Where do I begin? To tell the story of how great the food of this land can be. The love of sweets that imbues India’s culinary history… it fills my heart, with many special things.
While the debate continues to rage about whether or not air travel was common in Vedic times, one thing is certain. From around 500 BC onwards, Indians were the first to refine sugar and just a couple of centuries on, we were processing five different varieties.
So the next time your snooty roommate at Yale is holding forth about Western technology, you could skewer him with this nugget. While he is frantically Googling to prove you wrong, coldly inform him that candy and sugar have Sanskrit roots. Given the vast quantities of sugar consumed in the West, all we needed to do was hold on to the patent; we could have enslaved most of the US and grumbled about how Trump’s ancestors were lazy.
Mithai is perhaps the most intrinsic part of our culture, history and tradition: even the most deprived among us will carry the cherished memory of a jalebi, modak or barfi being secretly pushed into our mouths by a loving grandmother during a festival.
I don’t have the exact statistics but the nerdy element can back me up on this: there is no other country on the planet where the range of sweetmeats is so magnificent, so varied and so invested with meaning and significance. Given this background, it is perhaps hardly surprising that India is the largest consumer of sugar in the world at 26 million tonnes per annum; to put that number in perspective China uses 16 MT, do the math, dude.
The ingredients used in our sweets range from the mundane (milk) to the exotic (saffron) to staples such as wheat, paneer, sago and rice. Kulfi calls for churning and freezing, jalebis for frying and the taste of a good Mysore pak is dependent on the Imarti or the roasting process.
As a child returning home from boarding school in Mt Abu, one of my significant memories is the eagerly awaited halt at Abu Road for jalebis with rabdi at Sharmaji’s: the crisp latticework of the jalebi set off perfectly by the luxuriant creamy sweetness of the rabdi was the perfect blanket for the winter chill.
According to local legend, recovering opium addicts were taken to Sharmaji’s as part of their recovery programme, go figure. Brings a new meaning to hash brownies… The manufacture, distribution and consumption of sweets is inextricably interwoven into the fabric of our daily lives, whether it be elections, weddings, exam results, births, engagements or any auspicious moment. Notice how even a birthday cake-cutting ceremony inevitably segues into a laddu-sharing moment with the first slice of cake shared hand-to-mouth with one’s near and dear. This could have something to do with the age-old belief, “Shubh kam se pehle kuch meetha kha lena chahiye’: begin auspicious work with something sweet. Ironically, perhaps the best known Indian sweet, the gulab jamun was introduced by the Mughals and was originally known as Luqmat-al kadi.
Shahi tukda, that brilliant combination of saffron, cream and bread was invented thanks to a cost-cutting Arabic method of re-using stale bread. Mysore Pak, made of ghee, sugar and besan was the brainchild of one of the Palace cooks and the Maharaja enjoyed it so much that he ordered the cook to set up a shop outside the palace where commoners could enjoy it, a tradition that continues to this day. Guru Sweet Mart on Sayyaji Rao Road has been in business for 75 years solely on the basis of this legendary sweet. Kakasura Madappa was the expert syrup maker, known as nalapaka, who came up with the concept and the rest, as they say, is history.
Peta, made of pumpkin, has interesting origins: apparently the labourers toiling away at the Taj Mahal were bored with the sabzi and voila, some kitchen hand was sufficiently inspired to soak pumpkin in syrup and a star was born.
This festive season, take a sweet trip across the country. Start with Kashmiri phirni, a delectable blend of basmati, saffron, sugar, milk and pistachios, then move on to Kolkata where you could try the most divine Nolan gur ka sandesh, made with the jaggery harvested from the palm tree or just have rosgollas and rasmalai.
Try the narikol or coconut laddus from Assam. Hit Mumbai for falooda kulfi, modak and malpua and swing by Gujarat for basundi. Move onto Jaipur and Delhi for kalakand (milkcake), jalebi with rabdi and kaju barfi, then relish the doughy sweetness of khaja in Bihar. Enjoy the layered majesty of bebinca in Goa with or without a feni flambe, and by all means keep space for Mysore pak.
Then savour Qubani ka Meeta in Hyderabad with Shahi Tukda, take a side trip to Tirunelveli for some halva and a dollop of divine sakkare pongal and then enjoy the exquisite lightness of illayapam, that wonderful combination of rice, coconut and jaggery steamed in banana leaf, in Kerala.
North, East, West or South, if only our people were half as sweet as our sweets, this country would be a far better place.