The 'sweet' India

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The sweet India
Satisfy your sweet tooth

Know why Indian civilisation was considered as the sweet world's superhero

By Madhulika Dash

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Published: Mon 14 Aug 2017, 6:00 PM

Last updated: Mon 14 Aug 2017, 8:00 PM

So what's common between jalebi, gulab jamun, halwa and falooda? Though they are the poster boys of India's dessert calendar, none of them claim their origin from India. And yet, place any of them on a quiz table today, and they are more likely to be identified as Indian - not Iranian or Turkish, their original hometowns. This makes us wonder what is it about the art of Indian sweet-making that leaves its indelible mark on every dessert that touches our shores?
Take, for instance, phirni. One of the mainstay of sweet menus today, this version of rice pudding made its way into the Indian hinterland back in the early 6th century from Khuzestan (present-day Iran) as bahtiyeh. Often called the granddad of phirni, this version from Iran was made with rice powder. A favourite of the merchants, the arrival of bahtiyeh to India could be with Iranian and Arab merchants travelling to India where the dessert was easily adapted because of two reasons: milk and rice.
While taking a liking to rice-based sweets came easily to the denizens of port stations - which history professor Michael Wood says were the hubs of exchange of goods, ideas and food - the adaptation came with its own Indian touch.
"Another example of how India changed the sweet is jalebi. As the famous tale goes, jalebi arrived in India from the Middle East. But the one that reached India was a far cry from the present-day version. Zalabiya or zellabiya as it was called then had a different batter (maida as the main ingredient) and was dependent largely on honey and rosewater for sweetness. It was in India that the jalebi got its form - crispness, colour and the sticky sweetness. So, when and how the transformation happened? Unlike gulab jamun that came to India as a fritter and was turned into a coloured globe of soft sweetness, thanks to the addition of milk and mawa, the inspiration for jalebi could have been present in India in other forms. Priyamkarnrpakatha, a Jain work composed in 1450 AD, mentions the existence of a jalebi-like sweet, with references found in old Paka Rasya text where it is called kundalika or jal vallika (sweet with syrup) that could have inspired the jalebi. According to Sweet Innovation: A History of Dessert, the art of syrup making was prevalent in India in early BC as well where sailors would often combine honey and jaggery with yoghurt for an instant sweet tooth and would take candies made of nuts, ghee and sugar on long journeys.
"Sweets," says chef-curator Vikas Seth, "back then were energy food and would form a part of the payment given to the armed forces. Done cleverly like srikhand or shikarini, they could sustain a workforce for hours." An excellent example is Maganlal Chikki of Lonavala which is a modern version of traditional gurdani that was devised as sustenance food for labourers. They created delicacies out of necessity from milk, honey, rice and sugar. Adds Chef Seth, "It was only a part of the Indian sweet story and its vast repertoire of sweet-making skills, the other of course is the culture, where having sweet is a part of the life cycle."
Helva (later halwa) was an import from the house of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566). It arrived in India as a dried, grainy mush that was rehydrated with rosewater, sugar and ground pistachios to get creamy, velvet-like rich texture when the traditional mixture of ghee-sugar along with mewa was added to it.
The other factor influencing the wide array of sweets was our adaptive nature. A case in point: kulfi and gosht ka halwa. While the former utilised the Indian skill of adding creaminess to a dessert with milk and its by-products, the latter was about the blend of technique.
"But what aced our sweets," adds chef owner Chetan Sethi of Zaffran, "was the palatable nature of each of them. This perhaps was because for a good part of the early centuries India remained the hub of political and social confluence which didn't only get us technique but multi-ethnical palates that perfected a sweet."

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