The World's Oldest Rice Pudding
By Kurma Dasa
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
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 accomodate 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
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
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
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 (optional)
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
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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