The Rise of Gujiya

Here’s how the half moon sweet became a favourite pan India – and why do we crave it every festival
By Madhulika Dash

There are many theories as to what led to the origin of gujiya, India’s favourite celebratory sweet. One theory says that it is one of the off shoots of sambuka, which gave us samosa; another believes it was an indigenous concept from Bundelkhand and dates it around the 17 th century; and yet another philosophy claims it to be a modern interpretation of the ancient apupa (rice cake), giving the similarity in process of frying and use of sweet thus making it a sweet of the Sangam period

Fascinatingly, when you look at Gujiya, a moon-shaped, deep fried delicacies with sweet stuffing, all the above theories ring true. Much like the sambuka, Gujiya too is deep friend with a stuffing inside. Although, the benchmark of a well-done gujiya is the flaky pastry or covering. A little fact that has linked this Holi essential to Turkish Bakalva as well.

Clearly, pinning where did Gujiya originate is as easy as find that one theory that dominates the rest. However, the one aspect of this moon shaped sweet that chefs, historians and aficionados concur is the addictiveness of this versatile delicacy – and its ability to travel. How else does one explain the sheer number of variations that gujiya has spelled in its lifetime that spans from the doubly-dipped palakari in Punjab to large Praghree in Sindh to Pedakiya in Bihar, Ghughra in Gujarat, Karanji in Maharashtra, and Karachika, Kajjikayi and Nevri in the South. In fact, in every region that Gujiya has travelled – which is a major part of the country – it has had two basic styles of making it.

One, says Chef Gaurav Raghuvanshi (Corporate Chef, Movie Time Cineplex), “is the dry version where the covering is flaky and crisp with a relative dry but sweetened mawa filling; and the other, which is loved by most in the North, is the sugar syrup douses variety that can take on a variety of the sticky fillings including the traditional coconut & jaggery to sweetened dal and to the more experimental apple and cinnamon to spinach and cheese, and even Nutella and nuts gujiya. And a savoury one too.”

Chef Raghuvanshi who has been experimenting with the wide variety of fillings for gujiya calls it “the Indian answer to the apple pie and bakalva.

Think about it a good gujiya, even the one that is doused in sugar syrup, is known for its thin, crisp, melt-in-your mouth pastry around it.” In fact, the benchmark of a good gujiya is not only how crisp the outer layering is, or how quickly it puffs up when deep fried, but also how soon it crumbles to help you reach into the sweet filling inside, elaborates the self- proclaimed gujiya lover, who finds the process of sieving the flour before it is made into a soft dough, the key to making some great moon shaped sweet.

Fascinatingly, this process also aided in Gujiya mobility and eventual pan India recognition. Of course, a generous part of making Gujiya, an Indian favourite, goes to our trading community that settled in various parts of the country introducing this crescent deliciousness, which eventually began taking on local avatar with their filling.

Such was the culinary infiltration that it became a mainstay sweet for many states across country – with local nuances coming to play. Like while Northern India loves it mawa, in the South, coconut – fresh or desiccated - ruled; and in East it would be a combination of jaggery and fresh coconut. Now what makes us crave for gujiya come March? Says nutrition therapist Sveta Bhassin, “the purpose behind the moon-shaped sweet wasn’t just to make the palate happy, but also for instant energy and to calm the body that usually goes through the seasonal change stress.”

How does it do it? “Two ways,” says Bhassin. “First, with the use of ghee, which is kneaded into the dough and used in frying. The ghee not only helps in digestion but also oils the system for the easy assimilation of nutrient in the body. The sweetness calms the stressful mind as well. Two, is the filling, that is usually locally available ingredients of the season and works as this complex combination of good fat, carbohydrates and protein, with smidgen of minerals because of jaggery being used. Thus, turning a treat into a healthy bite.”

That was however the case with the traditional ingredients where even the maida used was sieved atta and had some of the healthy nutrients intact. But in moderate amount, even the present-day version works well. Just remember, ends Bhassin, “to ensure limited use of sugar.”