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The Milky-Sweet Rice Pudding That Transports Me to Karachi

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Growing up in Karachi, a city that knows no autumn, where the blazing sun lights the sky relentlessly, few treats I longed for were warm.

The one exception was my maternal grandmother’s, my Nani’s, "firni" rice pudding. I remember her compact airy kitchen well—always vividly scented with the astringency of cardamom and the comfort of milky rice and caramelized sugar.

Pakistani Firni (Ground Rice Pudding with Cardamom, Saffron & Rose Water)
Pakistani Firni (Ground Rice Pudding with Cardamom, Saffron & Rose Water)

Firni is a recipe that found its way from Persia and the Middle East into the ancient kitchens of the Muslim emperors of India and the cuisine of Pakistan. Made with seemingly simple ingredients but adorned with expensive seasonings such as saffron and rose water and topped with nuts and silver leaf, it was a perfect dessert for the royal dining table—and the traditional sweet of festivity and celebration in our part of the world ever since.

To this day, firni is eaten cooled in unglazed terracotta pots in Pakistan. I was probably the only person who ever ate it hot, fresh off my Nani’s vintage white enamel hob. While it’s usually scented with kewra (screw pine water), a heady extract of the bulb of the Pandamus flower, my Nani would scent it only with freshly ground cardamom before topping it with crushed pistachios.

My memory of my Nani cooking firni is imprinted in my mind, but her recipe is vague—all I remember is her artfully grinding a handful of basmati rice finely in her stone mortar and pestle, flavoring the cardamom-infused buffalo milk and khoya (milk solids). And, of course, I remember the result, the comfort I would crave any time of day. It was always sweetened with gur (sugar cane molasses) or brown cane sugar, and, if her trees had been generous that summer, with freshly chopped guava or mango. Much of this recipe is cooked by instinct, as is most Pakistani food.

Though it has been many years since my grandmother’s passing, I think often of her beside that hob, lovingly preparing firni for me, this dessert that ignited my love for cooking. Each time I cook it, the aromas of earthy rice and vibrant cardamom envelope my kitchen and transport me back to happy childhood, bringing to life her flavors through such a simple combination of warm comfort and spice.

Pakistani Firni (Ground Rice Pudding with Cardamom, Saffron & Rose Water)

Pakistani Firni (Ground Rice Pudding with Cardamom, Saffron & Rose Water)

Sumayya Usmani Sumayya Usmani
Makes 10 small bowls
  • 6 tablespoons basmati rice
  • 1 liter whole milk
  • 400 grams sweetened condensed milk
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground green cardamom
  • 1 teaspoon rosewater
  • 1 pinch saffron threads
  • 1 tablespoon each of crushed pistachios and edible rose petals for garnish
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Tags: Heirloom Recipes