Sweets from the Indian subcontinent
Sugarcane has been grown in the Indian subcontinent for thousands of years, and the art of refining sugar was invented there 8000 years ago (6000 BCE) by the Indus Valley Civilisation. The English word "sugar" comes from a Sanskrit word sharkara for refined sugar, while the word "candy" comes from Sanskrit word khaanda for the unrefined sugar – one of the simplest raw forms of sweet. Over its long history, cuisines of the Indian subcontinent developed a diverse array of sweets. Some claim there is no other region in the world where sweets are so varied, so numerous, or so invested with meaning as the Indian subcontinent.
In the diverse languages of the Indian subcontinent, sweets are called by numerous names, one common name being Mithai (मिठाई, মিঠাই, مٹھائی). They include sugar, and a vast array of ingredients such as different flours, milk, milk solids, fermented foods, root vegetables, raw and roasted seeds, seasonal fruits, fruit pastes and dry fruits. Some sweets such as kheer are cooked, some like burfi are baked, varieties like Mysore pak are roasted, some like jalebi are fried, others like kulfi are frozen, while still others involve a creative combination of preparation techniques. The composition and recipes of the sweets and other ingredients vary by region. Mithai are sometimes served with a meal, and often included as a form of greeting, celebration, religious offering, gift giving, parties, and hospitality in the Indian subcontinent. On South Asian festivals – such as Holi, Diwali, and Raksha Bandhan – sweets are homemade or purchased, then shared. Many social gatherings, wedding ceremonies and religious festivals often include a social celebration of food, and the flavors of sweets are an essential element of such a celebration.
Ancient Sanskrit literature from India mention feasts and offerings of mithas (sweet). Rigveda mentions a sweet cake made of Barley called apūpa, where barley flour was either fried in ghee or boiled in water, and then dipped in honey. Malpua preserves both the name and the essentials of this preparation. One of the more complete surviving texts, with extensive descriptions of sweets and how to prepare them, is the Mānasollāsa (Sanskrit: मानसोल्लास; meaning in Sanskrit, the delight of an idea, or delight of mind and senses). This ancient encyclopedia on food, music and other Indian arts is also known as the Abhilaṣitārtha Cintāmaṇi (the magical stone that fulfils desires). Mānasollāsa was composed about 1130 CE, by the Hindu King Somesvara III. The document describes meals that include a rice pudding which are called payasam (Sanskrit: पायसं); in languages of South Asia, it is also called kheer. The document mentions seven kinds of rice.
Mānasollāsa also describes recipes for golamu, a donut from wheat flour that is scented with cardamom; gharikas, a fried cake from black gram flour and sugar syrup; chhana, a fresh cheese and rice flour fritter soaked in sugar syrup that the document suggests should be prepared from strained curdled milk mixed with buttermilk; and many others. Mānasollāsa mentions numerous milk-derived sweets, along with describing the 11th-century art of producing milk solids, condensed milk and methods for souring milk to produce sweets.
The origin of sweets in the Indian subcontinent has been traced to at least 500 BCE when, records suggest, both raw sugar (gur, vellam, jaggery) and refined sugar (sarkara) were being produced. By 300 BCE, kingdom officials in India were acknowledging five kinds of sugar in official documents. By the Gupta dynasty era (300–500 CE), sugar was being made not only from sugar cane, but from other plant sources such as palm. Sushruta Samhita records about sugar being produced from mahua flowers, barley (yavasa) and honey and Sugar-based foods were also used in temple offerings as bhoga for the deities which, after the prayers, became prasād for devotees, the poor, or visitors to the temple.
Varieties (in alphabetical order)
Bal mithai is a brown chocolate-like fudge, made with roasted khoya, coated with white sugar balls, and is a popular sweet from Kumaon. It is said to be invented in Almora bazaars in early twentieth century and since then has become a symbol of Kumaoni cuisine.
Barfi is a sweet made from milk solids (khoya) or condensed milk and other ingredients like ground cashews or pistachios. Some barfi use various flours such as besan (gram flour). Barfi may be flavored with pastes or pieces of fruit such as mango, banana, berries, or coconut. They may also include aromatic spices such as cardamom and rose water to enhance the overall flavor.
Sometimes a thin layer of silver or gold edible foil is placed on top of burfi for an attractive presentation. Gold and silver are approved food foils in the European Union, as E175 and E174 additives respectively. The independent European food-safety certification agency, TÜV Rheinland, has deemed gold leaf safe for consumption. Gold and silver leaf are certified kosher. These inert metal foils are neither considered toxic to human beings nor the broader ecosystem.
Chhena murki, or chenna murki, is a sweet made from an Indian version of cottage cheese, milk and sugar in many states such as Odisha. Milk and sugar are boiled to a thick consistency and round, cube, cuboid or other shapes of cottage cheese are soaked in the milky condensate. The sweet originated in the coastal areas in the district of Bhadrak and nowadays is available in all parts of Odisha. Other flavors and aromatic spices are typically added. It is also known by Bengali and Guyanese people as pera.
Chhena Poda is a cheese dessert from the state of Odisha in eastern India. 'Chhena poda' literally means 'burnt cheese' in Odia. It is made of well-kneaded homemade cottage cheese or chhena, sugar, cashew nuts and raisins, and is baked for several hours until it browns. The best quality of Chhena Poda is found in the localities of Nayagarh District in Odisha.
Chikki is a ready-to-eat solid, brittle sweet generally made from casting a mix of dry nuts and hot jaggery syrup. Peanuts and jaggery mix are most common. Other than almonds, cashews, walnuts, sesame and other seeds, varieties of chikki are also prepared from puffed or roasted Bengal gram, puffed rice, beaten rice, puffed seasonal grains, and regional produce such as Khobara (desiccated coconut). Like many Indian sweets, Chikki is typically a high protein delicacy.
Gajrela, also called Gajar halwa, is a seasonal pudding-like sweet made from carrots. It is popular in the Punjab regions of India, the agricultural belt of North India, and now common in many parts of the Indian subcontinent. It is made by slowly cooking shredded carrots with ghee, concentrated and caramelized milk, mawa (khoya) and sugar; it is often served with a garnish of aromatic spices, almonds, cashews or pistachios. The recipes vary by region. Gajrela may be cooked without ghee and can include cheese or other milk solids for a sophisticated mix of flavors. It is common in Indian and Pakistani restaurants and is a seasonal street and cafe food served during the post-monsoon season through to spring festive celebrations.
Jalebi and Imarti
Jalebi and Imarti is made by deep-frying a fermented batter of wheat flour with yoghurt, in a circular (coil-like) shape and then soaking it in sugar syrup. Imarti is a variant of Jalebi, with a different flour mixture and has tighter coils. Typically Jalebi is brown or yellow, while Imarti is reddish in colour. The sweet is often enjoyed with milk, tea, yogurt or Lassi. In classical Sanskrit literature, jalebis have been referred to as kundalika or jalavallika.
Kesari Bhath is a sweet dish made of semolina, sugar, ghee. Its origins are attributed to Kannada cuisine. It has the consistency of a grainy soft halwa. Semolina is roasted and boiled with very little water when it loses its water content sugar and ghee are added . Often cardamom and Cloves are added for the aromatic smell.
Khaja is a sweet of India. Refined wheat flour, sugar, and oils are the chief ingredients of khaja.
It is believed that, even 2000 years ago, Khaja was prepared in the southern side of the Gangetic Plains of Bihar. These areas, which are home to the sweet, once comprised the central part of the Maurya and Gupta empires. Presently, Khajas are prepared and sold in the city of Patna, Gaya and several other places across the state of Bihar. Khajas of the Silao and Rajgir are known for their puffiness.
Khajas have traveled to other parts of the Indian subcontinent, including Andhra Pradesh and Odisha. The Khaja of Kakinada, a coastal town of Andhra Pradesh, is famous in South India and Orissa. This Khaja is dry on the outside and full of sugar syrup on the inside. The Khaja of Puri is also very famous. Khajas are made by first mixing a batter of wheat flour, mawa and oil. The batter is then deep fried until crisp. Next, a sugar syrup is made which is known as "pak". The crisp croissants are finally soaked in the sugar syrup until they absorb the liquid.
Kheer, Phirni or Payas/Payasam
Kheer is a pudding, usually made from milk, sugar and one of these ingredients: vermicelli, rice, bulgur wheat, semolina, tapioca, dried dates, or shredded white gourd. It is also known as payas. Phirni is a popular variant of kheer.
A sweet rice pudding, payas has been a cultural dish throughout the history of the Indian subcontinent and is usually served during ceremonies, feasts and celebrations. In many parts of India, ancient traditions maintain that a wedding is not fully blessed if payas (or payasam as known in South India) is not served at the feast during traditional ceremonies like marriage, childbirth, annaprasan (first solid feed to child), and other occasions. Other than sweet yogurt, some families serve kheer during the last meal, as auspicious food, before a family member or guest departs on a long journey away from the home.
Kozhukatta is a traditional sweet dumpling originating from Sri Lankan Catholics . It is made up of thickened rice flour and variations of the filling may include using coconut, jaggery or sugar. It is closely associated with modak and mochi.
Kulfi is traditional South Asian ice-cream. It is made using flavored milk that is first condensed and caramelized by slow cooking along with a small quantity of rice or seasonal grain flour; once condensed, dry nut pastes and aromatic spices are added and the mix frozen in small earthen or metal cans. This creates a dense form of frozen dessert; it is typically served between −10 to −15 °C when it is easier to spoon and eat. Kulfi comes in a variety of flavors such as mango, saffron, pistachios, badam (almond), coconut and plain. It is also a street side summertime snack and festive sweet, which food hawkers carry around in a big earthen pot and play a particular horn music to attract customers. These vendors are known as kulfiwalla (those who sell kulfi).
Laddu (sometimes transliterated as laddoo or laadu) is made of varieties of flour, grains, pulses, semolina, regional or seasonal fruits, dry fruits, and other ingredients cooked with sugar. These are then shaped into bite-size or larger spheres. Laddu is mentioned in ancient Sanskrit documents as temple offerings, and is referred to as ladduka. It is popular all over India, is easy to prepare, and comes in dozens of varieties. Laddu is often served during festivals, religious ceremonies, or household events such as weddings.
One example of laddu is Motichoor ka Ladoo. It is a sweet food popular in states like Bihar. It is made from roasted gram flour flakes which are sweetened, mixed with almonds, rolled into a batter and then cast into mini balls and fried in ghee. Every mini ball, called boondi, melts like a fresh sweet. The mini balls are combined with aromatic spices and then formed into bite-size spheres, which are called motichoor ka ladoo. With each bite, the mini balls distribute a burst of flavor throughout the mouth. Other examples include Tirupati laddu, so popular that over a million laddu are distributed every week from a single temple of Lord Venkateswara.
Malpua is homemade sweet popular in the Indian subcontinent. It is a form of deep fried pancake (made of wheat or rice flour) that is soaked in sugar syrup.
Narikel Naru is a ball-shaped sweet from Bengal. It is made from condensed milk and coconut and is served during Kojagori Lakshmi Puja, Poush Parbon (Makar Sankranti), and several other occasions.
Parwal Ki Mithai
Parwal Ki Mithai is a dry sweet made of parwal, a gourd-like vegetable. The shell of the parwal is filled with milk solids and then cooked. It is popular in Bihar, but is also found in Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.
Pathishapta is a Bengali dessert. The final dish is a rolled pancake that is stuffed with a filling often made of coconut, milk, cream, and jaggery from the date palm. These desserts are consumed in Thailand as well.
Rasgulla is a popular sweet in the Indian subcontinent. It comes in many forms, such as Kamalabhog (orange rasgulla), Rajbhog (stuffed with dry fruits and khoya inside), Kadamba (often served with kheer), and Rasamundi, Raskadamba. Some are white in color while others are cream, brown, gold or orange. They are called Rasbari in Nepal. This dish is made by boiling small dumplings made of a mixture of chhenna and semolina in sugar syrup. Once cooked, these are stored in the syrup, making them spongy. Increasing the semolina content reduces the sponginess of the dessert and hardens them, creating a variety of textures. Some Rasgulla are stuffed inside with treats, such as dry fruits, raisins, candied peel, and other delicacies to create a variety of flavors. Some versions, called danedhar, are removed from the syrup and sugar-coated into different fruit shapes and other creative designs. These are festive foods found year-round in many parts of India.
Ras malai or rosh malai is a dessert eaten in the Indian subcontinent. The name ras malai comes from two words in Urdu/Hindi: ras, meaning "juice", and malai, meaning "cream". It has been described as a rich cheesecake without a crust. Ras malai consists of sugary white cream or yellow-coloured (or flattened) balls of paneer soaked in malai (clotted cream) flavoured with cardamom.
Shondesh is a sweet made of fine cow's milk cheese kneaded with fine ground sugar or molasses. This is a Bengali sweet. Revered as a delicacy and appreciated by the connoisseur, sandesh represents sweet-making at its finest. Sandesh comes in two varieties, "Norom Pak" (the softer version) and "Koda Pak" (the harder version). The softer version, although more popular, is fragile. The harder version is robust and often easier to store. Molasses made from dates can be used to make a special variation of Sandesh called "Noleen Gurher Sandesh" (a Sandesh made from "Noleen Gurh" or molasses from dates) or simply "Noleen Sandesh".
Sel roti is a Nepali home-made circular-shaped bread or rice donut that is prepared during Tihar, a widely celebrated Hindu festival in Nepal and India (Sikkim and Darjeeling regions). It is made of rice flour and incorporates customized flavors. A semi liquid rice flour dough is usually prepared by adding together milk, water, sugar, butter, cardamom, cloves as well as other flavors based on personal choice.
Shrikhand is a creamy dessert made out of strained yogurt, from which water is drained off completely. Dry fruits, mango puree, saffron or cardamom, and sugar are added to the thick yoghurt to get the desired flavour and taste. It is served chilled. It is a traditional West Indian dish.
Soan papdi is a predominantly sugar based sweet that is pulled to create thin strands resembling cotton candy. It is flaky and has a crisp texture and melts in the mouth. It is usually packaged in cubes and served garnished with chopped pistachio nuts, or in a rolled paper cone. There are many different flavorings that can be added, including mango, strawberry, pineapple and chocolate.
Other traditional Indian sweets and desserts famous throughout the history of Indian food include:
- Mysore pak (a dessert made out of ghee, sugar and chick pea flour)
- Halwa (or Halva in modern English spelling); made out of flour, butter and sugar
- Dharwad pedha
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