A true testament to the richness and popularity of the cuisine of India’s Muslims is the fact that when anyone around the world thinks of the most delicious Indian foods, the first images that spring to mind are a lavish, fragrant biryani or a puffy, flaky naan.
India is home to the world’s second largest Muslim population and over the centuries this community has contributed deeply to the country’s colorful diversity and its rich cultural traditions. One of the heftiest contributions, no doubt, has been in the area of food.
Muslim cuisine is known for its use of rich spices, fragrant herbs and delicate stocks: exactly the stuff of a food lover’s dreams. Growing up in Bombay, I was lucky to have many Muslim friends. Luckier still, they had moms who liked to feed greedy little girls. In fact, some of my most delicious gastronomic memories from India are of the foods I ate at the home of my friend Shahnaz, whose mother was a fabulous cook and made the best biryani I have ever tasted, or the lunch box that my schoolmate Rashida would share with me.
But if Indian Muslim cuisine is in a class of its own, Indian Muslim sweets are out of this world. One such out-of-the-world dessert I want to share with you today is Phirni, or Firni.
Phirni is at once a rustic and sophisticated dish. It’s a creamy milk pudding thickened with a coarse powder of rice. Not unlike a rice pudding, but grinding up the rice gives this dish a completely different flavor. You have to try it to believe it.
I shall never forget the first time I had Phirni, sold by one of the many food vendors who feed hungry travelers on India’s trains. I had never tasted anything quite so delicious, I remember thinking. We were traveling in north India and the Phirni was served in an unglazed clay dish with a narrow base that tapered outward to a wide mouth– kinda like a big Diwali diya. The clay, I later learned, absorbs some of the fluid from the Phirni and helps it set, contributes a very special flavor of its own, and also helps keep the Phirni cool — important because this is one Indian dessert that should always be served chilled.
Traditionally Phirni is of course made with milk but my vegan, dairyfree version is made with almond milk that I made myself with blanched almonds. That’s because I wanted the flavor of the almond milk and its texture to be really delicate in order to retain the pure flavor of the original dish. You can try this with storebought almond milk if you’d rather, but I would advise putting in the extra work and doing it yourself. You can also just buy blanched almonds which would make things much easier. Or, for a variation, you could try using cashews which are also delicious in Indian sweets as a dairy substitute.
This is also a really healthy recipe, for a dessert. A serving has only 186 calories and it actually scored an A-minus on the Calorie Count recipe analyzer– how’s that for good eats?
Here’s the recipe. Enjoy!
- 1 cup almonds
- 4 cups water
- 1¼ cups sugar
- 2 tbsp rose water
- ¼ cup basmati rice
- 1 tsp ground cardamom
- 15 cashew nuts, chopped
- Strawberries for garnish (optional)
- The day before you want to make the Phirni, place the almonds in a bowl and pour over enough boiling water to cover the almonds. Set aside overnight.
- Next day, peel the almonds and discard the skins.
- Place the almonds in a blender with 4 cups of water and blend into a very smooth milk. Pour through a sieve to catch any large bits that might have remained, or any pieces of skin.
- In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, bring all but ¼th of a cup of the almond milk to a boil.
- Add the sugar and cook, stirring frequently, over medium-low heat until the milk starts to thicken, about 15 minutes.
- Drain the rice that’s soaking and grind with with the reserved ¼th cup of almond milk.
- Add the rice paste to the almond milk and continue to cook, stirring, for another 15-20 minutes. You want to feel the pudding thickening as time goes by.
- Cover the phirni with a tight-fitting lid and let the mixture cook another five minutes.
- Remove the lid, add the cardamom, rose water and cashew nuts,and cook for another five minutes. Turn off the heat and pour it into individual serving dishes or bowls.
- Garnish with chopped strawberries or nuts. The slight tartness of the strawberries is a perfect flavor pairing with the sweet Phirni. You can also add saffron– soak a generous pinch in 1 tbsp almond milk and add along with the cardamom and cashew nuts.
- Refrigerate the Phirni until thoroughly chilled.