Poets and writers have called it life’s greatest pleasure. The literature of myriad cultures over the years is awash in paeans to it. I have heard it compared to a fairy tale, a dream-time fantasy, edible love. I have been told it makes the world go around, that life without it is no life at all—and that stressed is dessert spelt backwards.
You understand. This column is about dessert. It is a column I thought I would never write because dessert to me is a far country, someone else’s life, something I never quite understood.
There are four things I have never liked: beer, tea, coffee and dessert. I have struggled through the occasional cup of tea or coffee when I had no choice. I have tried to like beer simply because everyone does, but I do not.
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That brings us to the most controversial of my dislikes. I have never, ever discerned the need for dessert. To me, a good meal is its own pleasure. It does not require something to round it off. Indeed, I believe the taste of a good meal must linger, it must be savoured.
Dessert has always seemed to me a clashing taste, something that rudely ends the flavours that should linger while you ruminate over a meal. I make direct comparisons between what I just ate and dessert—they are not complementary to me. Does a light chocolate mousse compare with a soft rack of lamb? Does a creamy rasmalai compare with a flaky grilled fish? A moist cupcake with a tender pork chop?
I think not.
Desserts are needless—even pointless—distractions in life. This is a truth I have held to be true since I was a snot-nosed boy. For my fifth birthday, my mother organised a pile of marrow bones instead of a birthday cake, and that’s the way it has been since. For my 50th, I dimly recall a birthday cake I accepted on behalf of the rambunctious assembly, but I did not partake.
In more than a decade of writing this column, I have never offered a dessert recipe, despite requests from friends, readers and sundry well-wishers.
So, this, dear reader, is a seminal column because it offers a dessert recipe. It isn’t a dessert you may have heard of, and it may not set the world of dessert lovers—which, I assume, is the entire world—alight but I liked it because it had a certain simplicity, which has always been a theme of my cooking.
At this stage, I must confess that my rigid stand against desserts and anything sweet softened after about 45 years of life. When I was a preteen, I took a brief shine to rasmalai but that ended soon enough. When I say shine, I mean one rasmalai once in six months.
The latest softening began in Delhi when I liked a tiramisu at a restaurant called Baci. I started having it frequently—by that, I mean once in two-three months. About the same time, I also discovered that I like a square inch of Cadbury’s chocolate after a good mutton curry; again, once in three months. The taste did clash but occasionally that was all right.
I have since become partial to a traditional crème brulée, but I average one a year roughly. If you were to ask me which dessert dalliance I most enjoy, I have to say the crème brulée.
But desserts are still ships passing in the night. The reason I was taken with the kai kodbu, a Mangalorean dessert, was because I appreciated its candour. Unlike many other desserts, it appeared revealing in its ingredients and had an affinity to the land it sprang from. Its ingredients are centred on the coconut, which grows in abundance there.
I encountered the kai kodbu last month at a little home-stay nestled in a mango orchard near a beach on the Cauvery river, near a south Karnataka town called Talakadu. It was made by our host, Ashwini, who generously allowed me and my 11-year-old to be her sous chefs. It has a strong cardamom taste you may want to reduce, but there was something earthy in the way it was made and eaten, off a turmeric leaf.
None of this means I have now joined the world of desserts. But I am willing to journey—now and then—to the far country.
ASHWINI’S KAI KODBU
For the rice flour-coconut milk paste
3 cups rice flour
2 cups coconut milk
1 tbsp jaggery
Salt to taste
Add coconut milk to rice flour to get a thick paste. Do not use all. Mix gradually until you get the amount you need. Keep the rest aside. Add jaggery according to the sweetness you desire. Soak for one-two hours after mixing.
For the coconut-jaggery dry mix
2 cups grated fresh coconut
Half to one tsp cardamom powder
Jaggery to taste
Mix jaggery and cardamom powder in the fresh coconut and set aside. Cardamom has a strong aroma, which some like and some don’t, so add cautiously.
4 turmeric or banana leaves, cut in half
Spread out each leaf. Apply rice flour and coconut milk paste on part of the leaf. Then add the dry mix on top. Fold the leaf and steam in an idli steamer for 10-12 minutes.
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. @samar11