In case there was any doubt over my deep seated love for Indian sweets, I got a laser-cut necklace bearing the Hindi collective term for the confections custom-made. I suppose wearing the word ‘Mithai’ around my neck might be misconstrued as indicative of my ‘sweet’ demeanour, but that’s definitely necessarily a pronunciation that I can promise to be true.
However bad-tempered I become, shoving mithai my way will always sweeten the situation. It makes me sad when people state that they dislike Indian sweets, or suggest as they so often do that burfi, gulab jamun, jalebis et al are just far too sickly.
Would you not partake of pick’n’mix or dive into a buffet simply because you don’t like a few items that appeared? Mithai are many and varied, with something to suit all sweet-eaters. As for those who say they’re all super-saccharine; um, hang on – sweeter than British fudge, tablet, or the majority of crappy confectionary we consume in this country?
I say nay. Plus there’s a lot more to mithai than the syrup-soaked, fried fancies you might be familiar with. Some will even help you on the way to 5-a-day. Others are noted for excellent effects on digestion. Unlike so many Western sweeties, mithai are made with pure, un-mucked about with ingredients; ghee, sugar, reduced milk. Rich, yes, but naturally-occurring and not baffling for your body to break down. Even with the sweeter treats, there’s flavour; not just basic sweetness.
To my mind, mithai knock British confectionary into a cocked hat. But I WILL concede that it’s not easy to navigate an Indian sweet mart. One’s first visit will reveal an alien landscape piled high with sweets of every size, shape and style, often unlabelled and always impossible to choose from.
Forrest Gump claimed that, ‘life is like a box of chocolate, you never know what you’re going to get’. But at least with those chocs you’re likely to be more familiar with the flavours than with mithai. So what if someone were to compile a guide to the latter, suggesting Indian sweets sure to please fans of certain sorts of common confectionary?
Dear reader, I did just that…
If you like fudge, try… Khoya burfi
‘Khoya’ refers to milk that’s stirred so long over a low flame that it turns to a solid substance. Cooked up with judicious quantities of Desi ghee and sugar, it yields a soft sweetmeat that’s a far nicer eat that the fudge it closely resembles. For the ultimate indulgence, buy burfi made with buffalo khoya.
If you like donuts, try… Balushahi
Both smaller and more substantial than a Krispy Kreme, balushahi are deep-fried, friable flour fritters with a crisp sugary crust achieved by bathing them in sugar syrup post-fry. Down South, look for the sibling of this North Indian sweet which goes by the name ‘badushah’.
If you like marzipan, try… Kaju katli
Owing to the cost of its core ingredient, this smooth cashew confection commands a high price – which gets more sky-high still after it’s adorned with varq (shiny silver leaf). Kaju mithai are commonly consumed on auspicious occasions like Diwali, but are held in high esteem at any time of year.
If you like honeycomb, try… Mysore pak
Taking its title from the city in Karnataka, Mysore pak is a rare example of a south Indian sweet that’s also popular up North. The darker colour at the core comes from the continued cooking in the centre of the besan-based, aerated mixture after it’s tipped onto a thali to set. It’s melt in the mouth; it’s greasy with ghee; and it’s goood.
If you like sticky toffee pudding, try… Habshi halwa
Hoorah! Habshi halwa is ostensibly good for you; packed with wholesome sprouted wheat and nutritious nuts. A whole lot of ghee, khoya and sugar is also involved, but one must always aim for balance. The Urdu word ‘habshi’ refers to the dark colour of the winter sweetmeat that’s thought to have wonderfully warming properties.
If you like peanut butter cups, try… Besan laddoos
Raw besan (the flour made from split Bengal gram) is bleedin’ ‘orrible. But slowly stirred in a dry pan until it blushes pinkish and turns nicely nutty and roasty-toasty, it’s a think of beauty. And yet more so still when it’s bound into balls with sugar syrup, a whisper of cardamom and a smear of ghee.
If you like Turkish delight, try… Bombay halwa
The glassy, glossy appearance of this halwa is down to an ingredient that’s rather more humble than the brightly-coloured jewels the precious pieces resemble: cornflour. Also sold as ‘Karachi’ or ‘muscat’ halwa, it’s as chewy and gooey as Turkish delight; but with a buttery finish that’s even more delightful.
If you like candyfloss, try… Sohan papri
Sohan papri’s siblings include the Persian sesame sweet, pashmak; Turkey’s pişmaniye, made with maida; and rice-based Chinese dragon beard candy. India’s own melt-in-the-mouth, flaky ‘fairy floss’ is made from besan – the ground chickpea flour that gives this sweet a pleasing nutty savour.
If you like churros, try… Jalebi
Don’t be fooled by the dry appearance of these deep-fried, fermented flour coils. Each spiral soaks up far more sugar syrup than one would anticipate; and promptly releases a sticky torrent of said stuff as soon as it’s bitten into. Eat them freshly-fried, accompanied by a mug of masala chai.
If you like rice pud, try… Kheer
My Nanny made a rice pudding that I’m sure helped instill my abiding love for Indian sweetmeats; enriched with sweet Tip Top tinned milk, topped with a whisper of nutmeg. Kheer isn’t baked like British baked rice pud – the thick texture comes from the use of reduced milk. It’s commonly cardamom-laced and consumed chilled.
If you like syrup sponge, try… Gulab jamun
For fans of syrup sponge, the lack of saccharine stuff that saturates the pudding’s centre is a perennial problem. The same cannot be said of North India’s gulab jamun; diminutive dumplings whose deep-fried depths hold more sugar-laden liquid than physics would calculate is feasible. Have a napkin at the ready.
If you like peanut brittle, try… Moongphali chikki
Peanut is popular, but this brittle comes in innumerable incarnations, including fruit-flavoured or, for the abstemious, sugar-free. You’d be wise to leave the latter; it’s the inclusion of jaggery that imparts an imitable taste to chikki. If you’re craving the confection in India, the finest kind is thought to be found in the Maharashtrian town of Lonavala.
If you like cheesecake, try… Sandesh
The name for this Bengali confection means ‘news’, and accordingly, the sweet is sent out whenever there’s a story to be shared. Many Bengali mishti are made from chenna (cheese curd), but few are as heavenly as soft fresh sandesh; quite simply, chenna kneaded ’til smooth and cooked up with sugar into a something that’s sort of like cheesecake but even more excellent.
If you like sesame snaps, try… Til ke laddoos
Sesame, says me, is an always-welcome addition to anything edible. In India, the seeds are thought to fortify the body in the cooler winter months, filling you with vitamins and vim; whilst jaggery is nutritionally a far superior sweetener to simple white sugar. Forget apples – it’s a til laddoo a day that really keeps the doctor away.
If you like bread and butter pudding, try… Shahi tukda
In Britain, bread and butter pudding is humble family fare. But the Indian version historically held court on the most noble Moghul tables; its name translating as ‘royal piece’. This decadent dessert is a right royal indulgence indeed – including ghee-fried bread and reduced milk; saffron-scented, fruit’n’nut-scattered, shimmery with silver leaf.
If you like Mini Milks, try… Malai kulfi
Ideal for the egg-avoidant ice-cream lover, kulfi is made with milk that’s slowly stirred until it thickens to a custard-y consistency (cheats use canned condensed milk). It comes in all sorts of funky flavours, but, for those who always ordered a Mini Milk when the ice cream van came a-calling, simple, crazily-creamy malai is my recommendation.
If you like Rice Krispie cakes, try… Mamra laddoos
I suspect Rice Krispies were realised after some Western product technologist scoured India for novel ingredients to bring more excitement to the breakfast table. India’s own puffed rice has more substance than what’s in the Kellogg’s box, making mamra laddoos a more satisfying snack than those crispie treats you used to turn out in Home Ec.
I do hope I’ve tempted you to try mithai…
- Americans trying Indian sweets for the first time video – click here
- Durga (fabulous 3rd generation family-run mithai mart in Ilford Lane) – click here
- Ambala – click here
- Royal Sweets – click here
- Nirala – click here
- The perfect East-meets-West recipe for the sweet-toothed: my Bombay Bad Boy chocolate cheesecake – click here
- More on mithai – click here and here