To me, the cooking of shemai is forever associated with new beginnings. Like a magical recipe out of a fairy tale, shemai has been used by my family for generations to celebrate the commencement of a fresh new chapter. In every case, the shemai is personally cooked by a loved one and is a special dessert meant to mark an important occasion to wish success and happiness for the lucky person.
My first memory of shemai occurred when I was about five years old. We were living in Bangladesh at that time, having just returned from the United States where my father had been studying. With memories of burnt orange foliage and fluffy, white snowflakes still fresh in my mind, the hot humid breezes softly blowing through trees laded with fragrant mango and jackfruit made everything feel wonderfully exotic. My grandparents, who had both lived through and been educated in British India spoke to me with clipped british accents and I crowed with delight at the funny way in which they spoke. I learned that the Bengali word for grandmother was “Nanu” and grandfather was “Dadu.” In this exciting new world, where the possibility of making friends with a wild monkey or baby tiger seemed very real, I was keenly aware that something terrible had happened. A civil war had recently ended and reports confirmed that my youngest uncle had died in action. Nanu’s grief knew no bounds.
In the middle of this heartbreak, my beautiful young aunt announced that she was pregnant with her second child. The news of the baby sent tremors of gladness throughout our family and most importantly, roused Nanu into action. Like an all-powerful dictator, she shouted directions for the preparations of the baby shower and suddenly the house sang with joy. Flowers from the garden filled the vases and keys to cupboards were searched and found so that the best china could be used. The shemai smelled heavenly and my mouth watered as I watched Nanu carefully ladle it into an intricately engraved silver dish. Generously, she gave me a small saucer of hot shemai to try. I had no words. It was heavenly.
At the party, my mother explained that each person would go to my aunt and feed her a little shemai with the silver spoon…and while feeding her, they would make a wish for the baby.
Nothing else needed to be said – I immediately understood the whole point of the ceremony.
When it was my turn I noticed that everyone was wishing for a boy. I immediately wished for a girl. In case you are wondering, the baby was born a boy. I loved my little cousin from the first moment that I saw him and to this day, he has a very special place in my heart.
Later when I got married, shemai would make an appearance again. My mother cooked a pot of shemai and each member of my family and friends fed me a spoonful to wish me well. Lately, I have found reasons to cook it again and again because I think it brings me good luck…there is something irresistible about the cool, silky strands of roasted vermicelli suspended in rose infused cream that makes my heart soar and my taste buds sing.
My recipe for shemai is an adaptation of my mother’s version. At its very essence the recipe is made up of three core ingredients – milk, sugar and roasted vermicelli. In case you are wondering – roasted vermicelli is easily available at any Indian store. In my mother’s time, milk was heated over a stove and slowly evaporated until about a third of it had boiled off. Sugar and the vermicelli was then added to complete the basic dish. Modifications included adding either cardamon or rose water to the milk in addition to garnishing the dish with raisins and nuts. The problem with the old recipe was that the milk had to be stirred constantly at just the right temperature to ensure that it did not burn. This tedious, manual step is completely eliminated in my version, by the use of evaporated milk, which is essentially the same thing. In my recipe, the evaporated milk is further enhanced with a little whole milk and condensed milk to achieve the correct consistency and sweetness. Additionally, I add a generous amount of cranberries, raisins, sliced almonds and crushed pistachio inspired by the style of Mughal cuisine. While many prefer to infuse the cream with cardamon, I prefer to use a little rose water, because I think it gives the dish a particularly refreshing taste. In addition to being tasty and a great conversation starter, the recipe takes less than a half time to complete.
I really hope you enjoy creating and trying this dish – I would love to hear your comments below!
Shemai - Creamy Vermicelli in Sweet Rose Infused Cream
- 1 quart whole milk
- 1 1/4 cups sweetened condensed milk
- 4 1/2 cups evaporated milk
- 5 ounces roasted vermicelli wheat
- 1/2 cup raisins
- 1/2 cup slivered almonds
- 3/4 cup dried cranberries
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1 tsp rose water
- 1/4 cup pistachios finely chopped, unsalted
- Add milk, evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk into a saucepan and bring to a boil. As the milk gets closer to the boiling point, stir vigorously with a whisk from time to time to ensure that the milk does not burn at the bottom of the pan and the three types of milk is evenly distributed
- Once the milk boils, add the vermicelli and stir as necessary so that the vermicelli can cook - about 2-3 minutes. The vermicelli should not be broken into small pieces - keep the strands as long as possible as some strands will break naturally during the cooking process. The milk will stop boiling when the vermicelli is added.
- Once the milk boils again add the raisins, cranberries and slivered almonds. Cook for another 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure that the mixture is completely cooked through and reaches a creamy consistency through evaporation.
- Once the mixture looks quite creamy, add the heavy cream and rose water and transfer immediately to a serving dish to cool. After 1-2 minutes garnish the dish with the finely chopped pistachio nuts. The shemai can be eaten warm once it has set a little - about a half hour and is considered best after having been chilled for at least 3 hours in the refridgerator.
If you purchase vermicelli which is not roasted, you will need to fry the vermicelli first with a little ghee, otherwise the vermicelli will melt into the cream.
Can be made 1-2 days before a party.