The World’s Oldest Rice Pudding

By Kurma Dasa

The Jagannatha Temple in Puri, OrissaThere comes a time in every writer’s life for an office cleanup. A couple of weeks ago I took the plunge. Hoping to discover a few long-forgotten bits and pieces in the process, I sorted through twenty-six years of accumulated paperwork and files. I wasn’t disappointed.

I knew I had many vegetarian recipes stored away, but the final count of over 3000 was indeed a pleasant surprise. Inside one dusty box, I found a collection of very old recipes that I had kept aside, perhaps for some future cookbook. I dug up a recipe for a hundred-year-old apple pie (actually the recipe was a hundred years old, not the pie), and a medieval Swedish cream fudge.

But the recipe that made the two-day cleanup really worthwhile was a 2000 year-old recipe for rice pudding from an old Indian temple kitchen. Yamuna Devi, a friend and celebrated cooking writer had discovered the recipe on one of her numerous trips to the subcontinent, and had written some notes to accompany the recipe.
Here’s an excerpt from what she had to say:

“Of all the world’s exceptional kitchens, perhaps none are as grand as the kitchen compound of the Jagannatha Temple in Puri, Orissa, that basks on India’s eastern seaboard adjoining the Bay of Bengal.

The present temple of Jagannatha was constructed by King Ananga Bhima. Historians say this temple was constructed at least two thousand years ago. Awesome and gigantic, the Jagannatha Temple kitchen reflects centuries, if not millenia, of culinary tradition.

Without electricity or machines, a legion of skilled chefs work under oil lamps over open wood fires. Every day since the temple was inaugurated over twenty centuries ago, the temple chefs have prepared more than one hundred different vegetarian dishes in enormous quantities to be offered to the temple Deities, and then distributed as prasadam, sanctified food. The kitchen runs so efficiently that given only one day’s notice, the chefs can prepare a full meal for ten thousand guests at a sitting.

The kitchen compound is located several feet above and to the left of the temple’s main gate, called the Simha-dvara, or Lion Gate, and covers roughly one acre. The kitchen is divided into nine sections, two of them a little more than 2,500 square feet each, the other seven slightly smaller.

The kitchen houses an astounding 752 wood-burning clay stoves, called chulas, each about three feet square and four feet high. To accommodate various sizes of pots, small clay knobs are judiciously placed at intervals on the stove’s surface for support. A circle of five jug-shaped earthen pots rest directly on the stove’s surface, kept in place with the clay knobs. Three more pots go in the open spaces above the pots to form a second layer, and one more pot goes in the centre on top, forming a nine-pot pyramid. In this way, all nine pots receive lickings of heat and smoke from the wood fires below.

Some cooking pots, also made of unfired clay, are shallow and wide, resembling Spanish Paella pans or French saute pans. As the food cooks in the pots, their walls become very hot. The pots provide amazing heat retention – food stored in them stays piping hot for up to four or five hours – and tastes exceptionally delicious.

One thousand men are employed in the kitchen every day. Five hundred executive chefs, called swaras, are the only ones actually allowed to cook on the stoves. Three hundred kitchen assistants, called jogunias, assist the swaras by lighting the fires, fetching water from temple wells, washing and cleaning the new earthen cooking pots before use, and finally filling the pots with ingredients. The other two hundred assistants , called tunias, wash the cart-loads of locally grown vegetables, such as the many varieties of leafy greens, tubers, squashes, melons, green chilies, ginger and fresh coconuts. The tunias also cut the vegetables, grate the fresh coconuts into powder, and stone-grind the herbs, chilies, ginger, and dozens of spice blends. All members of the kitchen staff begin training at age twelve. They serve for life, or until they become too old to perform their duties.

The one hundred different dishes prepared daily fall into two categories, called pakka and sukka. Pakka foods are those which are boiled, such as dals, soups, stews, rice, kiccharis, and all vegetable dishes. Sukka, or dry foods, include cookies, biscuits, sweetmeats, pastries, and confections.

As with the fruits and vegetables selected for use in the Jagannatha kitchens, the standard for spices has also remained constant for two thousand years. Only locally grown spices are used, and these include mace, cumin, fennel, nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, mustard seed, and black cumin.

Although non-Hindus are strictly forbidden from entering the Jagannatha Temple or it’s kitchens, visitors to Jagannatha Puri’s bustling markets can purchase a huge variety of temple kitchen prasadam for a small price, some still hot and in it’s original clay cooking pots.”

Not long after rediscovering the recipe, I cooked the rice pudding, and I must say it was delicious. Here then is the original recipe for bhat payasa, the rich rice pudding cooked daily at the Jagannatha Temple kitchen. This recipe has not changed in two thousand years.

2 tablespoons ghee or unsalted butter
3/4 cup long grained rice, washed and dried
1/2 bay leaf
2 litres milk
1/2 cup ground rock sugar, or raw sugar
1/4 cup currants
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom seeds
one pin-head quantity of pure cooking camphor
1 tablespoon toasted nuts for garnish

Heat the ghee or butter in a heavy pot over medium heat, and toast the rice for a minute.

Add the bay leaf and milk. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until reduced to half it’s original volume.

Add the sweetener, currants, and cardamom, and simmer the mixture until it reaches one fourth of it’s original volume, and is thick and creamy.

Stir in the optional camphor, and cool to room temperature, or refrigerate until chilled.

Serve garnished with the toasted nuts. Alternatively, for an untraditional touch, top with a spoonful of pureed sweetened raspberies, strawberries, or red currants.

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Posted in Entrees.