Ever wondered how did the trend of creating the tri-hued sweets and treats come to the fore? Youmay have to thank the Halwais of India.
By Madhulika Dash; Pictures courtesy Indian Odyssey Book
Five years ago, when Chef Vikas Seth created the Kala Jamun Tart (in picture) for an Indian Odyssey- themed table, he wasn’t just playing around with textures, taste and mouthfeel, but instinctively
also digging into some of his favourite sweet combination that had made him his “sweet memories.”
In other words, sweet combination he had as kid.
Recalls the culinary maestro, “the thought behind creating the Kala Jamun Tart – which is made of kala jam, a good layer of rabri, pista halwa on one side and sweet boondi on the other and of course, an atta biscuit inspired crumbly tart – was to bring together a slice of the Indian Sweet Story in a way that is more conventional to the time.”
Inadvertently though, Chef Seth’s creation was also an ode to the traditional sweetmeat makers of India and their ingenuity to creating sweet pairings that did more than just whet the appetite – they were the perfect mode to advocate an idea. In this case, it was the idea of a free, republican India.
One where there was unity in diversity – much akin to the Great Indian Sweet Story, where every sweet – no matter its place of origin – could be effectively paired with the another to create this perfect bite of palate joy.
In fact, the Kala Jamun Tart was a harp back to the one of the glorious chapter of our freedom struggle, where the halwais of India played an equally significant role not just as one of the support system of the struggle but also as the institute that could educate, even advocate the cause of one nation – and freedom to effectiveness. How they did it? By creating sweets and their names that could create the biggest impact. One such innovation that is credited to the halwais of Varanasi was the Tiranga Barfi. Created by sandwiching a khoya barfi between a later of orange barfi on one side and piste ki launj on the other, it was a sweet that market not just the unfurling of the Tiranga on the banks of the Ravi river by Jawahar Lal Nehru; but was used by the halwais around to imprint the image of the national flag – a symbol of unity – across India as it became a rapid favourite of not just the sweetmakers but the sweet loving colonial India.
Another such incident was the creation of Thaggu Ke Ladoo. It is said that the creator Ram Avtar Pandey changed the name of his famous ladoos to Thaggu Ke Ladoo after listening to Mahatma Gandhi elucidate the bad effects of using the white sugar – another British gift that helped control people. Given that sugar was cheaper than jaggery at the time and changing the sweet would make the ladoos expensive, Pandey decided to rename it instead so that people became aware of not just the harm of consuming excessive sugar but of the British motive too. Did they succeed? While it is hard to tell today, but according to nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, “back in the time, this trick would certainly have had a captive audience, given that sweets, especially those that have a good amount of glucose/sugar and clarified butter work towards rising the levels of Serotonin, leaving the brain calm and reciprocative to all forms of ideas, even the radical ones.”
And in our case, the halwais used the two components of glucose and ghee to their advantage while creating a variety of sweets that were not just fascinating to the taste but effective at getting the message through. How else, would one explain the genesis of sweets like the Jawahar Ladoo and the Sarojini Chum Chum and their popularity – interestingly, not just among the denizens of the country but also the Colonial powers, who found the sweet offerings hard to resist and had willingly kept it our of the law purview.
Result, sweet shops across the country, much like the coffee houses, became safe haven for the revolutionaries, leaders and young minds to mingle freely, send out encrypted messages to fellow mates across the country without getting caught – and even survive on while on the run, or in need of a little indulgence. Story has it that during his years in Delhi, legendary Bhagat Singh would often venture in the night to the halwai gali of the Chandni Chowk to have his fill of a balmy khulad wala garam dudh, jalebi and some easy conversation without the fear of being caught.
It was then only befitting for the halwais to recreate the tiranga barfi on the first celebration of the Republic Day in Red Fort to mark one of the biggest events in the history of free India. After all, if there was one thing that could effectively translate the significance of the day, it was a tri-coloured mithai.
And so began the trend of tri-colouring food, every Republic Day.