Certain things happen only in India. Consider our obsession with sweets: only in India will one find sweets made out of the oddest ingredients, such as white pumpkin, bottlegourd, cucumber and even garlic. Only Indians, moreover, would find so many different ways to make sweets out of exactly the same ingredients. For instance, besan ki barfi, besan ka sheera, magaj and mysurpa are all made of a combination of besan, sugar and ghee, but they all differ in taste and texture. Only in India will a major dispute erupt over the origins of a sweet, like the one that has both West Bengal and Odisha staking claim on their respective versions of the rasgulla. Indians love their sweets. We offer them to our gods, make specific varieties for specific festivals, prescribe them to strengthen children, the elderly, pregnant women and nursing mothers. Each Indian sweet, whether it is as laboriously prepared as the Goan bebinca or as simple as a quick vella aval (sweet poha from Kerala), is integral to the ethos of the region(s) it is made in. There’s also a rich variety of Indian sweets to be discovered — beyond the more famous laddoos and kalakands, kheer and payasam. We came up with a list of unique, region-specific desserts from across the country. They bring sweetness and light to all occasions, and are never eaten without a generous side of stories and memories.
Gokul Pithe West Bengal Beyond the sandesh and the rasgulla, there is a lot to be discovered in Bengal’s tradition of sweets. This one begins with a love story from medieval Bengal. Dhanapati, a wealthy merchant, once wandered into a village in search of his favourite pigeon. It led him to the house of a beautiful maiden, Khullana. It was love at first sight and Dhanapati brought her home as his bride. When it was Khullana’s turn to cook the customary bou bhaat feast for the groom’s family, she floored everyone. That balanced meal is the gold standard of Bengali feasts, with its subtly flavoured shukto (a mixed vegetable dish), niramish mangsho (meat cooked without onion and garlic) fresh carp and prawns. But the dessert, made of gram flour, khoya and sugar syrup, was the piece de resistance. Today, gokul pithe is what Bengalis remember their grandmothers by: it is made in very few homes and you will not find it in any shop. The long process deters most cooks. Bengal gram is to be soaked overnight, boiled and then ground into a paste. With a little addition of maida, the paste is turned into a dough. Tiny discs are stuffed with khoya and coconut fillings and then rolled into tiny balls. They are fried till golden brown and then soaked in sugar syrup for a few hours. The result is a piece of heaven. - Premankur Biswas
Chhenapoda Odisha Chhenapoda is a sweet made of caramelised chhena (cottage cheese) — and unlike the rasgulla, it is so distinctively Oriya that another battle does not need to be waged with Bengal over its provenance. It is extremely popular, even though it is only about 100 years old. “Chhenapoda (literally burnt cheese) originated in Nayagarh district in the early 20th century when the owner of a sweet shop added sugar and seasonings to leftover cottage cheese, and left it on slow-flame in an earthen stove before going to bed. Next morning, this had turned into a delicious cake of sweetened cheese,” says Usha Rani Tripathy, author of the cookbook Taste of Odisha. In the last couple of decades, says Tripathy, the popularity of chhenapoda has spread beyond the state. “Traditionally, it is baked in an iron or aluminum pan placed on a charcoal chulha. The batter is covered with banana or sal leaves, which in turn is covered with embers. The burnt leaves give a smoky taste to the chhenapoda,” she says. At Nimapada Sweets, Bhubaneswar, a mix of chhena and semolina (usually the proportion is 5 kg to 50 gm), garnished with cashew and raisin, is put on a slow-flamed gas stove and the vessel topped with burning embers around 4 pm daily. They switch off the flame before shutting the shop for the day around 1 am. “Next morning, cool and soft, it is ready for sale,” says Jitendra Padhi, manager of its Bapuji Nagar outlet. - Alaka Sahani
Unnakai Kerala If Kerala hadn’t drawn its name from the abundance of coconut trees found in the state, then it would surely have drawn it from bananas. More than any other community, perhaps, Malayalis make full culinary use of ripe and raw bananas, whether it is as chips, or in curries or even in the various types of payasams. One particularly outstanding use is in the making of the Malabar delicacy, unnakai. The large, spindle-shaped sweet forms a popular tea-time snack and is available in restaurants across the state. Muhammad Nowsel of Thameez restaurant in Kochi says, “We make unnakai only on certain days of the week, but when we do make it, it is one of the fastest selling snacks.” Unnakai is more than a tea-time snack. Along the Malabar coast, it appears as an important dessert on iftar menus. Thiruvananthapuram-based Monty Majeed’s memories of Ramadan are inextricably bound to her memories of the long hours spent in cooking delicacies like unnakai. The 26-year-old writer says, “After long hours of prayer, women and children came together in the kitchen to beat dough, grind gravies and mix batters. It was also the time when secret recipes and cooking tricks would come out into the open. It was on such an evening that my cousins and I mastered the art of making unnakai.” Unnakai is made by steaming and mashing ripe plantains into a pliable dough, which is then stuffed with a mixture of coconut and jaggery or sugar. This is then formed into the characteristic spindle shape and deep fried. It’s a rich, heavy dessert, often made richer by the addition of dry fruits. Cardamom is an essential flavouring, as it enhances the different gradations of the sweetness brought in by the plantain, coconut and jaggery. Majeed recalls, “As soon as the mix was ready, we couldn’t wait to fry it and gobble it up. But we would have to wait for just before the iftar as unnakai tastes best when eaten hot.” Not a snack for the health-conscious, a new generation is trying to come up with oil-free variants.
Sukhdi Gujarat At the seat of Ghantakarna Mahavir, a Jain temple in Mahudi, Gujarat, the prasad offered is unlike any other . The sweet, known as sukhdi, is served on huge trays as a single helping. Devotees are expected to finish the entire tray on the temple premises because taking the prasad outside is said to bring bad luck. Accidents, devotees whisper, have been known to happen even if one steps out with a single piece of the ghee-laden, crumbly sweet. Delicious as Mahudi’s sukhdi is, it is easy to resist the temptation to pocket a few of the diamond-shaped pieces. This is because the sweet, also known as gol papdi, is found in most Gujarati homes. Shrikhand and basundi mark special occasions and kansar is made for weddings, but for a sweet that comforts even as it satiates, most Gujaratis turn to sukhdi. “Sukhdi is something that can be made even for a last-minute sweet craving,” says 64-year-old Harshida Mehta. “In its most basic form, which is nonetheless delicious, it is made of three ingredients that most Gujarati kitchens will have: ghee, jaggery and wheat flour.” Mehta, a retiree who lives in Mumbai, usually makes a dish or two of sukhdi a week to cope with her family’s emergency sweet cravings. Wheat flour is roasted in a generous amount of ghee and plenty of jaggery shavings are added right at the end. The result is a dessert that is buttery and sweet. Sukhdi also stays for long, even when stored at room temperature. For Mehta, as a child, travel food usually meant a packet of homemade theplas and sukhdi. Children are fed a piece or two of sukhdi every morning because it is believed to make them stronger. The sweet is also used as a carrier for medicinal ingredients such as sonth (dried ginger), ganthoda (peppermaul) and dry fruits such as almonds and walnuts, particularly in winter.
Til Pitha Assam When Luna Bezbaroa was a little girl, most of January was spent in the aakhol ghar in her family home near the tea gardens of Tinsukia. An aakhol ghor is a two-part traditional Assamese kitchen: the dining area and a space to make tea constitutes the smaller section; the bigger and more functional room is the proper kitchen with at least two earthen fireplaces. Bezbaroa, 47, who organises Assamese cooking classes in Kolkata, would spent hours watching her mother expertly flipping til pitha on a hot griddle. The traditional Assamese pancake made of rice flour and sesame seed is a Bihu speciality. Like laddoo is served during Diwali in almost all north Indian households, a plate of til pitha is ubiquitous on dining tables in Assam during Bihu. “Til pitha is not very easy to make. Unlike its Bengali counterpart, pathishapta, it is not made with rice batter, but rice which has been ground in a mortal-pestle and has a certain amount of moisture in it. The balance of wetness and dryness is integral,” says Bezbaroa. The rice used to make it, bora saul, is also typical to Assam. It is traditionally prepared over an open wood fire. “The smokiness adds to the flavour. The pitha has a crisp outer layer and a filling of sesame and coconut,” says Bezbaroa. These days, you can get packed til pitha in most towns of Assam, but they don’t ever taste the same. “They are best had off the griddle,” says Bezbaroa. - Premankur Biswas
Pootharekulu Andhra Pradesh One of the more worthwhile quests that visitors to Andhra Pradesh can engage in is the search for the sublime pootharekulu. With its delicate folds of rice starch, within which nestles a mixture of ghee and powdered sugar, pootharekulu is one of those sweets that dissolves as soon as it makes contact with the mouth. At first bite, it is an airy, insubstantial thing, but a few mouthfuls should be enough to convince anyone that it deserves its place among India’s exceptional sweets. Not that it is easy to find. Given the arduous process through which it is made, it is hardly ever prepared at home. The sweet originated in the village of Atreyapuram in the east Godavari district. The labour-intensive job of making the pootharekulu (pootheraku in the singular) is indicated in the name itself. Reku means sheet and pootha means a spread, which is traditionally a mix of ghee and sugar powder, although nowadays the spread often includes nuts and dry fruits. The sheets that make up the pootharekulu are made using rice starch paste, which is spread over the back of an earthen pot in thin layers. Once a layer dries, it is carefully peeled off, before the next layer is prepared. Several such layers are spread with ghee and sugar before being rolled or folded into a single poothareku. But assembling this product is a fraught task since the rice sheets are fragile and in inexperienced hands, they can crack and become useless. It requires expertise to just make the sheets and this is probably why the art of making the reku has remained confined to Atreyapuram. Srividya Mehta, who runs the Andhra food restaurant Gonguura in Mumbai, remembers eating pootharekulu only on very special occasions when she was a child. Having married into a Marwari family, which has an abiding love of sweets, Srividya decided to introduce them to the joys of the pootharekulu. “The first time I got the sweet from Hyderabad, they tried to unwrap the rice sheets. I had to tell them that it is to be consumed intact,” she says. “Those sheets are so delicate that they look like paper. This is why the few sweet shops that stock Pootharekulu even in Hyderabad don’t make them from scratch. They are bought readymade. The shops then only spread the mixture and fold the pootharekulu.”
Ghevar Rajasthan The month of saawan, when the monsoon brings relief to heat-scorched north India, is mythologised in poetry and painting, in Raghubir Singh photographs of girls airborne on swings. And then there is ghevar, a circular sponge from Rajasthan, its honeycombed texture hinting at the sweetness within. Traditionally, it is available only during the monsoon, during the Teej and Raksha Bandhan festivals, when even the mehndi patterns that women wear on their hands are woven with ghevar motifs. How is it made? A simple flour and arrowroot batter, it is poured into a mould and cooked in pure ghee. The filigreed disc is then doused in sugar syrup — in some variants, it comes with elaborate toppings of malai or rabri. Ajay Agarwal, whose family has been in the sweet business in Jaipur since 1727, and by all accounts makes the best ghevar in Rajasthan, is proud of the paneer ghevar that his grandfather perfected. “Like a virtuoso composes music, my grandfather experimented with sweets. After four to five years of trial and error, he composed the paneer ghevar in the 1960s, made entirely out of cottage cheese and not maida. It has more swaad than its traditional cousin and is much spongier,” he says. Over the years, the product has seen few innovations. “Now we use less sugar, keeping in mind our clients’ health concerns, of course,” says Agarwal. At Laxmi Mishthan Bhandar, his store in Jaipur, ghevar is sold all year round. - Shantanu David
Kharvas Maharashtra In India, each festival is marked by a distinctive sweet. In Maharashtra, Ganesh Chaturthi sees copious amounts and varieties of modaks being consumed, while Diwali is celebrated with the deep-fried anarse and chirote. Rich and delicious as these sweets are, they can’t match the comforting creaminess of the kharvas. Kshama Prabhu, executive chef at Mumbai’s Bar Stock Exchange, says her earliest memory of kharvas is of arguing with her father. She says, “My father was the one who introduced me to the dessert. Our household was vegetarian, so my father would force us to have kharvas as he believed that it would provide us with all the nutrients we might be missing out on.” Prabhu’s father wasn’t off the mark; the Maharashtrian sweet is made of cow’s colostrum, which is the milk produced in mammals just before giving birth. It is a super food, much richer in protein than the milk subsequently produced. In many agricultural societies, it is often consumed after being solidified into blocks or as cheese. The Maharashtrian version, however, uses the colostrum to create the custard-like kharvas, which is enriched with flavourings like cardamom and saffron. The colostrum is mixed with whole milk, jaggery or sugar and required flavourings, and is steamed. Once cooked, it is cooled and then cut into individual portions. The resulting sweet is a soft, sweet pudding. As Prabhu says, “I didn’t like it before, but now I’m a fan. It feels so light in the mouth, like cotton candy. It’s a different feeling altogether, compared to eating other sweets.”
Perad Goa Until the late ’90s, Joanita D’Souza would spend a large part of December in the kitchen. Mumbai was still Bombay then and Christmas wasn’t the commercial juggernaut it has become today. If families took days planning the meal to be had on the day of the festival, they spent weeks preparing the sweets. “I spent the first 48 years of my life in Bandra, a neighbourhood dotted with bakeries that sold the best pastries in the city. But Christmas wasn’t about fancy cupcakes or Santa-shaped cookies, as it happens today, but traditional sweets,” says the 63-year-old. D’Souza says that most Christmas sweets, such as dos, dodol, bebinca and milk cream, are cumbersome to prepare. With coconut milk as a staple in most, they need hours of stirring. Among the traditional sweets, one of the most distinct in flavour is perad, or guava cheese. Made using guavas, sour limes and sugar, it is closest in appearance and texture to the north Indian aam paapad. And although coconut milk isn’t one of its key ingredients, perad too, requires the maker to labour over the saucepan for an hour at the least. Made with a batch of overripe guavas, boiled and sieved to separate the seeds, the pulp is then cooked with sugar and juice of lemons, which lends it a hint of sourness. A dash of butter adds to the flavour and also helps the reduction process. Once it thickens, it should be allowed to set. While the sweet is off-white, Maria D’Souza, who blogs at flavorsofmumbai.com, attributes the variation in colour, ranging from the bright red of a bauble to the pale yellow lustre of tinsel, to artificial colouring. Popular among Christians in Mangalore, Mumbai and Goa, perad’s origins, however, are widely debated. The name draws from pera, which is guava in Konkani, a language that is common to locals of all three cities. But while it is widely believed that it is a Goan sweet, Joanita says it doesn’t feature in old Goan cookbooks. “One theory is that it’s an east Indian sweet that travelled to Goa and Mangalore later,” she says, referring to the community of Kolis from Mumbai who are said to have converted to Christianity under the Portuguese rule. Perad is also probably a poor man’s sweet, given its ingredients, she says. “This is the beauty of living in a cosmopolitan city — tradition is a a mix of borrowed cultures.”
[caption id="attachment_2506467" align="alignnone" width="840"] Photo credit: Partha Paul
Photo courtesy: VIP Sweets[/caption] Gurer Sandesh Bengal There is a bit of a confusion when it comes to introduction of chhaana, the essential ingredient of sandesh, in Bengal. According to food historian KT Achaya, the Portuguese introduced the concept of cheese-based sweets to us. Early in the 16th century, not content with Western India, Ceylon, and Malaysia, the Portuguese turned their attention to Bengal, and from their settlements at Satgaon and Hooghly, above the future site of Calcutta, built up a great trade. Apart from chhanna, it’s believed that they introduced other staples like potato, tomato and chilli to the Bengali kitchen. According to another school of thought, the discovery of Bengal’s favourite sweetmeat was way more serendipitous. Apparently, when an 18th century milkman was left with curdled, unsold milk, he would indulge in some innovation. “He would strain the curdled milk and mix some molasses, which was widely available in the hinterlands of Bengal, to it. The result was an uneven paste called makha,which is the precursor of today's sandesh,” says Manohar Das, 32, proprietor of one of Kolkata’s oldest sandesh shop, Nalin Chandra Das, running in Kolkata’s Chitpore market since 1830. According to Kalyani Dutta’s book on Bengali traditions, Thor Bori Khara (Thema, 1982), sandesh was not deemed fit to be served as prasad to the gods till about very recently. The fact that its main ingredient is curdled milk, makes it impure and therefore not fit for gods. Even today, the preferred prasad offered to goddess Kali in Kalighat is the khoya-based peda and not sandesh. At the same outlet in the picturesquely crumbling market, displayed in a giant brass plate are little mounds of various shapes and colours — yellow triangles of nut-flavoured sandesh with a drizzle of chocolates flakes, lavender-hued raspberry sandesh shaped like little hearts, pink hearts with strawberry jelly centres. Das, like any young entrepreneur, believes in innovation. “In 1947, on the eve of our independence, my grandfather introduced Nehru sandesh. It was an instant hit,” says Das. Yet, the light brown gur sandesh remains the biggest draw of the store. “When you bite into the heart of the sandesh and the liquid gur oozes into your mouth, it’s a strangely satisfying feeling. It’s like coming home,” says Poorna Banerjee, a Kolkata-based food blogger. - Premankur Biswas