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The mithai chronicle

Sweet somethings during the festive season in India

By Anoothi Vishal

An interesting— if lesser known — reason proffered for failure of the uprising of 1857 had to do with, well, sweets! According to the Dihli Urdu Akhbar of August 23, 1857, chronicling those terrible days of murder and loot in Shahjahanabad, the rebels, who had congregated from other regions of the country, became “softened” with the luxuries of the Mughal capital — amongst them sweetmeats from Ghantewala, the halwai shop set up in 1790 that enjoyed the patronage of emperor Bahadur Shah. “The moment they have a round of Chandni Chowk… enjoy the sweetmeats of Ghantawala, they lose all urge to fight and kill the enemy,” the Akhbar apparently reported.

Mishri-mawa, piste ki lauj, patisa, pede, laddoo and others of their ilk may not have found their place under the sun as far as our reading of history goes. But you can’t really dispute the fact that truly good mithai does satiate the soul — destroy aggression, confer peace, promote brotherhood…

Strictly speaking, Diwali is not the time to forgive and forget your rivals. Holi, with its “bura na mano” spirit of bonhomie is better-suited to the purpose. The festival of lights, in fact, is a time when new rivalries get stoked and serious competitiveness lurks around teen patti tables. But a golden syurped-whirl of jalebi, balushahi or sandesh, literally meaning “news”, hopefully good, with molten palm jaggery at its core, may considerably sweeten losing hands and fraying tempers.

Laddoos, made with fine or coarse boondi (pearls of besan) stuck together with sugar or jaggery (though they can be made of many other ingredients too, including winter-special gond) are one of the most ancient Indian sweets. A favourite with Ganesha, these were interchangeable with the term “modak” in ancient texts. Today, of course, the modak, is an entirely different entity—refined flour dumpling, deliciously filled with coconut and khoya, and steamed, but sometimes fried too which makes it a kindred to UP’s gujiya, Bihar’s pedakiya, Maharashtra’s karanji and so on. Truly, a pan-India festive sweet, ironically, influenced by the Turkish tradition of flaky, filo pastry filled with sweetened nuts and dates.

But if you are bored of gujiyas and laddoos as also kheer or halwa (whether it is the nagauri-halwa of Purani Dilli, had with the tiny puris for breakfast, the saffron-rich rava kesari of Karnataka, or indeed katlis of gajjar ka halwa), try making something like lavang latika of eastern UP-Bihar-Bengal, parcels of fried flour (closed with a clove) drenched in syrup. Or, parwal ka meetha from the same belt, arguably the sweetest region in the Subcontinent. Both are do-able recipes that seem to have faded out of gourmet consciousness. Sanjeev Kapoor’s website has decent versions.

For the parval, slit and deseed, prick lightly with a sharp knife, rub in some limewater and let it stand for three-four hours. Meanwhile, blanch almonds and pistachios and cut into slivers. Make a two-string sugar syrup and add the parval to the boiling syrup, allowing them to simmer for 10 minutes. For the stuffing, fry khoya and then add the nuts, finishing with green cardamom powder. Allow it to cool and stuff each parval with this mix. Serve chilled.

You can make the shahi tukda, a nawabi special from Lucknow, where bread (it used to be pieces of the sheermal or taftan before sliced bread arrived in British-India) is first fried, then cooked in milk and finally drenched in sugar syrup, before being topped with rabdi, or thickened milk. If you are adventurous and want to trick your guests, you can learn to make lehsun ki kheer, another elusive, old-time delicacy, where blanched garlic is substituted for blanched almonds in a thickened milk-rabdi concoction, so that you can never make out the garlic.

You can serve shrikhand made from simple hung curd (or amrakhand, made by mixing mango puree into the curd) in like readymade tart shells, or layer your cheese cake with it, just as you can alter the base of the latter, using anything from crumbled doda barfi to tightly-packed fine boondi like some creative chefs do in swish restaurants.

But my own Diwali cooking is going to involve the lauj. If the barfi is commonplace, lauj is elegant, exclusive and unsullied by khoya, that bane of Indian mithai. And while there are the super-rich badam and pista lauj, lauki ki lauj is a dying art indeed. Made by boiling thickly-grated bottle-gourd in milk, and mixing in sugar, before setting this on a greased tray and cutting out squares or diamonds, the trick to this deceptively simple sweet, that the biggest of halwais are unable to make today, lies in the proportion of milk and gourd used. A recipe I have stumbled on to suggests using 1.5 cups of grated lauki to 2 cups of milk. A cheat’s way would be to simply crumble some bazaar-bough kalakand (a milk sweet as opposed to khoya sweet) into the boiled gourd but there is no sweet sweeter than wrought by the sweat of your brow!

Did you know?
1. No mention of Indian mithai is complete without talking of Bengali sweets. While sweets like khaja, modak, jilebi (jalebi), malpo (malpua), and sandesh (made from khoya) were known from earlier times and find a mention in even 16th century literature like the Chandimangala from the region, the real breakthrough as far as sweet-making in Bengal goes came in with the Portuguese, who settled near Hughli and liked cottage cheese. Bengali sweetmakers thus discovered “chhana” and started using it in imaginative ways.

2. The rasgulla was born in 1862, when 22-year-old Nobin Chandra Das created it from spongy chhana soaked in sugar syrup. His son Krishna Chandra Das created the rasmalai by flattening the patty and soaking it in sweetened milk. He started selling these on a large commercial scale under his firm KC Das and Co.

3. Kheer comes from the old Sanskrit word Kshir. The payasam of southern India and payesh of Bengal all belong to this genre of milk-sweets, which are fairly ancient in the Subcontinent and involve use of not just rice and grain but vermicelli, lotus seeds and nuts.

4. Sitamarhi in Bihar could well be the surprise mithai capital of India. It apparently supplies most of the halwais to sweet shops in Kolkata. Other famous mithai towns include Kozhikode that used to have an entire ‘Mithai Theravu or sweet street (now overrun by other shops). A speciality was a special sweet halwa made from bananas.

(the article appeared in the Economic Times on Sunday in October 2011)

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