PhirniA 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.

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PhirniMuslim 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.

PhirniI 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!


Prep time
Cook time
Total time
Recipe type: Desserts
Cuisine: Indian
Serves: 10
  • 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)
  1. 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.
  2. Next day, peel the almonds and discard the skins.
  3. 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.
  4. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, bring all but ¼th of a cup of the almond milk to a boil.
  5. Add the sugar and cook, stirring frequently, over medium-low heat until the milk starts to thicken, about 15 minutes.
  6. Drain the rice that’s soaking and grind with with the reserved ¼th cup of almond milk.
  7. 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.
  8. Cover the phirni with a tight-fitting lid and let the mixture cook another five minutes.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. Refrigerate the Phirni until thoroughly chilled.
Nutrition Information
Calories: 186 Sugar: 25.5 grams Fiber: 1.2 grams Protein: 2.9 grams


Kaju Katli, and a Happy Diwali to You

Kaju Katli

It’s Diwali, everyone, and hope yours is warm and fuzzy with family and friends, and filled with all the joy in the world.

Diwali is the time of year when most of us transplanted Indians, so far from the motherland, long to be back at least for a day. Or two or three or five, because that’s how long Diwali lasts. It’s the time India lights up with little earthen lamps, brilliant paper lanterns, and the assertive flare of firecrackers. It’s the time children strut around in shiny new clothes, men play cards for good luck in the new year, and women paint intricate patterns on the ground with colored sand to welcome the gods. In the country of a million colors there is no time more colorful than this.

Kaju Katli

Diwali is also the time for some delicious treats and each year I try to share one or two with you. This year I have for you what is arguably India’s favorite storebought sweet: Kaju Katli.

As easy as it is to make Kaju Katli in modern kitchens, most Indians back in the day I lived in India would buy it from halwais who sold them in glass-fronted shops. The ivory-white Kaju Katli may have looked like the plain cousin amidst tiers of jewel-colored sweets, but in fact it was the belle of the ball. The one everyone wanted to take home and devour.

If you have ever eaten this sweet, you would know why. The buttery cashew and the fragrant cardamom combine to create food magic. And  best of all they do it without any help from dairy, usually so pervasive in Indian sweets, making this dish divinely vegan.

It is hard to mess up Kaju Katli but there is one part where you do need to exercise some technique: the making of the sugar syrup. Make it too thin and it will keep your katli from solidifying. Make it too thick and the burfi will harden up on you instead of staying soft and mellifluous, the way it should.

Here’s the recipe. A glorious Diwali to all readers of Holy Cow! May your new year be sweet and filled with all of your favorite things.

Kaju Katli
Kaju Katli
Prep time
Total time
Kaju Katli is a vegan Indian sweet with the rich, buttery flavor of cashews and the fragrance of cardamom.
Recipe type: Indian sweet
Cuisine: Indian
Serves: 12
  • 1 cup cashew nuts, powdered in a clean coffee grinder or blender with 1 tsp of cornstarch. You want a fine powder with no pieces of cashew in there.
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ¼ cup water
  • ½ tsp powdered cardamom (green)
  • A pinch of saffron threads
  • ½ tsp walnut oil
  1. Place the sugar and water in a saucepan and let it come to a boil. Lower the heat to simmer, add the cardamom and saffron, and let the syrup cook about five minutes. Check it regularly to see if it has achieved a one-thread consistency. What this means is that when you place a drop of the hot sugar syrup on the tip of your thumb (don’t burn yourself) and touch the tip pf your forefinger to it, the syrup should pull up in a short thread as you separate the thumb and forefinger. If that is too complicated just get yourself a candy thermometer and take the syrup off the heat when the temperature reaches 225 degrees Fahrenheit. Easy.
  2. Heat a nonstick saucepan over low heat. Add the cashew powder and cook, stirring, about two minutes or until it is warmed through. Then add the sugar syrup to it. Turn off the heat and mix well. The mixture will start pulling away from the sides of the pan.
  3. At this point empty the cashew paste on a clean surface, rub some walnut oil on your palms and fingers, and knead the paste a few times until it looks really smooth.
  4. Pat the cashew paste into a greased plate or tray and spread it evenly. The layer should be about a quarter of an inch thick.
  5. Set the plate aside to cool completely, then cut into diamond shapes, the way Kaju Katli is always cut.
Kaju Katli nutrition information
(C) All recipes and photographs copyright of Holy Cow! Vegan Recipes.

Besan Cashew Halwa

Besan Halwa

In India, right now, ’tis the season to be holy. Everyone’s just winding down from a birthday bash for Ganesh the elephant-headed god, Dussehra’s already at the doorstep, and Diwali will be here before you know it. All of this festival fever is accompanied by, quite naturally, a whole lot of food. A lot of it sweet.

It’s more than a week now since I returned home to Washington but I am still in an India state of mind. All I want to do right now is go back and squabble with the rickshaw drivers in Chennai about the fares, stare upon a lush landscape in Savai Vere, Goa, and watch a movie with my arm tucked in Desi’s at Regal Cinema in Bombay.

Unfortunately life makes it hard to have fun when you want to, and therefore all those plans will just have to wait. So what I have been doing instead is cooking up some favorite Indian foods. And because it is festival season back in my favorite place, some of it is– you guessed it– sweet.Besan Halwa

I came up with this very easy Besan and Cashew Halwa because I was looking for a tastier alternative to a very popular Indian sweet that often pops up at Diwali but which Desi detests– Besan Laddoo. For those who are not familiar with laddoos, picture them as spherical cookies that, like cookies, are available in a variety of flavors and textures. Apart from Besan Laddoos, made with garbanzo bean or chickpea flour, you have Rava Ladoo which is made with sooji farina, Til ke Laddoo made with sesame seeds, Coconut Laddoo, laddoos made with puffed rice (kurmura) and so on. I had an uncle who ate a laddoo made with a powder of fenugreek seeds (methi) and jaggery every day of his life. Fenugreek seeds are infused with lifesaving nutrients that fight diabetes, cholesterol, and all that bad stuff and Bhau Mama –one of the fittest people I ever knew– firmly believed this laddoo, among other healthy habits, helped keep him fit. This year he celebrates his 100th birthday and seeing him again– still healthy and fit — was one of the highlights of my visit to India.

My Besan and Cashew Halwa is perhaps not as healthy as a methi laddoo, although one could argue with merit that chickpea flour is good for you. I added the cashews because I wanted to soften the flavor of the besan which, although lovely to some of us, is not something Desi loves. The cashew powder also helps give a great flavor boost, making the absence of the ghee quite unnoticeable. I have some lovely cashew nuts that I just brought from Goa where this nut grows abundantly.

I wanted to share a few more pictures of my India trip with you all, so I’ve pasted them after the recipe. Thanks to all of you who enjoyed my travel posts. I could not leave you without a few more glimpses into some of the amazing places I traveled to and the even more amazing people I encountered.

But first, here’s the recipe.

Kaju Halwa


Besan Cashew Halwa
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
Recipe type: Dessert
Cuisine: Indian
Serves: 16
  • 1 cup besan or chickpea flour, sifted if it is lumpy
  • 2 tbsp walnut oil
  • 8-10 green cardamom pods. Peel the pods, discard the skins and crush the black seeds in a mortar and pestle until you have a fairly fine powder
  • ½ cup cashew nuts ground into a fine powder
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ½ cup water
  1. Add 1 tbsp of walnut oil to the chickpea flour and mix it in with your fingers until the besan assumes a slightly grainy texture. Set this aside for about 10 minutes.
  2. Heat the remaining walnut oil in a saucepan with sloping sides or a kadhai. Add the besan and cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until the besan gets a couple of shades darker, around 8 minutes.
  3. Add the powdered cashews and again stir-fry for another 5 minutes or until the besan is cooked and a deeper yellow. You want to stir frequently so that the besan doesn’t burn.
  4. Remove the besan to a plate or a bowl and set aside while you prepare the sugar syrup. To make the syrup, mix the water and the sugar and the powdered cardamom in a saucepan and cook until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture bubbles.
  5. Remove from the heat and mix in the besan. Stir fast so the besan doesn’t lump up. When you have a smooth mixture, remove the halwa to a bowl.
  6. Garnish with cashew nuts. The halwa will firm up a little as it cools. Scoop it with an ice-cream scoop or a spoon to serve.

And now for the pictures:

In Chennai, a Ganesh idol from a local temple is paraded through the neighborhood streets for Ganesh Chaturthi, the birthday of the elephant-headed god. A band of musicians accompanies the idol to announce its arrival. When they hear the music, women like the one pictured below, in the midst of cleaning up after dinner, drop their chores to rush out, oil lamps and flowers in hand, to worship the deity at their doorstep.
Girls wait to cross the road outside their school in a small town on the road from Madurai to Kodaikanal, a beautiful hill station in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
Tamilians are big coffee drinkers — their coffee made in a special steel filter is one of the best you will ever taste–and here’s their version of a cup and a saucer: a davra tumbler.
A beautiful old church covered by early-morning clouds in Kodaikanal.
Giant eucalyptus trees march across the landscape in Kodaikanal. You can smell their fragrance everywhere.  And below, the gnarly roots of the trees create a natural stairway to help hikers navigate steep trails in the hill station.
An unusual home for a community Ganesh idol in Kodaikanal.
Visitors brave slippery stones to wade through a waterfall
A bhel vendor mixes up a snack for his customers.
At a pine forest in Kodaikanal, a monkey digs through a man’s pocket for candy. The monkeys are wild and free but they are used to food handouts from visitors and will approach people. Vendors sell crispy snacks and fresh carrots at the entrance to the forest and guess which food the monkeys prefer when they are given a choice? The junk food, of course.
In beautiful Kodaikanal, the clouds roll beneath you, often covering up the landscape right when you want to have a look. But who’s complaining?
Because of its elevation, Kodaikanal’s weather and vegetation is a world apart from the rest of sweltering Tamil Nadu. We encountered some rare and unusual fruits and vegetables here, including Chairfruit and Tree Tomatoes (below) which are eaten by making a slit at the top of the eggplant-like fruit and sucking out the flesh with your lips.
A snake pit (yes, really) outside a Madurai temple, covered with turmeric and vermilion and decorated with colorful pieces of fabric and tiny wood cradles — offerings from couples hoping for a child. Snakes, like many living creatures, are worshiped as holy in India and Vishnu, the god who sits atop Hinduism’s vast pantheon, can be found reclining on a huge cobra.
This cute boy outside the Meenakshi temple in Madurai begged Desi to take his picture and yelled “super!” after viewing it. He then walked away, happy as could be.
In Goa, vendors selling all sorts of foods make the rounds of neighborhoods all day. You  never have to go to the market if you don’t have a mind to because you can keep yourself well fed on fresh fruits, vegetables, bread and almost anything you would want. This vendor was selling fish  – the mainstay of every Goan diet– and although we are vegan here at Holy Cow!, this is such a lovely picture that I couldn’t help sharing.
In Raia, Goa, children go home after school, including this boy on a cell phone who’s getting a ride on a scooter driven by his mom.
At the bustling market in Madgaon a vendor displays piles of fiery red chillies, garlic, tamarind and dry fish– all staples for Goan curry.
Stray dogs roam the streets of Goa, and most are friendly. Dogs who are skittish around people keep to themselves and don’t bother anyone. India has made great progress with controlling stray animal populations and keeping them healthy without actually killing any animals. In Goa we  came upon volunteers trapping dogs one morning. The volunteers take the dogs to clinics where they are spayed or neutered, eartipped– meaning a corner of the ear is clipped to indicate the dog is neutered, a procedure used for feral cats here in the United States– and then vaccinated for rabies before being returned to where they were picked up.  Many people care for the dogs and feed them.
We saw this little boy sharing a meal with his family (below) on the sidewalks of south Bombay. You see the plastic sheet in the background– that is the only shelter this family has, and yet there are smiles on their faces. Each day hundreds of immigrants from around India pour into Bombay, India’s largest city and its commercial capital. They make their home on the city’s streets and have no clue about what the future holds, but there is the hope that the megalopolis will provide a livelihood.
Mumbaikars, tired of the city’s congested roads, make an appeal to a higher authority.

(C) All recipes and photographs copyright of Holy Cow! Vegan Recipes.

Fruit and Nut Burfi, an Indian-Style Fudge

Fruit Nut Barfi
Desi has a monster sweet tooth and I try as much as possible to keep it happy with homemade goodies like this Fruit and Nut Burfi. Made with no added sugar and with the wholesome goodness of dry fruits and nuts, this is a treat that’s not just delicious but also as healthy as a sweet can get.
Burfi, for those of you unfamiliar with the word, is an Indian-style fudge. If you were to walk into a sweets store in India, you’d find yourself face to face with burfis in every color of the rainbow. Burfis, like fudge, are cloyingly sweet and they are mostly made with milk or nuts. Because they are eaten on special occasions, they are almost as a rule cooked with ghee.
Fruit Nut Burfi
nuts for burfiMy very vegan Fruit and Nut Burfi is blissfully dairy-free. I had some beautiful dates gifted by my friend Margo that I wanted to use for something special, and I always have figs and almonds on hand because Desi loves chopping some into his breakfast each morning. Into all of this fruity goodness I stirred in some almonds and walnuts. And instead of ghee, I used some delicious coconut oil which, like ghee, thickens at room temperature, helping the burfi firm up, and adds amazing flavor.
This is a very simple recipe with just six ingredients, and there is not much that can go wrong — it’s almost fool-proof. But there is a little hard labor involved in stirring up the fruit and nut paste until it’s cooked, about 25 minutes altogether. To my mind, that’s not a high price for a lot of deliciousness.
Here’s the recipe. Enjoy, all!
Fruit and Nut Burfi, an Indian-Style Fudge
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
A vegan, gluten-free and sugar-free fudge made with fruits and nuts.
Recipe type: Sweets/Desserts
Cuisine: Indian
Serves: 25
  • 1 cup dry figs
  • 1 cup dates
  • ½ cup dry apricots (optional. I like to cut the cloying sweetness of dates and figs with the apricots, but if you like your sweets very sweet skip the apricots by all means)
  • ½ cup almonds, coarsely powdered in a blender or food processor
  • ½ cup walnuts, chopped
  • 2 tbsp coconut oil
  1. Submerge the figs, dates and apricots in boiling water and set aside for about 30 minutes or until the fruit is very soft.
  2. Drain and place the fruits in a blender or food processor. Process till you have a rather smooth and thick paste. Add just enough water — 1 or 2 tbsp — if needed to keep the blades moving, but don’t let the mixture get liquid.
  3. Heat the coconut oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan.
  4. Add the fruit paste and cook, stirring almost constantly, for 10 minutes.
  5. Add the powdered apricots and stir in.
  6. Add the walnuts and cook, stirring, for another 10-15 minutes until the mixture darkens and glistens.
  7. Grease a small plate and turn the fruit and nut mixture into it.
  8. Using your hands and a plastic wrap or a spatula flatten the mixture into a five-inch square.
  9. Let the burfi cool completely until it sets. Then cut into diamond-shaped pieces or squares.
Fruit and Nut Burfi

(C) All recipes and photographs copyright of Holy Cow! Vegan Recipes.

Vegan Mung and Rice Pudding With Coconut and Saffron

Vegan Mung and Rice Pudding

Here’s a kheer (an Indian pudding) that my Konkani parents make for Makar Sankranti, a celebration in their part of India that falls on the same day as Pongal.

The recipe is very similar to Sakkarai Pongal, except that my parents’ version has some coconut milk, a staple of the Konkan region where coconut trees grow abundantly along the coast. Coconut adds a unique flavor all its own which is particularly great when you remove ghee from the equation, as we do for our vegan version. The coconut also keeps the kheer moist and fluid even after you refrigerate it.

Another flavor boost comes from saffron, those spicy stamens so prized in Indian cooking. The saffron also gives the dish a gorgeous golden color.

Vegan Mung and Rice Pudding

It has been a week since Pongal and Makar Sankranti, but it’ never too late to eat something as delicious as this kheer. On to the recipe. Hope everyone’s feeling well and rested after a long weekend. Have a lovely day, all!

Vegan Mung and Rice Pudding

Mung and Rice Kheer


3/4 cup rice

1/4 cup mung dal

1 cup almond milk

1 cup coconut milk

3/4 to 1 cup grated jaggery

1 tsp powdered cardamom seeds

10-15 cashew nuts, broken into pieces

A generous pinch of saffron, soaked in a couple of tablespoons of almond milk

Boil the rice and mung dal together, preferably in a pressure cooker, until really soft. I added about 3 cups of water to the pressure cooker, which gave me the right consistency.

Add the almond milk and half the coconut milk to the rice-mung mixture and set it on a low flame.

Add the grated jaggery and stir well.

Cook on a low flame until the raw jaggery smell has dissipated. This took about half an hour for me. The pongal should not be dry, but creamy and slightly fluid. If it gets too dry, add some more almond milk. Stir in the saffron with the almond milk it was soaked in and the remaining coconut milk.

Heat 1 tbsp canola oil

Add 1 tsp powdered cardamom seeds

10-15 cashew nuts, broken into pieces

Toss until the nuts are lightly browned. Add to the rice.

Stir well. Serve warm or at room temperature.

(C) All recipes and photographs copyright of Holy Cow! Vegan Recipes.