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Chettinad black rice payasam (Kavun arisi payasam)

After moving to India I discovered that many varieties of rice are now being revived across the country due to the diligent efforts of some amazing companies like Biobasics and others. These organizations are working closely with farmers to revive lost grains, rice, wheat, millet, and barley and bring back these delicious and nutritious grains to the market.

A payasam is a South Indian milk-based dessert originating from the word "payas" which means milk and is also called kheer in Northern India. According to legend, payasam originated centuries ago when Lord Krishna challenged the king of Ambalapuzha to a game of chess. Krishna said that if he won the king had to put a single grain of rice on the first chess square and double it on every consequent one. Of course, Lord Krishna won and the king realized how much rice he owed. Lord Krishna in his benevolence asked that the king provide payasam to every pilgrim that came to the Ambalapuzha Krishna temple, a tradition that continues to this day.

This black rice was obtained in Assam from the local organic store and is prized for its high level of antioxidants and other minerals. The flavour is earthy and delicious. Black rice that has been endemic to this region has been often referred to as "forbidden rice" as it was reserved only for the tribal leaders and royalty, and not available to the general population. However, we should be grateful these laws are no longer in existence.

This kheer is simple but filled with soft aromas and flavours. the earthiness of the rice is boosted by the sugar and softly scented with cardamom and nuts. The soft texture plays on your palate and makes you crave more. This is an elegant dish, the rice is the main act and one that I enjoyed.

This South Indian cookbook brings to my shelf the unique cuisine of the Chettinad Tamils in South India. This, now popular cuisine, is known to be extremely spicy, complex and distinct. This book is a wonderful collection of recipes that makes this cuisine accessible to us at home.

For more recipes from this cookbook click here.


1 cup black rice, well washed and soaked overnight

6-8 cashew nuts + for garnish

Water, 4 cups

1 teaspoon ground green cardamom pods

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups cream

1 can condensed milk

Sugar, as needed

Add the rice to the water, ground cardamom and salt and bring to a boil. Simmer for 60 minutes till the rice is cooked and very soft. Be careful not to let the rice dry out. Cool.

Grind the rice into a rough slurry. If you like the payasam to have some texture, remove 1/4th of the rice and then grind. Add all the rice back into the pot and add the condensed milk and cream. Bring back to a simmer and cook for 15-20 minutes till you have a payasam that is creamy but still wet.

Taste and adjust cardamom and sugar. You are looking for sweet rice that is not coying with sugar, subtle is the key.

The payasam tends to thicken as it sits, and dilute with milk or water as needed to a thin porridge-like consistency. Serve topped with roasted cashew nuts.

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