Sweet taste of India: Traditional desserts

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY traverse the length and breadth of the country to decode the wonderful world of traditional Indian sweets and the stories behind them  

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The story of Indian sweets is as old as its gods. In the Dwapara yuga, the people of Brajbhoomi offered lavish meals to appease Lord Indra for good rainfall. Deeming it a burden on poor farmers, a skeptical Lord Krishna convinced people to stop the practice. This angered Lord Indra who wreaked heavy rains and threatened to destroy the village.

Lord Krishna lifted the Govardhan mountain on his finger for seven days and provided safe shelter to the villagers. Since Krishna used to eat 8 meals a day and this incident left him hungry for a week, as a token of gratitude the villagers prepared 56 types of food (8 for each of the 7 days) for Lord Krishna. Thus the concept of ‘Chappan Bhog’ (56 special items) emerged.

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If chhappan bhog is loved by Lord Krishna, the modak is dear to Lord Ganesha. During Ganesh Chaturthi it is a staple in Maharashtrian households along with puran poli or holige (sweet flatbread with filling of coconut or lentil). Each festival has its typical sweetmeats – kheer during Diwali, gujiya and malpua in Holi, til (sesame) and gud (jaggery) sweets during Sankranti, the disc-shaped ghevar during Teej, thekua for Chhatth puja, kalkals and plum cake during Christmas and sevai and phirni for Eid.

At home, mothers would deftly rustle up sweets during festivals or for sudden guests. Laddus in the north or unde down south, depending on which side of the Vindhyas you stayed, would be fashioned out of besan (gram flour), rava (semolina), ragi (finger millet), peanuts, pori or murmura (puffed rice) and coconut. Halvas would be made out of gajar, moong or suji while kheer or payasa would be stirred out of rice, vermicelli or makhana (puffed lotus seeds). The joy of pilfering sweets on the sly was undeniable, especially during weddings, when sweets were mass-produced in-house.

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India has always been the proverbial land of milk and honey where milk is painstakingly reduced to khoa/mawa or curdled into chhena, the base for most Indian sweets. Whether simmered as rabri or basundi, scraped off in layers as khurchan, shaped into barfis and pedas, frozen as kulfi or made into rasmalai, milk is the bedrock of Indian sweets.

Every season brings to the table its own flavours – from gajak, pinni and hot gajar (carrot) or moong dal halwa in winter across North India to patali gur rosogolla and nolen gur’er sandesh in East India made from palm jaggery. From Mathura and Banaras ka peda to Agra ka petha (made of white pumpkin), each region has its own typical sweets.

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Eastern delights

At Puri’s Jagannath temple in Odisha an elaborate mahaprasad of 56 food items is offered to the Lord. Every day, six sets of offerings are made, spanning different meal hours, including several sukhila (dry sweets). Perhaps Odisha’s most famous export is the rasgulla, with a 700-year-old tradition of being served as bhog to Lakshmi at the Jagannath temple.

As per legend, when Lord Jagannath goes on his annual 9-day sojourn Rath Yatra without her consent, Lakshmi locks the temple gate Jai Vijay Dwar and prevents his convoy from re-entering the sanctum sanctorum. To appease Lakshmi, Jagannath offers her khira mohana, a precursor to the rasgulla.

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At Pahala, a stretch of around 50 shops midway between Cuttack and Bhubaneshwar you find stacks of containers full of cream-hued rasgullas and chhena gaja or deep-fried cottage cheese squares soaked in sugar syrup. Chhena poda, literally ‘burnt cottage cheese’ is a classic Odiya sweet from Nayagarh. It is made of soft chhena with dry fruits dipped in sugar syrup and baked till brown. The chhena jhili from Nimapada is a delightful version of the gulab jamun, Sambalpur’s kalakand is legendary and so is Bikalananda Kar’s rasgulla at Salepur near Cuttack.

Odiya cooks from Puri were much sought after all over East India for their ability to cook food as per Hindu scriptures and norms of purity. Many were employed in Bengal during 19th century and as a result took several dishes with them, including the rasgulla and eventually its Bengali appropriation. The spongy white rasgulla was popularized in present-day West Bengal in 1868 by Kolkata-based confectioner Nobin Chandra Das. In 1930, his son Krishna Chandra Das introduced vacuum packing and canned rasgullas, which took it beyond Kolkata and India. Variants include the slightly larger rajbhog (kesar rasgulla with stuffing of dry fruits and khoa) and kamalabhog (orange flavoured rasgulla).

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In Bengal, mishti or sweets were traditionally prepared by confectioner families called Modaks or Moiras who received wide patronage from zamindars and aristocrats. Often, news of good tidings were accompanied by a platter of sweets, hence the origin of the sandesh, literally ‘message’. Pantua, a Bengali variant of the gulab jamun, was reincarnated by master confectioner Bhim Chandra Nag to commemorate the birthday of Countess Charlotte Canning, wife of Governor-General Charles Canning. It was thus after ‘Lady Canning’ that the ‘ledikeni’ (sic) was named. Many sweets have fascinating origins.

Local folklore contends that a princess from the Krishnanagar royal family was married to a scion of the Burdwan royal family. When she became pregnant, she lost her appetite and refused to eat any food, craving for a particular sweet made in her maternal home instead. She didn’t know its name except that it was made by a lyangcha or ‘lame’ confectioner!

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The said sweet maker was located and sent from Krishnanagar to Burdwan, where he was given lands and settled so he could prepare delicacies for the royal family happily ever after. And thus Saktigarh in Burdwan district emerged as the hub for the lyangcha, an elongated gulab jamun. Another story credits a lame gora sahib who fell in love with the fried sweet of Khudiram Dutta, who named his shop ‘Lyangcha’ Mahal in his honour.

Once a daughter of the prominent Banerjee family of Telenipara in Bhadreswar was married into another zamindar family of Baidyabati. After a month of marriage, it was customary for the groom to visit his in-laws. Wanting to pull his leg, the zamindar called upon famous confectioner Surya Kumar Modak to create a sweetmeat that would befool the groom.

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Modak filled a talsansh (common Bengali dry sweet) with rosewater. When the unsuspecting groom took a bite believing it to be a dry sweet, the rose water dribbled onto his kurta. The ecstatic zamindar named this new sweet jolbhora or ‘filled with water’. Even today, Surya Kumar Modak’s shop in Chandannagar serves the iconic sweet but in delicious variants like choco jolbhora.

In another incident the zamindar told his Moira to create a special sweet. The sweetmaker created a sandesh with rose water and cardamom. When his master did not return by the appointed hour, to prevent the sandesh from getting spoilt, he dunked it in sugar syrup. When the zamindar came back and tried it, he loved the sweet and dubbed it monohora or ‘one that captures the heart’.

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Bihar too has its share of iconic sweets – the peda of Kopariya Ghat, the tilkut from Devghar made of hand-pounded til (sesame), jaggery and khoa, the khaja from Rajgir to balushahi and lavanglata (stapled with a lavanga or clove). Anarsa, made of soaked rice paste and sesame, has regional variations from the arasu pitha of Odisha to the kajaya of Karnataka.

What is gujiya or pidukiya to Biharis is karjikayi to the Kannadigas. In what seems a case of misheard lyrics, balushahi is known down south as badushah and shakarpare as shankar palya. Imarti, the jalebi’s fatter cousin, is locally called Jahangir.

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Northern frontiers

Delhi is the perfect place in North India to set off on a sweet tooth tour through its galis (alleys) – from Old Famous Jalebiwala at Dariba Kalan in Chandni Chowk to Hazarilal Jain Khurchan wale, moong dal halwa at Chaina Ram at Fatehpuri Chowk, the softest gulab jamuns at Kanwarji’s in Parathewale gali and shahi tukda, kheer, phirni and rabri at Kallan Sweets near Jama Masjid. In winter, trays of pinni or atta laddus and gond ke laddu made of edible gum provide delicious fortification against cold weather.

A traditional Punjabi winter delicacy is panjri or dabra, made of dry fruits, whole wheat flour, sugar, edible gum, poppy seeds and fennel. Amritsar’s makhkhan te pede di lassi is no less than a dessert, enriched with pedas of white butter, topped with a crust of malai and served in tall tumblers at Ahuja Milk Bhandaar at Lohagadh Gate and Gyan di lassi near Regent Cinema. Kanhaiya Sweets at Phullonwala Chowk is known for its halwa-pinni and Gurdas Ram Jalebiyan-wale serves the most scrumptious jalebis at Katra Ahluwalia.

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Kashmir has its modur polav or sweet Kashmiri pulao with fried dry fruits and nuts, bakerkhani (layered sweet bread) and gigantic maida puri served with halwa. While driving to the hills of Uttarakhand, travelers stop at Gajraula for ‘thandi kheer’ at Bhajan Tadka dhaba. Further up, Almora is famous for its unusual bal mithai, a brown chocolate-like fudge, made with roasted khoa, coated with white sugar balls. Another Kumaoni delicacy is the singori or singauri, sweetened khoa served in leaf cones of the Malu creeper (Bauhinia vahlii).

In Rajasthan, if Alwar is known for its milk cake and Jodhpur for mawa kachori and makhaniya lassi (best at Mishrilal at Ghanta Ghar), then Jaisalmer is synonymous with Dhanraj Ranmal Bhatia’s panchdhari laddu. Yet, most food discoveries begin in Jaipur – from boondi laddus at Nathulal Mahaveer Prashad to rabdi at Ramchandra Kulfi Bhandar and lassis at Lassiwala and Lakshmi Misthan Bhandar (LMB). Go on a Bazaar & Food Trail with Virasat Experiences to savour the city’s delights like ghewar and imarti. Jaipur Ramdev Restaurant run by Brijmohan serves mithais like rajbhog and kesar bati to disco jamun/rasgulla!

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The churma laddu is a shared legacy with adjoining Gujarat whose signature sweet is the mohanthal (granular besan fudge), a must on all Gujarati thalis. Surati ghari, made of mawa, ghee, sugar, refined flour, gram flour and enriched with dry fruits, is said to have been invented by Devshankar Shukla for Tatya Tope during the 1857 mutiny to energise Indian mutineers. In Kutch, the mawa of Bhirandiyara is made from the milk of buffalos that graze in the Banni grasslands.

In the Hindi heartland of Allahabad and Varanasi, locals love their kalakand and lal peda. Like most pedas, it is made from reduced milk but allowed to brown, giving it its trademark reddish appearance. Loaded with ghee, shaped by hand and dusted with castor sugar and pistachios, it is best enjoyed at Rajbandhu in Kachori gali or near Sankatmochan Temple. Lucknow’s Awadhi cuisine boasts exquisite desserts like nimish (light set cream pudding) and makkhan malai.

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In Madhya Pradesh, the foodie city of Indore has a unique dessert drink called shikanji, a sweet milkshake concocted by Nagori Mishthan Bhandar in Bada Sarafa and popularized by Madhuram Sweets. Since it’s a blend of various ingredients – reduced milk and mattha (buttermilk) enriched with dry fruits and spices like saffron, cardamom, mace and nutmeg, it’s called shikanji (literally, mixture). In Gwalior, Bahadura at Naya Bazar is the place for jalebi and gulab jamun while Shankerlal Halwai’s laddus were made famous by former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Gajak (sesame brittle) is a winter specialty from Morena made of roasted sesame or sometimes peanuts and cashew, with jaggery and ghee. Pick up a pack or two from Ratiram Gajak or Morena Gajak Bhandar. Badkul, Jabalpur’s version of a jalebi, is made of khoya and arrowroot batter. The dark coloured sweet with a spongy texture was invented in 1889 by Harprasad Badkul, after whom it’s named.

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Similar in texture is the thick and chewy Burhanpur jalebi, made of mawa, sometimes bulked up with arrowroot, served hot at Burhanpur Jalebi Centre. Another delicacy from Burhanpur is daraba, made of sugar, semolina and ghee whipped into a fluffy sweet. Sold at Milan Sweets, it is relished during the annual Balaji ka Mela held on the banks of the Tapti.

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Down south

Migration was a key reason behind the dispersal of many sweets across India. In Tamil Nadu, the Tirunelveli Halwa was first prepared by Rajput cooks hired by the zamindar of Chokkampatti, who had tasted something similar in Kashi. Jegan Singh moved to Tirunelveli where he opened a shop and named it Lakshmi Vilas after a relative who sold the halwa on the town’s streets.

Made from wheat milk, sugar and ghee, the halwa has a translucent, light brown appearance. Santhi Sweets at the Central Bus Stand is the best place to buy it. Nearby, a dozen shops bear the same name, but the time-tested way to recognize it is by the crowds! Another local legend is iruttu kadai or ‘dark shop’, named after its dark interiors because of no electricity.

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In early 19th century, when Uttar Pradesh was under the grips of a deadly plague, a few Thakur families moved in search of better prospects from Unnao to Dharwad in North Karnataka. To make ends meet, Ram Ratan Singh Thakur started making pedhas. His grandson Babu Singh Thakur opened a shop that attracted such queues that the area was called ‘Line Bazaar’. Unlike its flat cousins from the north, the Dharwad peda is an irregular round with a grainy texture and a veneer of castor sugar.

While Thakur Peda gave it name, Mishra Peda gave it fame by branching out of Dharwad and making it a household commodity. Belgaum kunda, made from milk, sugar and khowa, was introduced by purohits (Rajasthani cooks) who had migrated from Marwar. Once Gajanan Mithaiwala, better known as Jakku Marwadi, was boiling milk in his kitchen but forgot to switch off the stove. When he returned, the milk had coagulated to which he added khoa and created Belgaum Kunda. Buy this treat from his old shop in Vitthal Dev Galli or Camp Purohit.

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Karnataka has a wealth of signature sweets – the iconic Mysore Pak, Bellary’s ‘cycle’ khova, Gulbarga’s malpuri, karadantu (dry fruit snack enriched with edible gum) from Amingad and Gokak besides godi (wheat) halwa from Bhatkal. Chiroti or peni, a crisp flaky layered puri dusted with castor sugar, is eaten with badam milk.

Belgaum or Belagavi is also known for its mandige or mande, a flaky crepe with a thin filling of ghee, castor sugar and khoa, prepared on an upturned tava and folded like a dosa. Krishnamurti Saralaya in Konwal Gali carries on the legacy of this rare delicacy. Another crepe like sweet dish is the pootharekulu, a traditional sweet from Atreyapuram in East Godavari district. Pootha is ‘coating’ in Telugu and rekulu means ‘sheets’. Wafer thin rice crepes are cooked with ghee, liberally dusted with castor sugar, folded and cut into delectable pieces.

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Neighbouring Kerala is famous for Kozhikode Halwa, a glutinous sweet made of flour, molasses and oil. SM Street is lined with shops selling large multi-coloured stacks with flavours ranging from fig and date to banana. On the streets one also finds dweep unde from Lakshadweep, made from coconut and jaggery and wrapped in leaf. Kerala’s most popular dessert is the rich and caramelized ada pradhaman made from rice, jaggery and coconut milk. Chakka pradhaman is a jackfruit variant while mola ari payasam is a sweet porridge made of bamboo rice, jaggery and coconut milk.

Kerala’s northern tract of Malabar has it own set of sweets, mostly fashioned out of locally available bananas and coconut. Pazham nerchadu are ripe bananas stuffed with coconut and jaggery and fried while the spindle-shaped unnakaya, named after the similar looking silk cotton pod, is mashed bananas with a stuffing of coconut, sugar and raisin, deep-fried till golden brown. Mutta mala (egg garland) is a unique Moplah egg dessert where the whites are steamed into a cardamom-scented cake and the yolk is drizzled into sugar syrup to form lacy necklaces!

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Ramzan feast

In Mumbai, the mile-long stretch of Mohammed Ali Road from Bohri Mohalla to Minara Masjid teems with food stalls during Ramzan selling malpua, phirni, bhandoli (a yellowish malpua with egg) and special sweets. Sutarfeni from Gujarat is a thread-like sweet mixed with milk and eaten at sehri, the pre-dawn meal.

The steamed Kutchi Memon sweet saandal, made of fermented rice, sugar, coconut milk and mawa, looks like sanas and is as soft as cotton. At JJ Jalebi, started in 1947 by Haji Chhote Khan of Kanpur at the JJ Hospital corner, attendants squeeze out dough from a muslin cloth like calligraphy artists to fry dark brown mawa jalebis.

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The whole precinct is dotted with famous sweet shops. Fakhri Sweets was started 75 years ago by Mansoor Ali Dosaji Mithaiwala, who invented the salam pak, a sweet made of gond (gum), mawa and ghee. The shop is still famous for mawa samosa and malai khaja, available in fruit flavours. Suleiman Usman Mithaiwala, who started Zam Zam Sweets as a bakery in 1936, invented the aflatoon with mawa and other secret ingredients. Today his fourth generation has diversified into barfis made of fig, apricot and dry fruits.

Tawakkal Sweets, another fourth-gen shop started by Ismailji Alibhai Mithaiwala has expanded its repertoire beyond boondi and jalebi to contemporary sweets like mango malai and black currant mithai. Maharashtra is also known for orange barfi from Nagpur, mango-flavoured amba barfi and kandi peda from Satara. Modi Sweets and Ladkar’s, started by Mohan Babu Rao Ladkar in 1940, have both been awarded the President’s Medal.

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Inventiveness and adaptability have been twin mantras for any confectioner. And India has readily absorbed all foreign flavours – the ghee-laden sohan halwa made its way across the northwest frontier courtesy the Mughals. Shahi tukda too is Mughal in origin. With the availability of double roti (bread) from bakeries, it evolved into the Hyderabadi double ka meetha.

The ubiquitous kaju katli was created only after the Portuguese introduced the cashew to India, as was the bebinca in Goa. Chettiar traders picked up kavuni arisi from the sticky rice pudding in Myanmar (Burma). Yet, all these flavours have melded into the cultural cauldron to create the sweet taste of India!

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as the cover story on 17 March, 2019 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

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