Feb 23, 2002 (Updated Oct 4, 2005)
The Bottom Line Indian sweets represent all that is rich, sweet, festive, and celebratory in Indian life.
After living in the United States for almost nine years now, I have noticed a striking similarity between North Americans and Indians. Do you know what is similar between the people of these two countries?
It is their incorrigible sweet tooth! When I see people here in Seattle waiting in lines for hours to get their hands on those Krispy Kreme donuts, I dont feel far away from Bangalore where people wait outside Bhagatram Halwaii to whet their sugar cravings with their special Gulab Jamuns.
India has a huge repertoire of sweets. Sweets are associated with celebration and festivity of any kind. They are prepared in Indian households not only for special feasts and fairs, but also for commonplace celebrations like birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, or even any other concocted reason . It is not uncommon to find a person sharing sweets with their whole neighborhood simply because he/she is the proud owner of a new car!
But unlike in the United States, sweets are not necessarily the last course of a meal; they are served with the rest of the meal. In fact as a part of a Vedic tradition, especially during celebrations, people can start eating a meal only after having had a bite of the sweet on the plate, to signify the celebration.
Ayurveda (Indian Medicine) recognizes the sweet taste element(one among six other taste elements) as an essential one, for a general feeling of satiety and well being. Isnt that Wisdom? Some proponents of Ayurveda advice people to have a small portion of dessert in the beginning of a meal, because that is when the digestive fire is the strongest, and really is capable of tackling a heavy sweet dish. So, our kids were right after all. Dessert always comes first!
Demystifing Indian Sweets:
You know your Chicken Vindaloo, Tandoori Naan, and maybe even your Saag Panner, but are you stumped when it is time to order dessert while dining at an Indian restaurant?
Most Indian sweets can broadly be divided into six categories. They are Kheers and Payasas, Laddoos, Halvas, Burfis, Kulfi, and Syrup based sweets. I will go over each of these categories briefly, and try to explain what they are, and give you some examples of sweets in each category.
Kheer and Payasa: Think pudding while visualizing Kheer or Payasa. The two basic ingredients in both these dishes are milk and grain. Kheer is a rich rice pudding made out of white basmati rice, milk, and sugar. Payasa, a dish from southern India, is a milk based pudding, made with a very thin noodle called vermicelli. Both Kheer and Payasa are flavored with saffron and cardamom.
Laddoos: Think a crumbly textured candy ball while visualizing a Laddoo. Laddoos are very popular in India, and are an irreplaceable part of religious ceremonies. They are offered at temples for religious ceremonies, and later served as prasad (blessing from god) to people, and according to me are the most delicious way to feel pious!
The basic ingredients in a laddoo are, roasted chickpea flour, sugar, and ghee(clarified butter). Some examples in this category include Besan (chickpea flour) Laddoo and Motichoor Laddoo.
Halva: Think of a cross between a pudding and candy while visualizing Halva. They are thick puddings made out of finely grated vegetables, milk, sugar and flavored with cardamom. They can also be grain based and made out of semolina or pulses like the mung bean. Some examples of popular halvas are the Gajar(Carrot)Halva and Doodhi(Squash)Halva.
Burfi:Think fudge while visualizing a burfi. They are bite sized portions of sweets made with milk or milk derivatives, nuts, and sometimes chickpea flour. They are flavored with cardamom, saffron, vanilla essence, rose water, etc.
Just like people bring a bottle of wine to someones place when invited for dinner, it is commonplace for Indians to bring a box of colorful burfis when visiting people. Examples of some common burfis are Kaju(Cashewnut) Burfi, Badam(Almond) Burfi, Milk Burfi, and Mysore Pak( made with chickpea flour).
Kulfi: Think ice cream while visualizing kulfi. The only difference is that Kulfi is a denser ice-cream. It is made with condensed milk and sugar and flavored with rose water. Mango kulfi is a delicious variation of regular version. Traditionally, kulfi is set in cone shape molds, but I use ice cube trays to keep portion sizes small.
Syrup Based Sweets: Think donut or cake textured spheres dipped in sugar syrup. These sweets can either be milk derivative based or flour based. The syrup is usually aromatic and flavored with saffron, rose water, and cardamom. Gulab Jamun and Rasmalai, very often served in Indian restaurants in the west, are popular sweets in this category.
Indian desserts are slightly more intense and sweeter than western ones; hence the portion sizes are really small. I do hope that I have demystified Indian sweets to an extent for you, and piqued your interest enough to try an Indian dessert, while dining at an Indian restaurant.