If tomorrow India has to choose a national sweet dish, the most likely contender should be the ladoo. And for some good, hearty reasons. To begin with, it is an omnipresent sweet – and by this I do not only mean its unmistakable presence in every festival and occasion including Diwali, but the fact that every region in India has a variety of its own.
An excellent example of this is the Coconut Ladoo. Not only does this easy variety has close to a dozen styles of making it, the oldest form called the Narayl Nakru in South dates back to the time of the Chola Empire when it was a sweet that was packed for travelers and warriors as a symbol of good luck for their expeditions. Yet another variety is the Foxtail Millet Ladoos, which is the prasadam at the Lord Muruga temple today.
Interestingly, the origin of this ladoo was more because of the medicinal properties that the ingredients used proffered than as a sweet. It is said that these ladoos were given to tweenage girls to keep their raging hormones under check. In fact treatment, and not indulgence, was what led to the discovery of some of the popular ladoos including methi, makhana and sonth.
Eastern folklore often talk about the accidental discovery of the ladoo when a ved’s assistant to cover up the extra ghee he poured in a mix turned them into small roundels that eventually took the shape of the smooth egg shape balls we see today. Was it the real way how ladoos were invented? While there is little document that support this story, Ayurvedic scripts are replete with recipes that can be considered the first iteration of the ladoos.
One of the earliest examples of this was of sesame seeds, jaggery and peanuts, which we all today known as til ke ladoo. It is said that around 4BC legendary surgeon Susruta The Elder, began using this as an antiseptic to treat his surgical patients. For easy edibility, the sesame seeds were coated with jaggery or honey and shaped into a ball. The ancient legend of Gilgamesh mentions Enkidu’s diet as consisting of, among other interesting things, worms, figs, cucumbers, honey and bread made of sesame flour, which was again made into a roundel or a ladoo so that he could have it with ease.
Contrary to how ladoos may have come to the fore, their evolution was a sweet journey that began with the spice route and through the temples, which found it a much better way of distributing the prasadam without partiality. Of course, the fact that ladoos, and the way they were made, gave them the extra shelf life only added to their popularity as they could be carried to long distances without being spoilt.
Later on, says anthropologist, availability of ingredients, food habits and invasions led to newer innovation in the dish, which for a long time remained sweets made of jaggery and flour.
Like the Shahi Ladoo, which is considered the gift of Persian invasion that brought in dates, figs and the use of fruit and vegetable seeds into ladoo-making. In fact, this calorie rich sweetdish gets its flavor from the dry figs and dates that are mashed into a thin pulp after soaking it overnight.
The real twist in the ladoo story was of course affected by the import of Sugar and in the early British era. Referred to as Sweet White Poison, it became the genesis of a lot of ladoos that made it an every day sweet.
Aside the besan ke ladoo, one of the first to have this makeover was the Laai or Barh that originated in Mokama in Bihar. Once prepared with Ramdana seeds and khoya with jaggery adding the sweetness, the ladoo took a U-turn when people realized that adding sugar could take the sweet quotient up by three times, while hiding the slight aftertaste of the seeds.
The Chandshahi, yet another wheat flour based ladoo, was another example of how ladoos changed once sugarcane cultivation started in India. Maner Ke ladoo, a older twin of Motichoor ke ladoo, often is an excellent case in point to see how sugar syrups changed the traditional boondi ladoo.
But none talk of the impact sugar had on ladoos like the Kanpur famous Thaggu Ke Ladoo. This melt-in-your-mouth sweetmeat got its name after its innovator, Mattha Pandey alias Ramavtar, realized that the desi ladoo, which he so fondly created used the angrezi shakar (sugar), and in shame called it Thaggu Ke Ladoo or the ladoo for the cheat.
A stanch Gandhi follower, pandey’s reason for naming the ladoos such wasn’t a publicity gimmick but the betrayal he felt after he realized that the sugar he used was actually White poison introduced by the British. And since he could not replace the sugar, he decided to let people know the truth by calling it Thaggu Ke Ladoo. Little did Pandey realize that when it came to sweets, much like other food, it was taste that mattered, and his creation became a legend.