Diwali. The colourful, noisy festival of light, celebrating the triumph of good over evil. A time for family, friends and festivities. And, most crucially for a mithai addict like me, lots and lots of sweets. When sweetmarts all over the UK roll up their sleeves to carve intricate designs into vast plinths of the honeycomb-like mysore pak, adorn trays of the cashew marzipan known as kaju katri with silver leaf, and quite simply pack their largest selection boxes pell-mell to appease the baying queues that snake out of their stores for half-a-mile down the street.
I have no religious persuasion, but I am an unshakeably devout mithai fan. And Diwali finds me in my element, with sweetmeats abounding from luxury emporiums, tiny family-run businesses and even, if you’re as tenacious in your quest as me, home-made and individually clingfilmed on the counter of your local Indian newsagent. Not only is the variety infinite, so is the variation between specimens sold under the same moniker. A merry morning can be had debating the standard of seven hunks of plain sandesh over a cup of chai- one purloined from each mithai-wallah in the neighbourhood.
One of my most treasured possessions is a dog-eared copy of Jack Santa Maria’s gorgeously comprehensive ‘Indian Sweet Cookery’, a deceptively slim volume packed to the gunwales with folklore tales, recipes and the descriptive information that prevented me from looking like a complete greenhorn when I took my first tentative steps onto the patterned lino floor of the family-run Durga on Ilford Lane. The beast was unleashed as soon as I sunk my teeth into a dense disc of pera- a favourite of academics, and splendid in its clean comfort- evoking all those Mini Milk ice creams I scoffed as a nipper.
Seeking out mithai is always a pleasure, never a chore. A lacklustre laddoo might be tinged with both regret and the lingering taste of raw gram flour, but it’s quickly assuaged by Rusholme’s Delhi Sweet Centre’s unusual akhrot- walnut- halwa, or Eastern Sweets’ milk cake- a grainy, gooey chunk of pure sin from one of the few companies using buffalo milk in their confections- from Warwickshire of all places. And what a difference it makes- as nigh-on forty years’-worth of pleased customers will attest . If you need further convincing, sample a single square of their sublime khoya ki barfi.
There’s room for novelty, of course- confectionary in all cultures is the one area where lurid colours, quirky flavours and silly shapes abound. Rajmahal on Brick Lane are particular fans of innovation- pedalling neon blue-and-orange-marbled or Bakewell-inspired cherry-and-almond barfis by the kilo. But for me, the idea of discovering a new regional favourite is novelty enough. The veg component of carrot-based Punjabi favourite gajar halwa is handy for making you feel slightly less guilty, but it’s Diwana’s beetroot version that really does it for me.
And while I always claim that the syrup-soaked, chenna-based Bengali sweets aren’t for me, that’s a lie as fat as I’d be if I gave into all the gulab jamun, cham chams and rajbhogs I really wanted to. As for the gur-sweetened, yogurt dessert mishti doi- let’s just say I boast an enviable stash of empty earthernware pots. For a Bangla sweet fix, Brick Lane remains unchallenged- I like the independent Amar Gaon, or Alauddin and Madhubon, especially when their cheesecake-like sandesh is flavoured with new-season gur.
It pays to know a couple of quality staple suppliers. Ambala and Nirala are reliably good chains, the former for the fruitcake-like habshi halwa and the latter for a rich, sunset-hued besan barfi and the divine manpasand and patisa. But I have a nose like a bloodhound where mithai are concerned. To the uninitiated, the vast displays may be both awesome and daunting, but, as one soft drink ad would ask, ‘What’s the worst that can happen’? Go in, point, smile, ask, sample, smile some more and very probably find yourself a brand new love and unbreakable habit.
For a gentler introduction, let Devnaa be your guide. Purchase a colourful box and you’ll soon be dipping a toe into the wonderful world of mithai with a selection of Indian-inspired truffles and chocolates that wouldn’t look out of place in a fancy Belgian boutique. Those European chocs always underwhelm me, but the mithai-masters have fusion-filled theirs with spiced caramels and flavoured barfis capable of coaxing me away from the fresh-fried jalebis. Now they’re even offering courses, as is Jyoti Shah. And once I’ve been schooled in the art, I won’t even be safe in my own home. Ah, sweet, sweet obsession.
Jyoti Shah is teaching Diwali Mithai Classes at The Veggie Kitchen and cost £25, with daytime and evening dates from 26th October to 9th November.
Devnaa’s sweetmaking evenings are held at The College of North West London and cost £55, with dates on 30th October and 11th and 18th December. All mithai images courtesy of Devnaa– whose book, ‘Indian Inspired Desserts’ can be purchased from Amazon.