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Dessert Persons: Payesh, women in the kitchen

April 21, 2023

We ended up on Bowdoin Milk Spotters. We should have known, carrying our carton of milk, bouquet of roses, box of rice and carton of eggs to Thorne for some post-Hannaford dinner. This intriguing assortment of ingredients was to make another recommended dessert: payesh, a Bengali rice pudding. At midnight, my roommate Aniqa stirred thick milk with rice over low heat for three hours, infusing the rice with aromatic spices and creating the perfectly creamy texture. The following day, we plucked, washed and cut up rose petals to sprinkle atop the payesh for a gorgeous flare of color, along with chopped dates, pistachios and cashews.

The history of payesh is as rich as it is sweet. As far as the myth goes, payesh is believed to have originated in the temple of a prince in Orissa 2000 years ago when he demonstrated the solution to an architectural problem by dropping rice balls into sweetened milk. Sujata offered payesh to the emaciated Buddha after he achieved enlightenment under a bodhi tree, ending Buddha’s six years of asceticism.

Now, payesh is a staple dessert of numerous auspicious occasions within Bengali culture. Prior to giving birth, mothers may eat payesh on “saadh,” a ceremony whose purpose is to satiate their food cravings. After the baby is born, the ceremony of “Annaprasan” witnesses the baby eating solid food, most importantly payesh, for the first time. And on their birthday, payesh will most certainly be served.

A few generations back, serving payesh was a solemn and intricate process, similar to the Japanese tea ceremony. The timing of when the payesh was poured and into what size bowls was determined by how the texture of the payesh would cool. The utensil one would use to eat payesh was dependent on their status within the family. A “jaam bati,” a deep bowl with high edges was meant for the “karta,” the head of the family. Smaller bowls or round oblong plates would be used by children.

But there was no specific utensil or bowls for the women. Instead, the women were to share the payesh from a large, communal bowl together. However, there was a treat unique to this expectation. The big bowl caused an accumulation of “chaachi,” the crust along the sides of the pan where the payesh has thickened and dried. Women would scrape the sides down with a sharp ladle to eat the sweet, crunchy bits.

This was the first week where we only had girls sign up for Dessert Persons. We listened as Megh, who recommended the dish, talked about how payesh is her grandfather’s favorite dessert, as well as how deeply rooted the dish is within the tradition of her family. As we shared stories and got to know one another, I felt a warmness bloom within me that we could create such an intimate and gentle space for women to be with fellow women, to freely share our experiences and express ourselves.

Women in the kitchen has long been upheld as the traditional expectation within the nuclear family. It is not uncommon in popular media for the kitchen to be described as not just a women’s domain but the center of gossip, where rumors originate and drama unfolds. While men sit on the couch and watch sports and talk about important things, such as business and work and money, women passively stir pots and cut vegetables while engaging in idle chatter, complaint or vanity.

There have been moments where I’ve caught myself thinking that the kitchen feels a little too familiar, a little too much like home. On multiple occasions have I had men demand me to cook for them, as if it’s owed, because they know I enjoy it. At what point did the scale tip from appreciating my cooking as one who likes to cook shift into expecting my cooking because it’s what I’m meant to be good at? And why should I feel as if I need to hide my passion, or suppress it, so much so that I subconsciously defined my value as a woman by how successful I was in escaping the stereotypes laid upon women?

Perhaps I was scared that I would be offered no unique utensil. That I wouldn’t have my own bowl. But I realized through the previous Dessert Persons event that what I enjoy most is the communal bowl. I like scraping the sides and I like eating the crunchy bits. Because to me, those parts are the sweetest. And they come with the best company.

I know that I deserve a place at the table and that there will be days where I am served payesh, and I will savor it. But the days I love most are the ones where I am serving because I am someone who loves to cook and someone who loves to feed those that I love. That’s the spirit of payesh.


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