Puddings are among South India’s many culinary treasures that are practically unknown to the rest of India, let alone the western world. You will never find most of them on an Indian restaurant menu; the only variety of paayasam you will find in a restaurant in the United States is gheer, the North Indian rice pudding. A few restaurants may also serve semiya paayasam.
These puddings are made with either rice, tropical fruit, or dal and cooked in milk or coconut milk. The velvety-smooth homemade tropical fruit jams and coconut milk impart a delicately sweet creaminess to the fruit-based paayasams. The creaminess of the puddings is accented with toasted coconut, raisins, and cashews. Our jams of sweetened, preserved tropical fruit require no hot-water baths or sterilized jars—just ripe fruit, ghee (preferably homemade), brown sugar, and less than an hour in the kitchen.
The quality of ingredients always makes a great difference in the end product; the rice used for paayasam is no different. Back home, hand-pounded unakkalari, the aristocrat of rice varieties, is used for making paayasam. But like all true aristocrats, it is scarce, and I believe it is never exported abroad. It has a delicate flavor and a consistency that has just the right cling, and it cooks into a perfect paayasam. The clinging consistency of the paayasam depends on the starchiness of the rice. The rice should possess just enough starch to cling in cooking, but not too much to become gummy.
The authentic pot for cooking paayasam is the uruli, a heavy and shallow bell-metal pan with a curved interior. A heavy pot that transmits consistent, even heat is a perfect substitute. Do not use parboiled rice for paayasam; those grains always stay separate. In the absence of the real stuff, medium-grain or long-grain white rice is the preferred substitute.