Sheer birinj is a classic Afghan comfort food, the sweetness and fragrant aroma of the milk coated soft grains fill you with warmth and satisfaction in every bite. The rose water follows the rule of a little bit of a good thing can go a long way, as the delicate proportions add a hint of sweetness that complement the sweetness of the sugar to create a uniquely delightful dish!
Relying on the fundamental components of a classic Afghan sweet treat, sheer birinj is enjoyed both as a brunch accompaniment as well as a dessert. Sheer birinj directly translates to "Milk rice," as it stands out amongst other rice puddings for being a heavily milk coated rice in contrast to a traditional rice pudding which has more of a runny liquid texture. The slow cooking process wraps the richness of the sweetened milk and cardamom around each grain of rice, such that they slowly puff up nicely and soak in the delectable flavors. The high fat content of whole milk ensures a smooth creamy finish in each bite.
Sheer birinj has been a classic comfort food in my home. My mother often takes care to make it especially in Ramadan* for iftaar**, when cravings run high from a day of fasting, and the delectable warmth of every bite tastes even more filling than ever. Some foods take on a unique quality, beyond the depths of flavors in the bite, their association with certain events and memories laden it with a special status. Sheer birinj has become such a food for me, it is the taste of love and care in each bite, later evolving to a taste of home itself.
I moved away from home at 18 for college, and have lived in several cities since then. The distance from home would be especially difficult during stressful periods of time, particularly when I was unable to visit my family for quite a while. Coming from a loud, loving family, where it was a rarity to experience the unusual sound I discovered was called quiet, the distance felt even greater most especially when I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Flights home to Ohio were expensive, time in between my graduate studies was limited, and stress levels were high. The longing for a connection to that vibrant, noisy, crowded corner of my mother's oversized red sectional in our family room became deeper and the cure was in the closest thing I could whip up to feel at home.
Seated on the plush mattress that served double duty as a couch during the day in my small studio in Cambridge, I used my Blackberry (this was 2010, before smart phones proliferated the market) to call my mother. Diligently note taking her tips on the back of a local pizzeria menu, I made my way down the road to Somerville, the neighboring town where a small grocery store whose floors were covered in sawdust had everything I needed. A bottle of rose water in hand, and a sack of rice in the other, I walked back up the cobblestone sidewalk, taking the three flights of stairs up to my apartment, laying my ingredients down on the tiniest kitchen counter you have ever seen.
I had creatively managed to organize this nook which was not as much of a kitchen as it was a stove in the wall, with an adjacent sink too small to fit a pot into entirely, and a countertop as wide as a dinner plate. Opening the windows to provide a breeze to help aerate the tiny room, the waft of cardamom and rose water combined to bring me a sense of tranquility and peace, cutting through the noise of the bustling city below and honking of cars, taking me to a place far from my humble studio.
Finished cooking at last, I carried a piping hot bowl of sheer birinj down to my mattress/pseudo-couch on the floor, my legs cross legged atop the red and black handwoven Afghan rug I inherited from my uncle, I took a spoonful of the steaming rice towards my mouth. And in that moment the honking cars took on the sounds of my brother's raucous laughter, I could almost feel the dip in my mother's couch where I sat so often, I had worn the fabric a bit. The sound of chirping birds outside took on the sound of the satellite TV station my father would blare at a high volume combined with his snores that were an every day accompaniment. And in that bite, that glorious bite of sweet warmth, was the best feeling of all: it was a bear hug from my mother, her fingers running through my hair and patting my forehead, the smile on her face reaching her eyes as she lovingly held me tight. And in that bowl, I found reprieve, a momentary escape and the closest thing I could manage to a trip home to Ohio. Just two more months of grueling studies, and I was almost there.
Sheer Birinj RECIPE:
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* Ramadan is the month where Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset each day for 30 days
** Iftaar is the name of the meal eaten at sunset to break one's fast for the day