Posted on 10/27/2013 at 12:39 PM by Madhu Gadia
Indians & Desserts
With Diwali (Festival of Lights, November 3rd) fast approaching, I am focused on desserts. I think most Indians subscribe to the saying, “Life is short, eat dessert first”. Serving and eating sweets galore is a tradition, from ancient temples to modern celebrations. In fact, at wedding parties it was (and in some places still is) considered a sign of status and hospitality to serve guests a few pieces of mithai (dessert) on an individual plate—before dinner!
Indian sweets are quite different from Western desserts. The variety of sweets available is remarkably wide, and in many cases there are no Western equivalents. Some of the basic categories are barfi, halwa, laddu and kheer. Traditionally, chocolate is not an ingredient in Indian desserts, although today you’ll find chocolate barfies as sweets makers (halwaies) try to cater to the younger generation.
Because Indians do not use eggs in desserts and ovens were not typically found in Indian kitchens, baked goods are not part of the Indian dessert repertoire. With the migration of Zoroastrians (called Parsis) in the 1500s, and the British in 1700s, baked goods have been around for a while, but only recently (in the last forty years) have bakeries proliferated in India.
Much more typically, the Indian equivalent to the bakers and bakeries of the Western world are halwais and halwai shops. A visit to the halwai shop is as fun as going to a sensational French bakery. The halwai shop is lined with trays of beautifully displayed sweets—the white, gold, and green barfies are layered like a wall of bricks, the round laddus are neatly stacked in pyramid shapes, and the halwa sprinkled with nuts are kept hot in a large, round skillet. And right outside the shop, the halwai himself skillfully makes hot jalebi—my personal favorite—in a large shallow fryer, then dunks them in syrup. Eat a plate of hot jalebi at the halwai shop and bring a sackful home for the family.
In India, as in the United States, desserts are typically high in fat and calories. I’ve cut down on the fat and sugar wherever possible, without compromising taste. Enjoy a small piece or a bite occasionally, for everything fits into a healthy diet.
Mithai: I’ve attempted to simplify the wide array of Indian desserts, which are called mithai. Most are cooked on the stovetop; the four main categories are barfi, laddu, halwa, and kheer. Then there are other mithais that do not fall into these categories, such as jalebi, gulab jamun, and rasagulla, which I’ll call others.
Barfi is either square- or diamond-shaped and is made with variety of ingredients. The closest thing that I can use to describe its appearance is fudge. The majority of barfies are made with super evaporated milk, called khoa. Then there are barfies made from nuts, beans, grains, and even vegetables. The majority of barfies use milk or ghee as one of the main ingredients. Barfies are often lined with a thin layer of edible silver foil called vark, which is more of a decoration and make the barfies glitter. Very occasionally, edible gold foil is also used, but only on special requests from wealthy customers.
Laddu is a round ball that looks quite a bit like a chocolate truffle. The most common laddu is boondi laddu. It is made with besan (chickpea flour) that is fried into tiny balls, soaked in syrup, and formed into balls. Halwaies makes the best boondi laddu. Then there are laddus made with whole wheat flour (atta) or besan (chickpea flour). These laddus are often made at home using family recipes.
Halwa varieties are limitless. The most popular halwa is made with cream of wheat and is served in temples as communion. The best way to describe halwa is a very thick pudding. The majority of halwas use ghee and milk as the main ingredient. Halwa made with carrots, mung beans, and almond, are some of the other popular halwas.
Kheer literally translates to pudding but should not be confused with Western pudding, as it has a very different in taste and texture. Indian kheers are primarily made with milk, and then anything can go into a kheer, rice being the most common.
Other Mithais: There is an array of mithais that do not fall into the above four categories, such as Jalebi, a pretzel-shaped dessert soaked in syrup, gulab jamun (milk balls swimming in syrup), and rasagulla (fresh cheese boiled in syrup).
This is an excerpt from The Indian Vegan Kitchen, page 194. For more information, check out the chapter on Desserts in the book.
Categories: Blog Articles