Over years I have been researching and writing about Indian food I would periodically come across reference to a curious confection called nimish, particularly in historical or memoir material about food in the Avadh (Lucknow) region. The writer in question inevitably rhapsodised about this dish, a subtly sweet ‘lighter than air’ milk based foam, and described the essential environmental conditions for its production, yet never fully explicated it. My pieced together understanding of its production was that an earthen vessel of milk was left out on a lawn or terrace on moonlit winter’s and by morning the overnight dew had magically transformed the milk it into a whimsical froth, solid enough to hold in soft peaks when scooped up but that this form was inherent instability. If the nimish was not eaten within the early hours of the day it would collapse. Exact ingredients, technique and the chemistry that allowed this foam to form were never revealed. I was curious about nimish however the unusual combination of conditions required for its production, as I understood these from my readings, made me think my chances of encountering this dish were small.
One of my most rewarding field research methods is to wander at random through the bazaars and lanes of Indian cities keeping a keen eye out for food ‘finds’. This was just what I was doing one winter’s day in Lucknow when I spotted a throng of vendors outside Akbari Gate all standing behind identical conical glass cases containing what looked like a captured cloud. I felt a rush of excitement: was this the ethereal nimish I had read about?
I inquired of a vendor: “nimish hai?”. He responded with that distinctive Indian gesture of moving his head from side to side: an ambiguous movement that I chose to interpret in the affirmative. I usually try to determine a more precise meaning of this non-committal waggle but on this occasion my heightened expectation about the mysterious nimish overrode my tenacity. (My Australian accent debilitates the pronunciation of my limited Hindi vocabulary and people often do not understand me causing me to feel frustrated as know I am using the right word/s and it can be time consuming to persist with the process).
At the first mouthful of my purchased portion I thought: “this is more like sweet whipped cream, much heavier than a whimsical milk froth would be”. I also wondered how these vendors could be selling something in the middle of the day that was reportedly so fragile that it had to be eaten before sunrise. None-the-less I pushed my doubts aside and decided that what I had eaten was nimish.
I described this experience in the draft manuscript for The Penguin Food Guide to India. My editor came back to me with a query. She had spent many winters in Lucknow as a child and recalled eating a dish identical to the one I described as nimish, however she knew it as malai makkhan. This term translates as ‘cream butter’ and indeed this was a better description of the substantive dish I had sampled. I investigated. I learnt that malai makkhan is made by whipping unsalted butter to a frothy cream, sweetening it with sugar and flavouring it with various combinations of saffron, cardamom, pistachio and rosewater, and discovered that the term nimish was used flexibly and was sometimes used to describe what was actually malai makkhan. So had I eaten nimish or malai makkhan?
Another year and I am in Varanasi wandering the meandering alleys and bustling markets of this ancient city.. A large karahi (iron cooking pot) sitting on the ledge of a small non-descript stall half filled with golden foam sprinkled with finely chopped pistachio nuts catches my eye. I inquire of the vendor: “Nimish hai?. He responds with an unquestionably affirmative “Hanji”. I eagerly buy a plateful. One mouthful affirms it as the ethereal concoction I had read about: a light touch of sweetness before its enigmatic body melted on the tongue trailing behind it a subtle memory of rosewater, pistachio and saffron. I feel assured now that I can pronounce my Lucknow experience as malai makkhan.
I‘ve learnt how to make nimish. Fresh milk is mixed with a small amount of cream and a dose of cream tartar and left overnight in the refrigerator (dew and moonlight can be dispensed with it seems!). In the morning sugar and rosewater are added to the mixture, which is beaten/whisked until foam forms. This is scooped off and collected in a separate bowl. The beating and scooping continues until all the milk is used up, a process that can take several hours. The acidic cream of tartar denatures the protein in the milk allowing it to ‘hold up’ as foam. An older practice is to add a piece of cuttlefish to the milk to catalyze the same chemical process. Given the lengthy process of making nimish it is not surprising to find most recipes of that name are based on whipped cream such as this one from Rick Stein.
It seems that nimish had been close at hand when I lived in Delhi without my knowing it. In the capital it is called daulat ki chaat and is sold by vendors in Old Delhi over a few weeks in winter. This set me pondering why I had not seen it during my field explorations of that part of the city and I remembered that I had done most of my research there in spring and summer. While I may have missed (thus far) enjoying a plate of daulat ki chaat I rejoice that seasonal food specialties are still to be found all over India. In Australia we can buy Christmas cake and pudding all year round stripping any specialness out of these once seasonal items.
If you fancy trying to make nimish/daulat ki chaat I recommend you use the recipe from Priti Narain’s classic book The Delhi Cookbook that Pamela Timms has reproduced in this post .