Once the focal centre of celebrations, these sweets are now privy to a select few. Here’s a list of the lesser known sweetmeats of India
By Madhulika Dash
If you are short of energy or feeling dizzy right in the middle of the day, here is an instant antidote: have a sweet.
Unfathomable today but hark back to ancient times and you would realise that most Indian sweets, including the ones that fit the genre of cravings, were all designed to build you. Even those variations that were a natural progression to the basic sweet. Take the instance of kheer, the all-favourite rice-milk pudding that spewed an array of equally addictive yet technically complex upgrades like the Gointa Kheere in Odisha and Gavhale Kheer in Punjab.
While the former uses the art of steaming a cooked dough of rice to give the kheer, its unique appeal and character; the latter introduced the art of hand crafted seviyan making in India that eventually led to sheer korma. Likewise, was the case of the Halva.
During the early 14th century sweetmeat became the base for some of the most fascinating varieties including one with garlic, chillies and even ginger. The Kheer and Halwa are just relatable examples of the many Indian sweets that are present in our culinary ledger, some known others nearly forgotten, but each with its unique character, nonetheless.
A few like these:
Origin from: Kokan land of Maharashtra
There is nothing grand about Sandan by appearance at least. For most part, it looks like a simple yet delicious coconut-rava barfi, which it is. But that is till you take the first bite and realise that this ancestor of modak is a technically complex piece of artwork. Consider this: to Sandan, a dish that is had on its own and even paired with a spicy Kokani fish or chicken curry, you need to roast the rawa first and then with ghee.
Once that is done, coconut is added. Sugar, which is a mainstay for most desserts these days, plays an incidental sweet role in Sandan. The sweetmeat gets its sweetness from coconut and the right use of the pinch of salt and cardamom (choti elaichi). Once it attains a halva-kind of consistency, which is delicious even now, Sandan goes for its final round of finishing - steaming. This technique gives Sandan, its fluffiness, which is almost akin to the Goan Sanna, and sweet like a Modak or the Odia Manda Pitha. No wonder, it was once a sweet of choice for Ganesh Chaturthi among the Kokani people
Kathal Bichi r Payesh (Jackfruit seed kheer)
Origin from: West Bengal
Many believe that the dish was an innovation from the widow’s kitchen - one that gave West Bengal delicacies like its mochar ghonta and the like; others believe it to have a more humble origin, but truth remains that finding this extremely scrumptious payesh in its own birth place is nothing short of an adventure today. Few have tasted it, and even fewer know how to make it. The reason for it to be a lesser known version of payesh that lives in the many cookbooks written on Bengali cuisine isn’t just the kind of labour this fascinating version of payesh demands but also a certain set of skills.
Made from dried jackfruit seeds, the making of this kheer involves parboiling them just enough to retain their nutty flavours, crush them into small bites and then poach them in milk, just enough that they have this bite that we associate with dry fruits yet cooked enough to give you the same mouthfeel as a rice kheer would. Getting that consistency warrants that you not only know which seeds to pick - often the ones from a ripened jackfruit works the best - but also how to slow poach them in milk without turning the kheer dense.
Taste-wise, it is one of the finest gourmet treats of the season.
Origin from: Bihar
If there is one dish that proves how sweets travelled and inspired newer avatars, it is Anarse - the Mithila time rice powder-jaggery treat that has peers like the Arisa Pitha in Odisha and Ariselu in Andhra Pradesh. Fascinatingly, it isn’t just the ingredients that are common among these three sweets, albeit there are slight differences in garnishes and spices used, it is also the method of making it and the use of local rice. Developed around the rice growing areas of Bihar, Anarse’s popularity grew as a traditional Diwali sweet and one that could travel for days without spoiling.
What gave this sweet that shelf life was the clever composition of the dish itself. Traditionally, Anarse was made with just two primary ingredients - rice and jaggery with salt used only to offset the bitter aftertaste of jaggery - and it was deep fried. The resultant sweet was this hard-shelled treat that could survive any weather change, and hence could travel large distances. In fact, how soon the Anarse turns crusty hard is a benchmark that separates the well-made ones from the average.
Over time, Anarse, like its peers, did adapt to changing taste creating the Mawa Anarse, which is softer than the original and sweeter, but lacks the shelf life. Ancestry-wise, it is believed to be the oldest of all its peers and is called one of the finest creations of Mithila - the birthplace of pithas.
Origin from: Andhra Pradesh
Imagine a sweet made of a wafer-thin paper roll stuffed with all your favourite sugary treats - dry fruits, ghee-roasted nuts, coconut, mawa, even sugar. Then you would have thought of the Andhra Pradesh special wedding treat called Pootharekulu, a dish as ancient and timeless as dosai itself. Said to have originated in the hamlet of Atreyapuram, Pootharekulu today may have many versions but its origin was as Nethi Putarekulu made only with ghee and jaggery.
Its popularity in Andhra and beyond stemmed from the fact that it used easily available ingredients and once prepared in this manner, it could last for almost a month. And could travel well too. Legend has it that farmers and traders often packed Pootharekulu while traveling to distant places. Time and trade saw many versions of the paper roll including the all time favourite using dry fruit and coconut, which stays for a week. While the sweet is still available in some places including the place of origin thanks to the commercialisation of rice paper making, the know-how of making the sweet is a dying art. Few today are aware of how to give the sweet its longevity and addictive taste.
Origin from: Kashmir
Many believe Sufta was a gift from Persia, and time its arrival into India around that of Sambuka, which eventually gave birth to our favourite samosa. However, ask a Kashmiri and he would immediately claim paternity to this exquisitely rich tea time snack. Designed as an ode to the many gems of Kashmir, this little treat, which is often seen in weddings and special occasions, is made with a beautiful melange of some of the most beloved ingredients of our sweet world.
Take this: traditionally a bowl of Sufta comprises of walnuts, dates, rose petals (dried), raisin, pistachio, apricot, dry coconut powder and fresh cheese cubes all lovingly tossed in ghee, saffron and seasoned with cardamom, dry ginger powder, cinnamon, black pepper and salt. There are newer versions that also use dried apples, orange rind and poppy seeds today, but for most traditionalists like Chef Nisar Ahmad, Shufta, which is both a winter and summer treat, is an ode to Kashmir’s finest dry fruits.
A must-have during weddings, what makes Sufta a beloved yet lesser known sweet today is its composition itself. Says Chef Ahmad, “Sufta’s benchmark can rival that of any French dessert as the standards have to be followed to the T. First, even when rolled in hot ghee, the dry fruits have to retain the colour and bite; and two, the seasoning, which has to be tweaked as per seasoning so the taste of Shufta remains the same irrespective of when you are having it; and third, the sweetness of a bowl is measured by its aroma. These finer nuances make Shufta one of the most complex desserts that is seemingly simple by appearance.”
Ande Ka Meetha
Origin from: Udwada
Egg halwa may not hold the novelty these days, but back in time – and we are talking medieval India – the only reference one had of such a dish was the twin delicacy from Malabar called muttamala (egg necklace) and kinnathappam (a steamed pudding made of egg white whipped in sugar syrup). Fascinatingly, by the time the Parsees developed their own new cuisine in Udawada and Sanjaan and came up with their version of Ande Ka Meetha, a dish that represents a Parsees’ colossal love for egg, the only semblance it had with the Malabar peer was the use of eggs.
Made to a Parsee palate, the meetha uses six eggs that are first whisked in butter and then added to rolling milk and churned till it gets this soft akuri kind of consistency. To this, mawa, sugar and cardamom powder is added resulting in this lush, rich dessert with no eggy aftertaste. In fact, only a few people know the trick to make this delicate dessert, it is considered a ‘very special treat’.
When American author Harold James McGee had complimented India’s ability to create the largest range of milk-based desserts in his book, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by saying, “For sheer inventiveness with milk as the primary ingredient, no country on earth can match India,”he had forgotten another element that had inspired some of the finest sweet creations in the country - rice. Thanks to rice being a primary agriculture crop pan India, one finds a slew of interesting examples of sweets that were designed with rice as base.
Take Dehrori for instance. A signature sweet of Chattisgarh, this rice-based sweet uses fermentation as a flavour technique to get its unique taste. It takes a day to prepare the sweet dumpling, which has a sweet-umami taste. What lends the dish its uniqueness is fermentation and use of glutinous rice variety. Thanks to its similar finish texture, Dehrori is often confused with another seasonal favourite called Rassota, which is rice dumpling cooked in freshly-pressed sugarcane juice.
Alu Ka Muzzafar
Origin from: Rohilkhand, Uttar Pradesh
If you believed the ‘dum’ was a technique used only for savoury delicacies like Biryani, then a bite of Alu Ka Muzzafar would make you rethink. A cousin of the now popular Seviyan Ka Muzzafar (hand rolled vermicelli ), this sweet is a privy to very few people today in UP. Said to have been developed by the sweet meat makers of Rohilkhand around the 17th century, this delicious treat is an ode to the intricate art of sweet making in India.
Picture this: Potatoes are grated into a fine thread-like consistency of a glass noodle and then slow-cooked in a sugar syrup till it turns transparent and not golden brown, which potatoes tend to turn thanks to the starch and moisture content. The trick, says Chef Nimish Bhatia, “is to slow roll it in ghee without allowing the temperature to rise. A kind of sous vide, but done decades ago. The result is a brilliant looking seviyan style sweet that is served with chiroli sweets and nuts.”So brilliant was the dish that it is said that the Lucknow Nawabs often ordered it for special occasions.
Origin from: Sambhalpur, Odisha
It is easy to confuse Sarsatia, a Sambalpur speciality, with Achu Murukku. An image that doesn’t change even when you taste this Odia delicacy. And the reason for this is the similarity, much like Achu Murukku, Sarsatia too belongs to the genre of ‘artistic, delicate sweets’ that are known for their appearance and the crisp, melt in your mouth texture. But that is where the similarity ceases. Unlike its Tamilian brethren, Sarsatia is made with rice and the resin of a locally grown and foraged plant called Ganjer.
Incidentally, while the use of ganjer resin gives Sarsatia a mildly sweet taste and novelty, it is also the reason why this sweet has never left this town. Ganjer is a wild plant and only a few know how to harvest it. But that is not the only tricky part of this brilliant sweet, it is the process of extracting the resin which takes expertise and a whole night of soaking. This resin is then mixed with rice flour to make a thin batter and then fried.
The key to making a crisp Sarsatia is to keep the strand extremely fine and needs the hand of an artist to create the mesh-like design. Such is the mastery that this sweet demands that even in Sambalpur only one place excels in making it.
Majun Ki Mithai
Developed by: Sindhi Community
The dessert that is often described as the richer Indian cousin of ‘fudge’ for two reasons: One, it has this glossy dark caramel colour with a golden aura around, which gives it a royal appearance; and two, it is made with ingredients that was once considered to be items worth their weight in gold. Majun a Mithai, which was developed as a homecoming special by homemakers is a tedious process of turning almonds, cashew nut, dried dates, mawa, dry coconut, atta, khus khus into this glossy indulgence with each of the ingredient lending its own charm to the dessert.
Combined with one string/ single thread sugar syrup, the mark of a good Majun, says Sindhi cuisine expert Chef Pradeep Tejwani, “is how well the flavours are built, which involves not only following the recipe to the T while adding the ingredients at different stages but also stirring it constantly so everything gets incorporated well without charring. Such exacting is the art of making Majun, which is still a privy of the homemaker, that even in the Sindhi community, it is believed to be a luxury that is only made on special occasions.
Origin from: Kumaon, Uttrakhand
They say often the simplest dishes are the most complex. Prove: Singodi or as the denizens of Tehri and Almora call it “Singauri”. This two-dessert, made-for-feast sweet dish is as popular in the region for its taste as it is revered for its complexity. Often used to test a bride's understanding of food, this dish is essentially fresh mawa wrapped in a cone of maalu leaf and steamed.
The sweet, which is often given as a gift and a must-have during weddings, is a fine manifestation of how traditionally ingredients were used as flavourants. In the case of Singodi, it is a long held belief that the sweetness and creaminess will come from the mawa while the aroma is lent by the leaf. To get the Singodi right, one needed to master the art of not only good quality mawa making but of steaming as well. Of course, just preparing the cone itself isn’t an easy task either. Result, it is a sweet that today only the elders in the valley know how to make – and make with perfection.
Origin from: Manipur
The secret to why milk was used in many of our sweet dishes was not just its easy availability or the fact that it was considered pure and suitable to be offered in temples, which were the biggest patrons of sweetmeat makers across India; it was also milk’s brilliance as a poaching liquid. Milk has the right amount of fat to not only add sweetness to anything added to it but the ability to pronounce subtle flavours.
A fine specimen of milk’s properties as a base is Madhurjan Thonga. A Manipur speciality where delicate chickpea dumplings are thrown into a thickened milk base with fresh coconut added for extra sweetness. The beauty of this traditional dessert is that much of the sweetness comes from the sweetened milk rather than the coconut shreds which play the character role of balancing the flavours. While not rare in its own state, it is relatively unknown in other parts of the country.