A Phirni is a North Indian rice pudding or perhaps a blancmange thickened with rice would be a better description. Indian cuisine is well known for the sheer variety of rice pudding (also known as kheer, khiri, payasam, payasa, payesh, etc depending on which part of the country you are in) you can find anywhere. The Phirni is different from the usual rice pudding because though it is made of rice, the grains are not cooked whole. The rice is soaked, ground into a paste and then cooked in sweet milk till it thickens to a pudding consistency.
Phirni was probably brought into India with the Mughal invaders from Persia or thereabouts. The Mughals were famous for their inventive and creative cuisine and the Royal kitchens were famous for the simple and exotic food they created for their kings. Phirni is a still popular dessert served in the North Indian Muslim community during the month long period of Ramzan/ Ramadan.
A well-made Phirni should be creamy without being too sweet and showcase the flavours of rice, milk and a hint of cardamom and roses, and sometimes saffron. Traditionally, Phirni is plain and garnished with chopped/ slivered almonds or pistachios, and served in earthenware pots, which in my opinion is the best way to eat Phirni.
Not only is this dish very easy to make, its also gluten-free, healthy to boot (no added fat) and can be made ahead and chilled. If you should lack the more “exotic” ingredients required to make a “Shahi” (Royal) version, you could just go with rice, milk, sugar and cardamom and still have a delightful dessert on hand.
This version of Phirni uses rose syrup which is a thick sugary syrup made with rose petals. Rose syrup is available in the stress in India. If you can find the right kind of roses, you could try making the syrup yourself, otherwise substitute with rose water. You would need to add a little more sugar and your Phirni would be white.
Gulabi Phirni/ Firni (Rose Flavoured Creamy Indian Rice Pudding)
1/4 cup basmati rice
1 litre (approx. 4 1/3 cups) milk
1/2 cup sugar (increase to taste, especially if using rose water instead of syrup)
3 to 4 tbsp rose syrup
3 pods cardamom, powdered
A few tbsp. slivered pistachios and rose petals, for garnishing
Soak the basmati rice in about 4 tbsp of the water for an hour. Grind this, adding a little milk if necessary, into a very smooth paste. You shouldn’t be able to feel the grittiness of the rice. Take this paste and mix it into 1 cup of the milk, till smooth. Keep this aside.
Put the remaining milk and sugar in a pan and bring it to boil over medium heat, stirring frequently. Add the rose syrup and mix well. Now stir the rice-milk mixture that was kept aside and add to the boiling milk, stirring well continuously to prevent lumps forming.
Turn down the heat and keep stirring until the mixture starts boiling and thickening like a custard. Let it boil/ cook for about 5 minutes while stirring it constantly, until the rice is completely cooked. Turn off the heat and and add the cardamom and mix well.
Let the Phirni cool to room temperature. Stir in occasionally in between so that a skin does not form on top,. Spoon the Phirni into dessert bowls or glasses and refrigerate till ready to serve. Before serving, garnish with slivered pistachios (or almonds if you prefer) and rose petals.
This recipe serves 6 to 8