Every Indian by and large has a sweet tooth. This is borne out by the fact that regardless of geographic location, certain kinds of mithai (the Hindi word for sweetmeats) are to be found everywhere. Notably, kheer (also called payesh or payesam) and laddoo have a hoary tradition. Laddoo is supposed to be the favorite food of Lord Ganesha, who is the God of Wisdom. His name needs to be invoked before setting out on a new venture or journey, or entering a new home.
What is truly unique to the Indians is that the making, serving, and eating of sweetmeats is not restricted to festivals, happy or celebratory occasions. Mithai must be served or given away even during funerals, and during other periods of mourning!
The Race of the Gods
In the Rig Veda, there is a story of how the gods ran a race for the first offerings of a new crop. It was won by Indra and Agni, who are traditionally offered a ‘cake’ made from the cereals of the new crop. This cake is none other than a pithe — rather like an idli — which is essentially a sweetmeat made of ground rice/wheat/barley/maize mixed with jaggery, and steam cooked over boiling water. In many traditional Indian homes, a part of the food which is cooked daily is offered to Agni, the fire god.
The other deities were offered a kheer (rice pudding) made of old grain boiled in milk. It is still a tradition among the Bengalis, in particular, to make various kinds of pithe, including the pancake with sweet stuffing called patishaapta, throughout the winter. The Tamils and Malayalis add jaggery to ground rice, and deep fat fry the roundels to make the sweet aappam.
Whatever Be the Occasion or Sweetener — Kheer Is a Must
Payesh (rice pudding) is given as blessings of the presiding deity of a family to the birthday boy/girl in every Bengali household. Till date, it is considered the most auspicious cooked offering to the deities. The Bengalis use a variety of sweeteners apart from sugar. Khejurer gur (the jaggery made from cooked and nearly dried sap of the date palm), honey, misri (rock candy), batasha etc. are used for different items and occasions.
Typically, the payesh made on Basant Panchami (which is supposed to be Ma Saraswati’s birthday) is sweetened with white misri and white batasha. Brown misri is made from the sap of palm fruit tree. It is called taal misri, and is used for medicinal purposes. It is added to certain kinds of sweets to add to their nutritive value. Brown batasha, made from gur, is added to sweet offerings like shirni.
Makar Sankranti special: The Tamilians make payesam for Makar Sankranti (which is traditionally celebrated on 14th January) apart from their Pongal. Incidentally, Pongal is the name of not just their festival (falling on the same date), but also the food they prepare from new grains which is offered to the Sun god. However, throughout north India various sweets, in which til (sesame seed) is a major ingredient, are consumed copiously at Lohri/Makar Sankranti.
Roshogolla or Chhena Pora: A Rose by Any Name…
Think Bengali, and instantly the image of roshogolla and football spring to the mind’s eye. This overwhelmingly popular Bengali sweet dish is made by boiling cottage cheese in a syrup made of either sugar dissolved in water, or liquidized jaggery. However, the Odiyas say that it originated in Puri, when Lord Vishnu (Baba Jagannath) offered Ma Lakshmi this delicacy to persuade her into opening the doors of the temple when he got home too late one night. Whether of divine origin or human invention, it remains one of the top favorites of those who revel in Bengali sweets.
Other popular Bengali sweets: In this context, one must mention that the delicacy of flavor and subtlety of craftsmanship which Nakur Nandy and Paresh Pal achieve in their other Bengali sweets like kacha golla, golap phuler shondesh, kalakand sandesh, malai chamcham etc. ensures that their sole outlet situated in College Street in Kolkata has empty shelves by 11 a.m. everyday! There is the sweetmeat made of parwal stuffed with khoya and boiled in sugar syrup, which was popularized by Haldiram in the seventies of the previous century.
Laddoos galore: In traditional Bengali homes, it is customary to make laddoos of grated coconut, and sweetened with jaggery. However, there are at least a dozen kinds of laddoos which are made at home using as varied ingredients as moong dal, ground rice, ground lotus seeds, semi-ground puffed rice, lightly fried flattened rice, cottage cheese, semolina, wheat flour — some singly, others with or without grated coconut.
Ghee, Sugar, and Dry Fruits Are Essential Ingredients
Kadha prasad of the Punjabis (made of semolina, dry fruits, ghee, and sugar) — served in the gurudwaras — is prepared slightly differently by the Bengalis who call it shujir halua, and by the Kannadigas who call it Kesari Bhaat.
Kaju katli originated in Rajasthan, and remains a favorite all over India for both its taste and long shelf-life. Unlike many other sweets which are milk-based, kaju katli is made from cashew nut paste, ghee, and sugar. So, it does not degenerate easily. Those who relish regal fare appreciate the pista barfi made of pistachio paste and sugar; and the badam barfi made of almond paste and sugar.
Different Sweets, Same God
Traditionally, Shri Krishna must be offered different kinds of sweetmeats over the year. At Holi, it should be gunjiya, and puri ke laddoo (laddoos made of grated coconut, crumbled puris, ground green cardamom, and sugar). On Janmashtami, fritters made of a batter of palm fruit pulp, bananas, milk, flour, and sugar must be offered among other sweetmeats.
At Mathura, Banke Bihariji (Shri Krishna) should be offered chhappan bhog (56-course meals). However, it just means that eight items will be offered daily over seven days, i.e. in a week, without repeating any item. This includes hot, crisp jalebi with frothing fresh milk — which is quite a favored breakfast of Delhiites and people of Banaras.
At Puri, Laddoo Gopal (the crawling baby Shri Krishna holding a laddoo in one hand) must be offered malai (fresh cream) with misri. However, Lord Jagannath’s favored sweet is the crisply fried khaja (deep fat fried fritters of flour) coated with thick sugar syrup.
Same Sweet, Different Connotations
There is a sweetmeat called imarti which has different connotations depending on where you are. It is basically made of a batter of besan (gram flour), deep fried in ghee, and soaked in thick syrup of sugar boiled in water. It is not a syrupy sweet like rasgulla and gulab jamun.
In Delhi, particularly among the Mathurs, it is customary to give imarti to the priest during the period called shraddh. This is traditionally a period of mourning in which people pay homage to their ancestors and seek their blessings in the fortnight preceding the autumnal Navratris. What is given to the priest is also eaten by the family too. However, in Rajasthan people serve imarti during festivals like Holi and Diwali, when there are people constantly streaming in and out of the house.
Any Time Is Sweetmeat Time
“Kuchh meethha ho jaye” is not merely the slogan of a popular chocolate manufacturing company. Whether it is Holi, Diwali or Raksha Bandhan, or celebrating personal milestones like birthdays, anniversaries, promotions, addition of new members to the family; any reason is a good excuse to forget about dismal things like calorie counting, and delve into sweetmeats.
As for the Punjabis, “muh meethha karao” (literally, sweeten the mouth, offer something sweet) means serving a Lahori glass of lassi — the ice cold, thick, frothing curd, and syrup (usually rose) drink, topped with a large dollop of fresh cream. It is the kind of sweet experience that leaves you yearning for more in the summer.
Even Diabetics and Calorie Counters Can Partake of Indian Sweets
If you’ve been thinking that the prime purpose of this article was to tease diabetic individuals and calorie counters; think again. There are many ingredients of the diverse sweetmeats found across the sub-continent which serve to improve health; fight the ill-effects of the weather — summer and winter — or mitigate them; improve nutrition like those which are rich in dry fruits and use cottage cheese or semolina.
Natural sweeteners like honey, rock candy made from the sap of the palm fruit tree, shakkar (coarse unrefined natural brown sugar), and khejur gur can be used for diabetics as they have medicinal value, but don’t radically increase sugar counts unless killer amounts have been used to sweeten the dishes. Here’s to a sweet future!