“It’s just two-two-two-two,” says Sonya Kharas as she adds two heaping tablespoons of sun-yellow ghee to a heavy enameled pan.
It’s a warm summer day and Kharas is preparing rava for me and explaining the convenient formula behind this magical dessert.
Rava, which in Hindi and Urdu can often just refer to semolina, is the name given to a traditional Parsi dessert that’s as simple as it is delicious.
As the ghee melts into a fragrant slick in the pan, exuding a nutty, sweet aroma, Kharas measures out the other twos: “Two tablespoons of semolina,” she says, scattering the flour broadly over the shimmering ghee. She takes a long pause, slowly toasting the semolina in the hot ghee till it turns a very light golden brown and becomes improbably aromatic, before continuing: “Then two cups of milk, aaand, two tablespoons of sugar.” She screws up her nose as she adds one tablespoon of sugar: “Sometimes I actually add a little less—I think it’s important to taste it. I like it a little less sweet.” A dash of salt and a sprinkle of freshly ground cardamom and then there’s little left to do but wait—and stir.
Like so many of the most delicious home-cooked dishes, the recipe for rava is less a recipe and more a sequence of careful gestures. The rava has to be toasted just so, the heat has to be kept to a painstakingly low flicker to keep the thickening custard from scorching, and the pudding has to be stirred—and stirred, and stirred.
And then stirred some more.
Because it takes so much care and effort, it’s no wonder that it’s often made for birthday breakfasts. What better way to show someone how much you love them? Growing up in Washington, DC, Kharas and her brother were treated to birthday-morning bowls of rava cooked up by their Jewish mother, who learned the ins and outs of Parsi cooking from Kharas’s paternal grandmother, and from a now well-worn copy of 101 Parsi Recipes, a bible of Parsi cooking written by Jeroo Mehta that’s much-gifted to new brides.
The Parsis are members of the Zoroastrian diaspora that fled Greater Iran between the eighth and tenth centuries in the face of the Arab conquest of Persia, eventually settling on the west coast of India in Gujarat and in Sindh in the southeast of Pakistan. Kharas avidly recalls childhood trips to the beach when she visited family in Karachi, talking with eyes wide about the flavors of the chikkoos and mangoes she’d eat when she visited.
Parsi food today is marked as much by its Iranian roots as by its cosmopolitanism and its liberal and ingenious borrowing from local cuisines. Kharas shows me a recipe from Mehta’s book for dhansak, a spice-rich dish of slow-cooked lamb, lentils, rice, and vegetables. Among its ingredients it lists South Indian sambhar powder as one of the components of a cheater’s version of the elaborate dhansak spice mixture that Mehta also includes with the recipe.
Talking about the flavors of Karachi, Kharas pulls out a small, perforated steel vessel—a mold for making paneer, a fresh cow's milk cheese. She recounts her mother’s rigorous efforts to recreate the flavor and texture of the paneer of her husband’s youth. The perfect paneer, Kharas explains, has to be rich, thick, and creamy, not hard and chewy like the kind that’s often sold in stores. She describes the long, arduous process of trying different paneer recipes (higher heat, lower heat, more acid, less acid, salt, no salt, the variables are almost endless). Kharas would join her father as he tasted each batch and weighed in on whether it tasted the way he remembered, making slow progress toward the milky, sweet, gently curdled perfection of his memories.
As we talk, Kharas continues to meditatively draw figure eights in the thickening pudding. How will she know when it’s done? She laughs. “My mom always says that it should reach the consistency of pancake batter, so this,” she says, letting a thick ribbon of pudding drip off her spoon, “is almost ready.”
“Usually you’d chill this and eat it cold, but we’re just going to eat it warm today,” Kharas says, scraping the suede-smooth pudding into a cheerful-looking yellow bowl. She garnishes it with slivered almonds and golden-green Hunza raisins from Pakistan, which she sautés briefly in more ghee before topping the pudding with them.
A flourish of freshly grated nutmeg on top and it’s ready to eat—simple, elegant, infused with memories of places and people near and far, and like all the most delicious things, brought together with care and patience.
You can find the recipe for Sonya Kharas's rava over here.