Indian Phirni and Skakkarpare are often enjoyed at the Indian Festival of Lights, Diwali.
This year October brings one of the most important festivals in the Hindu lunar calendar: Diwali. Diwali, or Deepavali, is a five day celebration for Hindus all over the world. The festival spiritually signifies the victory of hope, light, goodness and knowledge over their opposites—despair, darkness, evil and ignorance. Over the five festive days, families and communities across the Hindu world come together to celebrate the convivial holiday.
Interestingly though, Diwali isn't just a festival for Hindus. Jains, Sikhs and the Newar Buddhists of Nepal all celebrate Diwali as well, though with some variations. The religious tones of Diwali celebrations do vary from religion to religion, which we won't get into here, but the festive feeling runs through them all. Gift giving, gestures of peace, feasting, designing intricate rangoli (a South Asian decorative art), taking part in melas (a fair or community gathering) and shopping for new clothes are all integral to the Diwali experience.
In observing Diwali night, the third day of the festival, Hindus will often dress in their best attire, light diyas (lamps and candles) in and around their homes, give prayers (puja) to Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth and prosperity), watch fireworks and then feast. The feast is important in a Diwali celebration as it is a symbol of generosity and prosperity shared amongst family and friends. And while typically feasts will have savory dishes at their core, for many, Diwali is all about the sweet snacks known as mithai.
The term Mithai encompasses any and all sweet dishes from the Indian Subcontinent; this includes India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Thanks to this diversity within South Asia and the spread of South Asian peoples throughout the world, the variety of mithai for Diwali truly knows no bounds. Regionalism in Indian cuisine shows itself even among mithai, with the innumerable subcategories and variations on common recipes. Categories like burfi, kheer/payasam, kesari, ladoos, and halwa serve as the templates for regional and individual interpretation. Specific regional dishes, like gulab jamun, jalebi, and panjiri from the north or chomchom, sandesh and rasgulla from Bengal, illustrate the unique perspectives and originality of the cooks and cultures. The two dishes we will be focusing upon in this article are badam phirni and shakkarpare.
Badam phirni is a variation on the classic Indian sweet rice pudding known as kheer. Kheer, and all its variants, holds a special place at the festive table across South Asia. No matter one's religion, kheer is integral to any occasion, be it Diwali, Eid, weddings, birthdays or the like. Kheer has its roots in ancient Indian culinary tradition and has persisted throughout the centuries due to the availability of its main ingredients (rice and milk), and the ease of preparation. Badam phirni utilizes ground rice (thus making it a phirni) and almond meal as thickening agents. This style of kheer is thought to have originated in Persia, illustrating the historical culinary link between Northern India and Central Asia.
The second featured recipe, shakkarpare, is a snack popular in Northern and Western India, in particular in Gujarat and Maharashtra. Shakkarpare is a versatile fried snack that, depending on the intent, can be savory, spicy or sweet. The simple dough is formed into diamonds and then fried in ghee until perfectly crisp. Two variants include Maharashtrian (where sugar is included in the dough) and Rajasthani (where a sugar syrup coats the cookies). The following recipe outlines the Rajasthani version.
Badam Phrini Ingedients:
- ¼ cup basmati rice (ground)
- 1 quart milk
- ¾ cup sugar
- 18 almonds, blanched and sliced
- 6 green cardamoms shelled and ground, or 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 10 strands saffron
- 1/8 teaspoon rose water (optional)
For the ground rice:
- Rinse the basmati rice three times in water, until rinsing water is no longer cloudy and excess starch is removed. Then drain and place onto a cookie sheet or plate to dry.
- Once dry, grind the rice in a coffee grinder or a mortar and pestle until the texture resembles fine semolina flour.
For the Phrini:
- Heat the milk in a 2 quart sauce pan until warm. Once warm remove one tablespoon of milk and set aside.
- Add saffron strands to the reserved tablespoon of milk and allow the saffron to bloom.
- Bring the milk in the pan to a boil. Once boiling, stir in the sugar and ground rice. Lower the flame to medium-low and cook the rice, stirring occasionally to prevent lumps.
- With a mortar and pestle, grind half of the almonds into a paste, adding some of the milk to create a smooth paste.
- Once the rice is nearly done, stir in the sliced almonds, cardamom powder and saffron infused milk. Reserve some of the almonds for garnish.
- Continue cooking for 5-6 minutes, or until the mixture is thickened to a custard-like consistency. The total cooking time should be somewhere around 25 minutes after the rice was added. At this point, remove from the flame and add rose water, if using.
- Portion the phrini into serving bowls. Allow the phrini to cool and refrigerate until chilled and ready to serve.
- Serve garnished with saffron threads and some reserved sliced almonds.
- 2 cups flour, mixed whole wheat and all-purpose (3-1 ratio)
- 2-3 tablespoons ghee, room temperature
- ½ cup (as needed) water
- 1 teaspoon ground fennel seeds (optional)
- 1 cup sugar
- ½ cup water
- 3-4 saffron threads (optional)
- Oil or ghee for deep frying
- Place the flour mixture in a non-reactive mixing bowl. Add the room temperature ghee and mix into the flour using your fingertips. The mixture should be well incorporated.
- Next add water gradually, mixing until a semi-soft dough is formed. Depending on the flour used, the ratio of flour to water will be different. Regardless, the dough should not be sticky.
- Divide the dough into three equal sized balls and roll them into circles, 7-8 inches in diameter.
- Using a sharp paring knife cut the dough perpendicularly in order to form small diamond or square shapes.
- Heat frying oil in a large pot or wok, over medium heat, to around 350-375 degrees Fahrenheit. Ensure that the oil level is not very high. The frying does not require very much oil due to the size of the shakkarpare.
- Test the temperature of the oil by adding a small piece of scrap dough. The dough should float to the surface fairly quickly. If it sits on the bottom of the pot, the oil is not hot enough.
- Carefully add the raw shakkerpare to the hot oil. Do not overcrowd the pot, as this will diminish the quality of the fry. Each piece should have a small amount of room to move.
- When the shakkarpare begin to turn golden brown, flip the pieces using a slotted spoon or spatula. Continue frying and flipping until the individual pieces are a deep golden brown.
- Once desired color has been achieved removed the shakkarpare from the oil and allow to drain on a paper towel. Repeat the process until all the dough has been fried.
- Add the sugar and water to a pan and heat over a low flame until the sugar dissolves.
- Continue cooking until the mixture becomes sticky. At this point, add the saffron if using. Simmer until the sugar syrup has reached a 2-3 thread consistency. It should take roughly 10-15 minutes on medium heat. See the note for how to check this.
NOTE: To check the syrup for proper consistency, take some of the hot syrup from the pot using a spoon and allow it to cool slightly. Take a small portion of the cooled syrup between your index finger and thumb, press and a separate your fingers. As they pull apart, two or three "threads" of syrup should connect the fingers.
Recipe and Photo by Liam Fox
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