Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Oh So Sweet!

That I have a sweet tooth doesn’t surprise anyone in India. Bengal is known for its wide variety of sweets and Bengali meals are incomplete without desserts. I never ever pass up an opportunity to try the desserts during dinner, especially when I am visiting a new place.

Gulab JamunDesserts have history. There is evidence of English sweet puddings during the 17th century made of flour, nuts and sugar. Food historians generally agree that custard, the sweet almost pudding-like substance we know today, dates to the Middle Ages. At that time custard was eaten alone or used as fillings for pies, tarts, pastry, etc. Flan -- an open tart filled with fruit, a cream, or a mixture -- was probably the most famous and widely adapted custard dessert in the world. It is important to note that custard was not unique to Europe. Similar recipes flourished in Asia. Note: Gulab Jamun picture by EliBlue and Gajar Halwa picture by Esherman.

Carrot (Gajar) HalwaAmong Indian desserts, there is evidence of Halwa in the 7th century. Halwa is derived from the Arabic word hulw which means sweet. In 7th century Arabia, the word meant a paste of dates kneaded with milk. By the 9th century, it had acquired a meaning of wheat flour or semolina, cooked by frying or toasting and worked into a stiff paste with a sweetening agent such as sugar syrup, date syrup, grape syrup, or honey by stirring the mass together over a gentle heat. Usually a flavoring was added such as nuts, rosewater, or pureed cooked carrots (still a popular flavoring). The finished sweetmeat would be cut into bars or molded into fanciful shapes. Halva spread both eastwards and westwards, with the result that is is made with a wide variety of ingredients, methods, and flavorings. Note: From Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press 1999 (p. 367). Also: Rasmalai picture by Debra.

RasmalaiSweet shops in India have a far greater variety of sweet offerings on display than bakeries in the West. Many small towns and cities are known primarily for their sweets (Mithai in Hindi). Agra, home to the Taj Mahal, is also known for its Pethas, a unique sweet made from winter melon. Burdwan, in West Bengal, is known for its Mihidana which is rarely found outside this region and the famous Roshogollas of West Bengal are best tasted in the Oriya town of Pahala. The list goes on.

Vermicelli (Sewai) KheerUnlike western desserts which are usually chocolate, whipped cream, or fruit-based, most Indian sweets are made of thickened milk, fresh curd cheese, or are flour-based. It’s difficult to provide a list of Indian desserts that is even close to being comprehensive. Even describing my personal favorites is difficult in a single post.

Traditional PhirniKheer is an all time favorite. This creamy pudding is made in a wide variety of ways, with rice, with semolina, or just thickened milk sprinkled with chopped dry fruits. My mother always made this dish at home on my birthdays during childhood and that tradition still continues. Note: Kheer picture by Warina and Phirni picture by lecercle.

Phirni is a variation of the kheer, brought into India by the Mughals, and is a popular dessert after a meal of biryanis and kababs. Made of powdered rice and thickened milk, Phirni is usually chilled in small earthen pots and directly served in them.

Bengali SweetsNext are the Gulab Jamuns, those delicious soft balls of fried milk solids immersed in sugar syrup and flavored with cardamom, saffron, or rose. In the olden days, Gulab Jamun was made with ‘bhatti khoya’, milk solids that were aged to six months producing a hard, aromatic khoya that was then grated, bound with maida (flour) into balls before being deep-fried and immersed in sugar syrup.

Bengali SweetsBengali sweets are mostly made of chhena, ripened fresh curd cheese which means they have to be eaten within a day or two of preparation. A wide variety of delights include the Roshogolla, Shondesh, Chomchom, and the Pantua. Note: Pictures of Bengali sweets above by Danburg Murmur and Debra.

Rasmalai is another favorite, especially with those who are new to Indian sweets. Mildly sweet, these dumplings are made from cottage or ricotta cheese in thickened milk, delicately flavored with cardamoms and topped with crushed pistachios.

Motichur LaddoosThen there are the large variety of Laddoos and Burfis. Made of a variety of different ingredients, these come in various flavors, colors and sizes. I especially love Motichur laddoos, commonly used as religious offerings in Indian festivals, and Kaju Barfis made from cashewnut paste and available in a wide variety of variations. Note: Pictures of laddoos and burfis by Danburg Murmur.

Pistachio(Pista) BurfisAnd finally, a dessert from Western India where I now live: the Shrikhand. The Shrikhand is a creamy dessert made out of strained yogurt, from which all water is drained off, leaving the thick yogurt cream by itself. Adding exotic dry fruits like mangos only enhances the Shrikhand’s delightful taste to newer limits.

And so dear readers, like Erma Bombeck once pointed out, “Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the Titanic who waved off the dessert cart.” :-)


Unknown said...

Gosh am already feeling diabetic! Scrumptious post!

Anonymous said...

I LOVE Galub, matter of fact I've eaten at a lot of bad restaurants just to get to the dessert!

Great new look on your site Shantanu!
Lastly, I have to poke at you on your custard comment.. "we" Americans? :)

Anonymous said...

@vishal: Thanks. :-)

@sank: Heh! Good catch. Now stands corrected. Incidentally, I picked the history from the book referenced in the next para; pretty interesting!

foodette said...

Wow, your desserts sound so exotic to me. I am used to ice cream and cookies, so just the idea of these desserts are intriguing and make my mouth water. Great post!

Anonymous said...

Mmm.... those desserts are yummy...yummy.n ofcourse that sounds delicious.Lovely Post!
Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

I don't pass up an opportunity to try the desserts either and wanna thank you for sharing this along with some interesting history - a great read!

Anonymous said...

@foodette: You have to try some of these. A trip to India may be worth just for the food and desserts, if you can stomach the spices, that is. :-)

@food&beverages: Thank you!

@rennyba: Thank you too!

Anonymous said...

hi.. lovely post.. delicious pics.. please please don't post on sweets.. have mercy on recovering sweetoholics like me..


Bong Mom said...

Eita moteo bhalo hochena...ek saathe eto mishtir lobh dekhano :)

Blue Bike said...

Very Nice post and amazing pics ... I'll visit Pune in Nov.
Can you please recommend me the best Bengali sweet shop in Pune or Bombay ?? I'll keep watching this post over next week for responses...

Cheers !

Anonymous said...

@anon, @sandeepa: :-)

@blue bike: Thank you! In Pune, if you are in the Aundh area, Mithas is a good option. For Roshogollas and Sandesh, there is a shop called Babumoshai in Khadki (opp HDFC Bank). If you are in Wanawadi, there is a shop called Calcutta Sweets. In MG Road, Karachi Sweets (near Bata, not the one in Aurora Towers) has some good Bengali sweets too.

Blue Bike said...

Hey Shantanu !
Thanks for the response :-)
I've spent two years at the magarpatta wanowerie area ... I'd try Karachi sweets (though i'm sure I've been there before ... maybe not for Bengali sweets) since the other options seem to far from my place.

freudian sleep said...

aami wanowrie te thaki...Calcutta Sweets er regular visitor...atleast Sunday garam radha ballavi r rasogolla to must...chatushrungi-r radhika r deep - eteo rakhe anek kichhu..tabe aami try kore dekhini kakhono...

Gulab said...

It is really a nice site and i want to reply Blue Bike that you have provided a good comment.