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The Fascinating Origins of Indian Desserts

The Fascinating Origins of Indian Desserts

Religion might well be the opiate of the masses in India, but maybe the plethora of desserts offered in the name of religion have a role to play in it, says chef, columnist, and food writer Rajyasree Sen, adding that in today’s political climate, there are few moments as satisfying as Hindus craving for some creamy sheers korma during Eid, or Punjabis asking their Bengali friends for mishti doi.

“I have a background in journalism and with my interest in cooking, ingredients and in the history of foods and flavors, it was only natural that I’d be writing on food,” Sen said of her book, “The Sweet Kitchen – Tales & Recipes of India’s Favorite Desserts”.

She was the Wall Street Journal India’s food columnist for years and has written columns on food for a variety of publications and scripted many food shows for Fox, Nat Geo, and Discovery. Thus, when approached to write on the history and cultural influences on Indian sweets – a topic which surprisingly hasn’t been written about in detail in any one book – the outcome presents readers with some interesting anecdotes, historical facts, and tid-bits about sweets in India and introduces them to some sweets which they might not be familiar with.

Considerable research went into the book.

Sen discovered historical facts she was not aware of or had even considered. For instance, which desserts must we thank the Persians, the Mughals, the Portuguese, and the French for? While she knew that a sweet had been created for Lady Canning in Bengal, she had no idea which Mughal emperor to thank for bringing halwa to India, or the Sikh connection to the creation of kaju barfi. She has also tried to demystify the very controversial question of whether Bengal made the rosogolla first, or if the credit goes to Odisha. She also discovered that daulat ki chaat, an airy, churned milk dessert available only during the cold winter of North India, has a Mughal origin.

Beginning with ‘Sandesh: Muse of the Bengal Renaissance,’ Sen takes the reader through 13 chapters to discover ‘Rosogolla: Who Stole My Cheese’, ‘The Christmas Cake: Cultural Chameleon’, ‘Payasam, Payesh, Kheer: The Three Avatars of Sweet Pudding’, ‘Halwa: The Arab Who Strayed onto the Indian Palate’, ‘Barfi: When Art Outdoes Nature’, ‘Gulab Jamun: Everybody’s Celebration Sweetmeat’, ‘Jalebi: Sweet Lord of the Rings,’ ‘Daulat Ki Chaat: The Lingering Taste of Old Delhi’, ‘Misthi Doi, Shrikhand, Bhapa Doi: Haute Culture Curd’, ‘Goan Sweets: Gems from an Indigenous Pastelaria’, ‘Firinghee Sweets: Delicious Relics of the Raj’, and ‘In God’s Name: Sweetmeats and Cultural Congeniality’.

Each of these chapters contains a short introduction of the sweet, details of the ingredients, the method of making, the preparation time, and the number of people it serves.

Sen also discovered that sweets are not strictly vegetarian — they can also be made with meat and eggs. “For example, there are some non-vegetarian variants of halwa such as gosht halwa and ande ka halwa which are worth mentioning,” she said.

The recipe is referred to in old Persian recipe books, and khansamas who worked in Old Delhi homes have recreated the dish from memory, turning out a delightful dessert prepared by cooking meat for hours by stirring it with milk and sugar till it amalgamates into a thick halwa which is then flavored with saffron and cardamom. This preparation is supposed to have originated in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh.

“Ande ka halwa, or egg halwa, is made by cracking eggs into a pan with ghee, milk, sugar, and dried fruits. The mixture is cooked until a thick custard forms, which is then sprinkled with saffron. Most Indian halwas, however, use grains, such as the suji halwa and atta halwa,” Sen explained.

She earnestly hopes the book will serve the purpose of breaking down barriers. 

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