The best thing about being vegan in India is that you do not have to give up desserts, sweets or most of your favourite eats, for that matter. Being South-Indian only makes this easier. Where I come from, we did not have many dairy-based sweets to start with. Sweets in earlier times were consumed judiciously, only to mark special occasions unlike today. Sweets were also about keeping the taste uncomplicated. Palakkad cuisine has numerous sweets and desserts that make use of two core ingredients – rice and jaggery – and these were used in intelligent and creative ways to make sweets that did not taste the same despite the important ingredients being the same. I have shared a few Palakkad treasures on the blog already, and yet I know there is a lot left to flaunt.
Whenever I post gluten-free, and dairy-free Indian sweets making use of jaggery [Gud / gur / vellam / bella], I get comments / mails informing me that ‘jaggery’ is not an easily available ingredient in places other than India or South-East Asia. I do not know much about the availability of jaggery world-wide, but I assume it must be available in Asian Grocery shops abroad. If not, I see no reason why anyone should miss out on these very delicious, unprocessed, Indian sweets. Keeping this in mind, today I made a very common porridge – vella payasam – using black-strap molasses. I have deliberately kept the porridge thinner than the original Indian version.
Jaggery is a natural, unrefined sweetener extracted from the sap of sugarcane or the sap of toddy palm (tadi-bella in Tulu). There is no alternative to jaggery. It has a rich, smooth sweetness that makes sugar [whether raw, brown, turnbinado, muscovado or any other type] seem a poor imitation. Unlike sugar it is not something that will rush into your bloodstream on consumption, without digesting, cause a spike or ‘sugar-rush’ and subsequent fatigue. That is because jaggery does not go through the number of refining processes that go on to make sugar. It still remains unsafe for diabetics. Jaggery is also full of vitamins and minerals unlike sugar. Of all the sugars, I have tasted, I find that molasses though not an exact substitute, comes closest to the taste jaggery imparts in Indian desserts. It is not something I would recommend in all jaggery based sweets, but molasses tastes as good in payasam as jaggery. I also found that when made with molasses, one must consume the sweet soon, else it separates. It does not indicate spoilage but does not look appetising either. Jaggery does not cause separation unless the variety has high salt content.
Molasses is known as ‘kakwi‘ in Marathi. Kolhapur in Maharashtra is a place where sugar cane production is very high. If you need molasses, ask for someone to get it from Kolhapur. That is how I got mine. For imported molasses scout Mahatma Phule Market at Crawford. It is available in shop No.114, I think.
I forgot to weigh some of the ingredients, but the cup measures should help.
Recipe:Vella payasam, with coconut milk and molasses
Yield:3 cups | 456g
Brown rice [I used ambemohar, a local aromatic, variant from Maharashtra] – 2/3 cups | 56g
Water – Five times the quantity of rice in volume
Coconut milk, first extract – 1/2 cup | 105g
Coconut milk, second extract – 1 cup
Black strap molasses [Kakwi in Marathi] – 2tbsp.
Green cardamom – 6, pod and pound the seeds
Soak rice for half hour. Drain, rinse and cook with five times water in a large vessel. When the rice is well cooked, drain water and rinse rice in cold water to remove starch, and drain in a colander. Set aside.
Heat the second extract of coconut milk with molasses on low flame, stirring all the while. The liquid will curdle on high flame.
When hot add rice and continue cooking for about 5 to ten minutes on low flame.
Remove from heat, add first extract of coconut milk and cardamom powder. Mix well. Serve hot.
Optionally, you may like to fry some cashewnuts and raisins, and add it to the porridge, like I did.
The payasam / porridge will separate into layers when cold, but that does not mean it is spoilt or curdled. Curdling will occur immediately when heat is increased. Do not cook on high heat. Add first extract only after the vessel is removed from heat.