How to give your guests a sweet surprise this Diwali
Rachel Goenka's experiments with traditional Indian sweets have translated into a unique book Featuring recipes that give them a modern twist
Diwali is one of those occasions when the spotlight turns to mithais (sweets). In her first book, Adventures With Mithai (published by HarperCollins), chef and restaurateur Rachel Goenka, who grew up in Dubai, gives a modern spin to traditional Indian sweets. From chocolate barfi cheesecake to anjeer barfi tart, this Diwali, prepare to surprise your guests with the modern version of their favourite desserts. Excerpts from an interview:
How would you say Indian sweets have evolved over a period of time?
Indian sweets have always been sacrosanct and haven't really evolved beyond the presentation and packaging. Every Diwali, I have always only seen beautiful boxes of mithai being gifted and lately even fine chocolates have become a great gifting trend. That's one of the main reasons I decided on my first book being about mithai. The idea was to show the world just how versatile mithai actually is, and how one can merge traditional with contemporary in my desserts. Every Diwali, people have so much mithai that it usually ends up being tossed. This is a great way to use mithai and transform them into totally different desserts.
Chocolate barfi can be turned into a chocolate barfi cheesecake; motichoor laddoos into a motichoor laddoo and cardamom mousse with a salted biscuit crumb; pista barfi can be transformed into a pista barfi oatmeal bar layered with sunflower seeds, cornflakes, cranberries and oatmeal; kaju katli, which is one of the most popular mithais, can be turned into kaju katli truffles, which takes minutes to make.
How experimental is the Indian palate when it comes to sweets?
We love our sweets. Recently, I met an elderly woman at one of my workshops, and she was excited about the recipes. She told me that although she was diabetic and her doctor had insisted she stayed away from sweets, she couldn't resist and had to indulge at least once a day. That's almost everyone today. My dad too is diabetic, and the bitter chocolate nap naang from my book is dedicated to him. It contains no sugar - just dark chocolate and black rice. It's the only diabetic recipe in the book but there is something in there for everyone, every palate and every preference.
Filter Coffee Truffles
You mention in the book that it has taken you seven years of experimentation to come up with these recipes. What did that entail?
When I started my first restaurant, The Sassy Spoon, in 2012, I put tremendous amount of thought into the desserts as well as the food. Ours was one of the first restaurants to redefine how desserts were curated and plated. I decided to apply that same concept to my desserts every Diwali. That's how I started working on the menus. For example, in the past, I have done a sweet saffron khandvi with rabri cream and balsamic caviar. The dessert looked exactly like a khandvi. There are a lot of restaurants today, especially in Dubai, that are elevating desserts in a similar manner. The challenge is adapting those recipes for a home baker. I had to simplify a lot of the recipes and even though it took seven years of research, it was more for a plated dessert meant for a restaurant. There aren't any complex procedures, so, as a chef, the challenge was in the simplification while maintaining creativity.
Which of the recipes featured in the book enjoys mass popularity and why?
Almost all. The mithais that I have chosen are based on what is popularly consumed and I have also included one from almost every state or region. In that sense, there is a good representation. From ghevar apple crumble from Gujarat, the bitter chocolate nap naang from Nagaland, Roskadam cheesecake from Bengal, Shahi Tukda cinnamon rolls from Hyderabad to a tender coconut (elaneer pudding) with rasmalai from Kerala, there is something for everyone.
Chocolate barfi cheesecake
Having grown up in Dubai, what is your sense of people's penchant for desserts here, given the palate itself is so multicultural?
People are experimental in Dubai. I think it is purely due to the city being a melting pot of so many different cultures. I went to Emirates International School in Jumeirah and every year, we would celebrate International Day in a big way. Every single nationality had a stall, where they displayed food from their country. So, it gave us a lot of exposure and insight into each others' cultures and traditions. Today, Dubai has become a multicultural food destination.
Do you ever find your love for food being at odds with the demands of entrepreneurship?
In fact, quite the opposite. Being an entrepreneur isn't just about running a company and looking at marketing and finance. Those are fundamental aspects of a successful company, but I create brands. In order to sustain those brands, one has to constantly be a few steps ahead and think about what's next. Complacency scares me. Once I finish something, I am already working on something else. As far as food is concerned, you have to constantly push the envelope in terms of creativity and innovation. I like raising the bar for myself because it encourages me to constantly step out of a comfort zone. When I started my first restaurant, I was a trained chef from Le Cordon Bleu, London and Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland (having studied under celebrity chef and my namesake, Rachel Allen). My training was in European food. Today, I have eight different brands and have ventured into Indian and Asian cuisine as well.
Anjeer Barfi Treacle Tart
Any plans of expanding your business to Dubai?
We are always excited about new markets and Dubai is definitely something we are considering. There is also a lot of excitement with Expo2020 around the corner. I'd love to open a restaurant here, because for me, Dubai is still home.
Art or science - how do you view the process of cooking food?
They go hand in hand. Pastry, especially, is a hardcore science. I was always a chemistry nerd in school, maybe that's why the fascination with the subject. But that's just about the process. Cooking is more about emotion. It's about discovering your own palate, pushing your own boundaries and expressing who you are as a person. There is a lot of romance in the storytelling of food. That's why I love what I do. I have more books to write and more stories to tell and more envelopes to push. You have to set goals that are almost out of reach. If you set a goal that is attainable without much work or thought, you are stuck with something below your potential.