Autumn kindles a need for evenings in, lighting the season’s first fire, the desire for warm sustenance and comforting sweetness. This is amplified for me now living in Scotland, and as the weather turns, I yearn for a blanket of hearty meals and warming drinks.
But growing up in Karachi, a city that knew no autumn, where the constant was a blazing sun that lit the sky relentlessly, few treats I longed for were warm; with the exception of my Nani’s (maternal grandmother) ‘firni’ rice pudding. It was more the warming aromatics that enhanced the experience for me, I remember well her compact airy kitchen always vividly scented with the astringency of cardamom, the headiness of rose and the silky comfort of milky rice and caramelized sugar.
Firni is a recipe that has found its way into our cuisine from Persia and the Middle East, and into the ancient kitchens of the Muslim emperors of India. A perfect dessert for the royal dining table, though made with seemingly simple ingredients, this was a dessert served cold, adorned with expensive spice such as saffron, rose water and topped with nuts and silver leaf, it has been a traditional dessert of festivity and celebration in our part of the world ever since.
Although to this day in Pakistan firni is eaten cooled in unglazed terracotta pots (which always added an earthy clay flavour enchancing the dish) , I was probably the only person who ever ate it hot, fresh off my Nani’s vintage white enamel hob. Usually scented with ‘kewra’ (screwpine water), a heady extract of the bulb of the Pandamus flower, my Nani would fragrance it with freshly ground cardamom, stir through a little kewra or rose water and top it with crushed pistachios.
It is perhaps not just the comfort of this dish that plays such an important part in my food memory but also the fact that this is the first recipe I learnt to cook, not so much from set written instruction but from a sensory recollection. In my mind, this ground rice pudding is a celebration of simple ingredients, married together with a grandmother’s love and indulgence, it was impossible for my youthful palate not to be beguiled.
My recollection of my Nani cooking firni is a sight that is imprinted in my mind but the her recipe for it is vague, all I remember is her artfully grinding a handful of basmati rice finely in her stone mortar and pestle, adding flavour to cardamom infused buffalo milk and some khoya (milk solids) and the result would be a comfort I would crave any time of day. Always sweetened with gur (sugar cane molasses) or brown cane sugar, but sometimes, with the seasonal treat of fresh chopped guava or mango if her trees had been generous that summer. Much of this recipe is cooked by instinct, as is most Pakistani food.
Though it has been many years since my grandmother’s passing, I think often of her beside that hob, lovingly preparing firni for me; this dessert that ignited my love for cooking. Each time I cook it, the aromas of earthy rice and vibrant cardamom that envelope my kitchen transport me back to happy childhood, bringing to life her flavours through such a simple combination of warm comfort and spice.
Firni, ground rice pudding with cardamom and rose water
Preparation time: 60 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes
Makes: about 10 bowls of firni
1 litre of full fat milk
400 gram tin of sweetened condensed milk
7 tbsp basmati rice
½ cup of water
½ tsp freshly ground green cardamom
1 tbsp each of crushed pistachios and edible rose petals for garnish
1 tsp kewra or rose water
- Start by soaking the basmati rice in the water for an hour. Disguarding all the water, save just 1 tbsp and grind the rice with this water in a electric wet grinder, in to a fine paste.
- In a saucepan, heat the milk and add the condensed milk to this, warm but do not allow to boil. (about 5-6 minutes). 3. Add the rice paste and beat it with a whisk so as to ensure no lumps remain.
- Cook on a very low heat, stirring it all the time until the milk forms a custard like consistency. Now add the ground cardamom powder. Stir in the kewra or rose water.
- Cool the firni completely but stirring continually. But do not let it set, it should set in the bowl. You could eat is warm like me!
- Set the firni is glass or terracotta bowls – refrigerate covered and best served 7. Garnish with crushed pistachios and edible rose petals.