Heirloom Recipes

The Milky-Sweet Rice Pudding That Transports Me to Karachi

March 15, 2017

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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Top Comment:
“Ooooooooh, I love it. Thank you for the memories and recipe. I can't wait to try it.”
— Fresh T.

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.

What recipe sparked your love for cooking? Tell us in the comments below.

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  • Fresh Tomatoes
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  • Sumayya Usmani
    Sumayya Usmani
Sumayya is a food writer and cookery teacher who grew up in Pakistan, but has now found home in Glasgow. Sumayya is passionate about sharing the flavours of her homeland with a view to highlight Pakistani cuisine as a distinct one. The author or two cookbooks: Summers Under The Tamarind Tree (Frances Lincoln) and Mountain Berries and Desert Spice (Frances Lincoln, out April 2017), her writing reminisces about food and memories growing up in Pakistan. She writes for many publications, appears on television, and co-presents BBC Kitchen Cafe weekly, on BBC Radio Scotland.


Fresh T. March 16, 2017
Ooooooooh, I love it. Thank you for the memories and recipe. I can't wait to try it.
Sumayya U. March 16, 2017
thank you! I hope you love it!
Whiteantlers March 15, 2017
Thanks for sharing the memories and this lovely recipe. I'm making a batch this weekend!
Sumayya U. March 16, 2017
thank you! Enjoy!