Culinary History: The Legend of Doda Barfi

Know why Chef Manish Mehrotra calls it his finest recreation – his favourite too!

By: Madhulika Dash

Among the few dishes that have never left Indian Accent menu since its inception days are the iconic Spicy Spare Ribs which is served with desi aam papad and the Doda Barfi Treacle Tart. In fact, in the years that Chef Mehrotra has emerged as the face of modern Indian cuisine – in India and elsewhere- this dessert served like a cake slice with in-house vanilla icecream has been on his list of those few perfect creations that he would not want to change, ever. Interestingly it is the view that most who dine at this Holy Grail of Indian culinary world feel the same.

Click here for the recipe of Doda Barfi Treacle Tart Recipe

It is indeed a dessert perfected – and archived well. But how did Chef Manish Mehrotra go about perfecting a dessert that is not only old, but considered an extraordinary innovation of its period.

The culture of playing and creating interesting culinary innovation with dairy has been a tradition that goes back to early years of civilization – almost close to the Harappan times. Records show that desserts back then were mostly around dairy with fruits playing a garnish role. People in Vedic times in fact knew the art of making sweetened curd and thick fruit yogurt and the art of making Ricotta cheese, especially the crumbly ones. And as studies suggest did know mawa – the key ingredient that finds mention in epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata as well.

So when did Fudge, whose base is dairy – and the name Doda come about?

Rewind 1912: Legend has it that Harbans Vig, a wrestler from Khushab of Sargodha district, hit upon the sweet stuff while experimenting in his kitchen to find that appealed to his sweet palate, and yet was nutritious enough. Others believe that the origin of Doda Barfi – at least its first iteration – was in form of PEDA that developed in Mathura (Uttar Pradesh), and could be as old as the early medieval time. After all, it is one of Lord Krishna favourite sweet besides makhan (cream). Folklore has it that it was the Thakur family that came from UNNAO district who made the Peda famous as Dharwad Peda. Stories has it that in 19 th century Unnao was hit by a plague, which resulted Ram Ratan Singh Thakur to come to Mathura and settle down as sweetmakers. The highlight of the shop was of course the Peda, which is still famous – and the recipe is a passed on to the heir to the shop.

Yet there is little known as to how the brown, gooey dessert came to being. There is of course a section that believes this form of peda or barfi to come from the temples – and shops around the temples. And given that the culture of offering sweets and fruits to god and goddesses began only after the fall of Buddhism and the rise of the religious sect, it is likely that the invention was around the middle ages of the Indian History. And since khoya or mawa were considered pure forms of offering, it is easy to connect the dots that how a temple offering could turn into a popular dessert. Of course the rise of the dessert came as a Diwali treat – for its sheer quality to travel well, and stay as long. In fact around Meerut, a shop usually serve this grainy, fudge-like sweet warm with a slather of chilled rabdi, and is a must after any meal in the old areas of Sadar Bazar. Much like Chef Mehrotra who loves his barfi "warmed and served with a drizzle of cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream."

But was this the reason that at Indian Accent, this traditional  dessert is served as a Tart Wedge? Almost, says the culinary wizard, who found the inspiration of recreating this "perfect" dessert in the Sainsbury's treacle tart. It was the change of the presentation style, which according to the masterchef "gives it more relevance to the modern palate" the ordinary Diwali sweet went on to become an extraordinary Indian treat.