; and most importantly, that summer comes late. But when it arrives, I can walk down with my friends to Summer’s for homemade frozen yogurt – a tart and sweet strawberry-banana flavour, a small powder pink snowball. And when my family comes to visit I can take them to Harbourfront to show them how Toronto throws its arms around Lake Ontario. I also learnt that in the summer I can travel with my husband on snow-free roads to the north of the city to find a Persian bakery that sells gosh-e-feel – elephant’s ear – a fried, puffy pastry with powdered sugar that spreads all over your mouth with each bite.
Entering my second summer in Toronto, on this particular day I recreate for my guests the dish that has always made me feel I am home: kheer. And combined with those flavours of my childhood are new flavours of Toronto, my adopted city – summery rhubarb and strawberry. The coulis on the kitchen counter and the kheer resting in the fridge, my guests arrive and we tuck into supple roasted red peppers dressed with pomegranate molasses and sprinkled with crushed walnuts, served alongside barbecued saffron-infused chicken tikkas. To cleanse the palate, some heirloom black cherry tomatoes atop spicy arugula anointed with olive oil and tiny pinches of fleur de sel.
Finally, out comes the kheer. A ladle of it into each bowl, and then a drizzle (or a drench) of the sweet-and-sour, candy-pink sauce. A scattering of sliced almonds, rounded off nicely with a dust of freshly cracked black pepper. And in every spoonful of kheer, soft and pillowy on the tongue, some bits of cardamom. The aromatic smell and sweet taste of home. In a new home.
Shayma Saadat, a Pakistani-Afghan with Persian ancestry, is the author of the food-memoir-style blog “The Spice Spoon: Cooking Without Borders” (www.thespicespoon.com). She is a Senior Policy Advisor for the Minister of Energy and Infrastructure, Canada. Shayma lives in Toronto with her husband.
This rice pudding (known as kheer), made with basmati rice, should not be a mushy dish; each rice grain should be visible and remain intact. If you feel the rice is undercooked and the milk is being absorbed too quickly, just use some of the warm milk being heated in a saucepan on the side and add in small quantities to loosen the pudding.
I have added only ½ cup of sugar because the coulis adds sweetness; however, if you have a sweet tooth, feel free to add up to a whole cup of sugar to the kheer.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
6 whole green cardamom pods
4 1/2 cups whole milk
3/4 cup basmati rice
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup sliced almonds, for garnish
freshly ground black pepper
Rhubarb Strawberry Coulis
1 pound rhubarb, chopped into ½-inch pieces
1 cinnamon stick
2 tbsp water
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 pound strawberries, hulled and chopped into ½-inch pieces
Make the kheer: Wrap the cardamom pods in a newspaper and crush with a rolling pin. The seeds should not be crushed to a dust. The result should look somewhat like freshly cracked pepper. Discard the green skin of the pods.
In a small saucepan, heat 1½ cups of the milk over medium-low heat; do not bring to a boil, but keep warm while you prepare the kheer. In a large heavy-bottomed pan, add the remaining 3 cups of milk, the rice, crushed cardamom seeds, sugar and slivered almonds. Turn the heat to high. As soon as the milk starts to steam, turn the heat to low and cover with a lid.
Every 7 to 10 minutes, remove the lid and stir gently, from the bottom up, to ensure that the rice is not sticking to the base of the pan. After about 40 minutes, the milk should be thickened but not entirely absorbed. The pudding should have a soft, velvety consistency and not look congealed.
Taste the rice. If it seems undercooked, add some of the reserved warm milk, replace the lid and continue to cook for 7 to 10 minutes. When done, the basmati rice grains should be intact. Transfer the kheer to a container and allow it to come to room temperature before covering and refrigerating at least 5 hours, but preferably overnight, to set.
Make the coulis: In a medium saucepan over medium heat, add the rhubarb, cinnamon stick, water and sugar. Stir well. Allow the mixture to bubble away until the rhubarb looks soft and has melted down into a sauce, about 20 minutes. Add the strawberries. Continue to cook until the strawberries have softened and melted into the sauce, about 10 to 15 minutes. Turn off the heat, discard the cinnamon stick, and allow the coulis to come to room temperature. The coulis can be prepared in advance, kept refrigerated, and brought to room temperature or warmed up prior to serving with the kheer.
To serve: Ladle chilled kheer into individual bowls and drizzle with coulis. Top with a sprinkling of sliced almonds and a dusting of fresh black pepper.