Saffronstreaks wishes Happy & Prosperous Diwali to all, may you have safe, glowing and beautiful year ahead !
All I have this Diwali is a box full of Agre ka Angoori petha / crystallized white pumpkins or candy and a delightful book on history of sweet inventions or dessert by Michael Krondl as you would love to frame it. This post is not about the book review or a new recipe to cherish this Diwali, it’s all about tracing our roots back to our heritage and traditions.
As I reflect back on my growing up years in another century (pre-internet), where the festivities were always marked by homemade sweets or mithais, the house was always brimming up with same old flavours and the first bite was shared by Gods and then offered to us mortals, thus purifying one’s soul in return. Nope we were not a religious or orthodox family, but such customs seeped so deep in our genes that it becomes part of our lives, beyond the comprehension of any logic or reasonings that may explained this.
From growing sugarcane in the fields to producing the first refined sugar ever, the Indian mithais has accomplished centuries of journey to reach its zenith today and thanks to our Gods who inspired us at every step. The vast array of Indian sweets or mithais, that would be more appropriate word for it, is beyond the vocabulary of any European langauge and a literal translation would dilute the essence of these ancient sweets.
Indian sweets were always focussed around milk and milk products. This holy trinity of milk, curd and ghee is as ancient as the human civilization itself, from the land of milk and honey the first milk fudge or humble peda evolved that was holy and sacred , an offering to the deity. Yes Hindu Gods are known for their sweet tooth and are food connoisseurs in their own right.
Kheer or payesh or payasam is perhaps the most ancient sweet that was ever made, a milk and rice porridge with some scented spices or flower perhaps, the porridge was then offered to Lord Krishna as bhog kheer on his birthday or janmashtami. And this unfold the tradition of celebrating birthday with kheer or payesh as opposed to birthday cakes and is still practised in almost every Indian homes. New mommies nowadays however makes both kheer and cake to declare peace with their child, thus keeping live the tradition and accepting the change, both at same pace.
Sweetener like honey and gur or jaggery extracted from date palm even predates the sugar rich sweets. Kheer made with fruits like basundi or kheer komola, wheat, semolina and semiya / vermicelli were introduced at later centuries perhaps under the influence of Mughal rulers, thus adding new dimension in the taste.
Sugar was premium at earlier historic times, so does the mithais that were prepared in those days. As the sugar losses its gloss and become readily available to every section of the society, we found ways to curdle the milk to extract cheese or chhena and this goes for miles in our tradition to produce beautiful array of sweet delicacies that we known today as rossogolla, sandesh, and several other new variants like rasmalai, chamcham etc.
Some will argue that early portuguese settlers in India showed us the way to extract chhena from milk, as they bought vinegar with them , the souring agent which is widely used now a days to curdle the milk. But historians and sacred text would love to differ, as since time immemorial we used curd to curdle the milk and not vinegar. The age-old tradition of offering Rosgollas to Lord Jagannath at Puri in Odisha will attest to that fact.
Interestingly chhena remain restricted within its geographic realm and was never travelled beyond its boundaries and so its origin and later inventions becomes synonymous to eastern part of the country only. In Northern part of the country, another milk product called mawa or khowa is used widely to make mithais. Mawa or khowa is reduced milk or evaporated milk. Milk is first boiled and then reduced to evaporate all its moisture content till it becomes dry like powder. This is called mawa and it is then used to make variety of mithais, and every year some new inventions being added to this huge and growing army of mithais. Another mithai that evolved from this process of reducing the milk is called kalakand or Indian milk fudge. When milk is simply reduced to one fourth of its volume and then sweetened with sugar is called rabdi - the delicious accompaniement with our sweet jalebis and malpuas.
Halvas were introduced to India by the Arab traders and settlers who settled at the western coast of India, precisely on the Malabar coast. The fruits, flour, and vegetables were primarily used to make halwa and being cheap, longer shelf life and its ready availablity makes it to secure a favourite place at common man’s dining table. Anjeer halwa is another varaint made with dried figs and spices, when married with chocolates it takes the humble halwa to another level.
An eclectic blend of inspiring ideas from ancient and modern cuisines rooted deep into the culture, traditions across the globe is perhpas the answer to satiate the minds of gourmet lovers who seek new and exciting changes and welcomes new trends in cuisine with open arms. This halwa tarts was created by “yours truly” is the first step in this direction.
Sugar dipped fried doughs are another Mughal influence that nestled now in our customs and becomes a part of tradition too. Gulab jamuns, jalebis, boondi, motichur laddoos, gujiya, balushahi, chandrapuli and malpuas earned rave appreciations from the sweet conneisuer of the country. Several other variants does exist which is more region and culture specific.
No eulogy of Indian sweets or mithais is complete without the mention of candy. Before we invented this huge family of mithais, there exist one ancient sweet that we overlook now and it is called candy. Not the westernised version, but our very own Indian candies, that evolved centuries back not as a sweet or mithai to offer to our Gods but as a preservation practices to preserve sugar. From khand in Sanskrit to candy in modern languages, the humble sugar has seen an epoch of changes and from the love and passion a new art form born called sugar crafting, an art which every sweet tooth worth its sugar would love to master !