Monday, June 4, 2012

Moony about Mithai

Kaju Katli and Kesar Pedha
Most people can't undetstand how a foodie like me doesn't like desserts. Whilst I dont have an obvious sweet tooth the  only dessert I enjoy in the Mithai

Mithai comes from the word Meetha which means sweet. Mithais form most of Indias desserts and are bite sized sweetmeats which are available in shops and in homes around the nation.Depending on the geographical condition of the land each state has its own special mithai which is made in its own unique way.Having said that it is important to know that there are a few generic mithais which are available universally through out India and whose origins it is hard to find. Ladoos which are round sweet balls made of different flours sugar and ghee, Jalebis which are thin deep fried cobweb shaped sweets as well as barfis which are a mixture of mava, sugar and some nuts cut in squares with a silver sheet decorating it.Though every region has its own mithai some cities in India are especially famous for some mithais which literally are responsible for putting those cities on the Culinary map of India- such as Agra’s Petha or Mathura’s Padhas or Nagpur’s Orange Halwa.

Sweetmeats in India are an unusual dichotomy of decadence and minimalism. Indian cuisine bombards the senses with its use of spices and condiments but at the same time Indian desserts are simple in the sense that they have a flavor is uncomplicated and effective.Different spices like nutmeg,mace,cardamom and cinnamon are used with nuts and dried fruits to create a symphony of sweetness and sensuality.A curdled Mixture of milk called chenna is used as well as a reduced milk product called Khoya or Mava. Besan or gramflour and Maida or supersifted white flour are all the key ingredients to make mithais along with a key rule- ghee (clarified butter) and not oil must be used. No self respecting Halwai (A mithai shop seller) would even thing of frying their sweets in oil and it is almost blasphemous to even think of doing so as it corrupts the flavour of the sweet. Some Sweetmeats use only sugar and some form of mlk so that they may be eaten in fasts and different mithais are served on different occasions. One interesting thing to note is that since mithais are used in several Hindi rituals and special festivities,all mithais are purely vegetarian and don’t contain even a drop of egg unlike the west whose desserts are heavily dependant on it..

If one wants to start the journey to disover the mthais of India then everyone knows that the Holy Grail of Mithais is the state that has not only made mithais a national obsession but also an art form - West Bengal. Mishty does not just mean sweet to the Bengalis but it also translates into all aspects of their beings. It stands for their natures, their lyrical language and also their favourite part of the meal-dessert naturally. They are the kings of Mithai with a dazzling array of Mithais that are enjoyed by all of India. Their mouth watering Sandeshs made with Chenna and sugar or jaggery are light and delicate appeasing the particular Bengali Pallate. There are various types of Sandesh, each with a different flavour and even texture but they all are subtle and elegant.nAnother Bengali marvel is Mishty Doi. It’s essentially Yoghurt sweetened traditionally with jaggery but now with sugar. It’s set in earthen pots and even though as a dish is simple it is almost impossible to master. Lesser known more traditional sweets like Kheer Kodom  (sweet kheer filling in a round mava ball)  
and Kheer Samosas (sweet kheer filling in a samosa pastry) are only just finding their way to other areas of India.To break away from these time-honored sweets a Bengali named Nobin Chandra invented Rasgullas which are boiled spongy Chenna balls in sugar syrup. His son KC Das furthered his fathers business and gave the rasgulla a new avatar-the Rasmalai by adding the rasgulla balls to sweetened and spiced milk. Bengalis also have several sweets known as Cham Chams. These are various types of sweetmeats with dry boiled Chenna pieces sandwhiched together with sweetened cream. They often have silver leaves on top of them, chopped pistachios or even flvoured cream. They are also known as Malai Sandwhiches. There are also the deep colored Gulab jamuns which are often thought to be Punjabi inventions because of its immense popularity in Punjabi restaurants. Elongated Gulab Jamuns are called Langhcha. In fact Rasgullas, Gulab jamuns and Rasmalis are more popular in North India and the Metros of India then West Bengal who to some extent are more partial to their traditional desserts…

Other States from Northeast India like, Jharkand and Assam are influenced by their Mithaisavvy neighbors West Bengal but have a variety of their own sweet surprises. They have taken the Gulab Jamun and reinvented it as the Kala Jamun and Pantua. Kala Jamun is a dryer sweetmeat with a darker outer texture and a more intense flavour and Pantua is a sweeter gulab jamun that is four times its regular size. Chamchams are popular here too though they are less elaborate then their Calcutta cousins. Jharkand is also famous for its Chenna Jalebi which regular jalebi with a soft creamy filling of Chenna. Orrisa is known for its Chenna Payas which are cubes of chenna dipped in malai cream with chopped nuts. Since this belt is a rice eating one its only fitting that their desserts use rice as a central ingredient. Thus an interesting variety of mithais hailing from the Northeast are called Pitha. These are mithais that use rice flour with sugar and ghee with a host of other ingredients with different cooking methods to give us different Pithas. Arsa Pitha is Jaggery and Rice flour fried in ghee whereas Ashka Pitha are the same ingredients steamed. Tilkoot Pitha and Anarsa Pitha are the same as Arsa Pithas but with the addition of sesame seeds in the former and sesame seeds and khoya in the latter. As one goes further into these regions normal jaggery is replaced with Khajoor Gud. Khajoor Gud which loosely translates as Date Jaggery is a deeper, richer jaggery with a strong intense flavor and a a resonance that cant be imitated by jaggery from any other region.

If one moves further West to Bihar one has a bevy of Mithais which are rather rugged and basic. There is Khaja which 5-6 layers of white flour deep fried and dipped in sugar. There is the Balushahi which is like the Indian egg less donut made from maida and khoya deepfried golden brown and sticky with sugar syrup. There is Gaja which is just simple cottage cheese and sugar and there is the Thekva or Khajoor which is like a fried cookie. All these mithais are simple in their thought and execution and along with more popular mithais are served in all religious and festive occasions. One very unusual delicacy from this region is the Parval Chop. This is the unusual combination of dessert and vegetable. A baby gourd is taken and boiled. The insides are scooped out and filled with sugar and khoya. This is a popular dish served at weddings. Uttar Pradesh is more elaborate with its Mithai and due to its strong dairy culture has lots of milk based Mithais. The Pedhas from Mathura are renowned all over India. Bal mithai which a dark jaggery based mithai covered with sugar balls like one gets in homeopathy. This most unusual confectionary is available only in the hills of Nainital and it provides its natives with heat. Lucknow is famous for its Shahi tukda which is fried bread soaked in reduced milk with nuts and spices. Gujjiyas which are mostly served in Holi here are also made in Bihar as Pedakiya. These are ornately pleated fried round pastry shells with stuffing’s of coconut, semolina and sugar or khoya and nuts.

Punjab which is a state known for its robust and boisterous people has its desserts which are similar to its nature. The desserts are hearty and rich much like all their food . They have invented several halwas which are essentially a flour or grated vegetable sauted with ghee, sugar and reduced milk. Suji Halwa is a made from Semolina and liberally garnished with raisons and almonds. It  is served after all Hindu Pujas and in the Sikh Gurudwaras as Kada Prashad. Gajar ka Halwa or Carrot Halwa is almost an international favourite as the Punjabis have taken it with them to London and Canada and everywhere else they have migrated. Dudhi ka Halwa or Bottlegourd Halwa is perhaps the most enjoyable way to eat the vegetable and no one can tell that the dish contains a pumpkinlike vegetable. Kulfi or the Indian Icecream is served with piping hot Gulab Jamuns at weddings and Moti choor Ladoos ( ladoos made from miniscule sweet besan balls called Boondi) are key players in any Punjabi Wedding. Punjabis are obsessed with milk and milk products and therefore its no surprise that a major portion of their sweets contain khoya. Delhi which is the capital of the country is also the capital of Halwais serving Khoya mithais and every shape color and flavor is available. Punjab also is influenced by Muslim cusines and has adopted the Malpua (a flat maida puri dipped in sugar syrup) for occasions like Lodhi and well as the Firni which is like a thick milk milk reduction is claypots with silver varak and chopped pistachis as a garnish. A preparation called Kanjeeri is made for nursing mothers with a mixture of several grains,ghee,sugar and flaxseed to induce lactation. Though Sindh is no longer a part of India, Sindhis are an integral part of India society and share common culture with the Punjabis. They do however have a few very unsual mithais like Singhar which is a combination of yellow salty sev and mava and a mithai called Tocha Patisha which are half moon pastry filled with nuts,dried fruits and mava is fried and dipped in sugar syrup and are served in Holi to celebrate Spring time. They make a heavy pistachio halwa which eaten with milk.Overall the North of the country has rich desserts keeping with their hearty behavior and love for good taste.
 The arid belts of Rajasthan and some parts of Gujarat force the people of the land to innovate with the lack of dairy in their mithai and therefore rely on Besan and pulses as their chief ingredient. The climate is scorching and only Besan mithais keep here. Besan ladoos of different varieties as well as Mithais like Soan Papdi are very popular. Badam Pista launj combines dry fruits and sugar for a durable and rich sweetmeat. The more special the occasion the more ingredients like dry fruts and saffron are used.In Gujarat Besan mithais called Golpapdi or Sukhdi as it is known in Saurashtra combines jaggery, ghee and besan/flour to form this hot warm sticky mixture which cooled and cut into diamond shapes. There are several mithais known as Paks which means cooked in Gujarati. Mithais like GundarPak which are made from the sap of Gum tree and BadamPak which is a barfi made with almonds are not just available in shops but are also available n homes depending on the season. Gundarpak is very beneficial to the bones and is also given to pregnant women for nutritive purposes. There are several green patches in Gujarat and these patches have a lot of dairy. Gujarat thus also has a vast variety of milk based mithais. Pendas Or Pedas are a speciality here and this is a food that can be eaten on most fasts. Its served at tea-time,in Pujas, special occasions as well a staple at weddings. Other mithais like Basundi, Doodh pak are milk reductions thickened with rice powder and cream are made more at home then out.
 In Maharasthra most mithais are centered around festivals so whether it is the seseame Ladoo or Til Ladoo for Makar Sakranti or Modaks for Ganesh Chathurthi all the mithais have some cultural significance and meaning to them. Their Puranpolsi (sweet roti)and Shrikhand (sweet and flovured hung curd) are eaten at weddings and they are famous for their Rava (Semolina) ladoos and Coconut Pak (like its Gujarati counterpart) which are made and kept for special occasions or for serving guests. South India which is again a rice eating belt has a large coastal area and has a strong influence of coconut in their mithais. Though most of their desserts like Payasams and kheer are made at home by the women of the house mithai shops do serve the conventional fare of ladoos, pedas,barfis and halwas. One interesting hybrid is their jalebis which unlike the jalebis is the north that are yellow,thin and crispy, are fat and red much like the Orange giant Parsi Jalebis available in Mumbai and Gujarat. Elada is a mithai made of sugar milk riceflour paste and coconut milk whereas Appam is a brown mithai made of jaggery and grated coconut.

Though majority of Mithai is thought to be from Hindu families that is not true. Bori Muslims from Gujarat and Parsis from Gujarat adapt Hindi mithais to have their own concoctions which stay well with in the definition of Mithai. From Kashmir to Kanyakumari mithais are delectable way to ends one meal. But the mighty mithai is changing with tastes and needs of the people. Health freaks and diabetics and have fat free and sugar free ranges of Mithai for them and western ingredients are evolving (mutating?) the mithai into another being. One now sees stores servng fruit jalebis,strawberry halwas, watermelon pedhas and chocolate barfis and one marvels at its metamorphisis. However the throngs of people who line up at the halwai shops prove the age old adage that old is gold and the mithai will sta