Why food is so pivotal a matter of discussion in our discourse of life is privy to all. Why sweets hold the same elevated place in the same context though is a different matter altogether. As perhaps the only category of food that has its own place of reverence in the culinary world, sweets are one of the best things to have emerged on the food platter. How else would you explain that omnipresent dessert section on the menu of every eatery, even when no such special status is accorded to others of the food clan? No offence to any foodie out there, but inspite of your gargantuan appetite that craves for spicy, chatpata food, you can’t really single out a corner dedicated exclusively to them, can you? I mean, the assortment on offer can be real but you do not yet have a collective term to refer to exactly what your cravings want to be made up of in the moment as would not have been the case if you were craving for something sinful and sweet.
Sweets make for an important fore of discussion in the culinary world. But even more than the words that sing the praise of them, it is the lip smacking deliciousness of these sweet treats that speak for themselves. Call them desserts, pop them in your mouth as candies or if you are Indian, discover your many blessings with an wide array of mithais to serve your fancies- sweets indeed are what makes life all the more worthwhile. However, despite encompassing the same delectable taste of (sugary) sweetness, desserts and candies and mithaais are as diverse worlds within themselves.
Desserts particularly are a more wide ranging ensemble of sweet stuff- from biscuits and cookies and chocolates and ice creams and puddings to even sweet soups and certain salads and fruits, everything even mildly sweet can make for a dessert treat. Candies of course tend to be more specific- sugar confectioneries including chocolate and preserved fruits and even veggies, candies are eaten somewhat ‘casually’, as Wikipedia tends to put it. Mithais however are embody an altogether different emotions for us Indians. For when it comes to something sweet, we invariably want some servings of our own desi delicacies rather than a piece of chocolate cake or some fancy glazed and sprinkled doughnuts, of which frankly, we have our own variations. It’s always the thaali of mithais rather than the assortment of prettily packed decadent goodies that appeal to the Indian residing in every one of us.
How integral mithais are to the Indian food experience is something that you can perceive from its many myriad manifestations of importance. Be it the dibba of kaju katlis that the guests bring generously to you or the rasgulla and suji barfi that you serve them tea with, or the many soan papdi boxes shared as Diwali gifts and the kilos of jalebis that make your Durga Puja all the more special, be it the many assorted mithais adorned with silver and gold foil and enriched with dry fruits and pearly edibles that make up for another extravagant counter at an already extravagant Indian wedding menu or the humble doi- rasgulla that is the staple even at ceremonies marking the departure of a person, Indian sweets have layers and layers of meaning embedded into them. Well not as anything spiritual or something embodying the sanctity of the world but purely as traditions passed on from generation to generation, where every festival and any celebration, or even just about any occasion for that matter can not escape the sweet generosity of an Indian mithai dose, or perhaps more appropriately, an overdose.
Fittingly enough for a country that cannot do without its daily dose of sweetness- fat laden at that- India boasts being the place of origin for some elements most integral to the sweet experience the world over. First of course is sugar without which we would not have been rejoicing in so much exuberance- and guilt- the way we do today with all things sweet. First produced in India very much from what it still is produced from today, the sugarcane plant, sugar dates its origins back to sometime after the first century A.D. Even in its etymology therefore, sugar is an Indian word, derived from the Sanskrit word शर्करा (śarkarā), meaning “ground or candied sugar”. Ancient India even produced sugar pieces by boiling sugarcane juice, something they called khanda and is believed to be the etymology behind the very English sounding, modern reiteration of candy. India is also the place of origin for another distinctive sweet treat, which however cannot be classified as one among its many mithais. That special sweet is mishri or rock sugar that has much prevalence in the India of the past. Perhaps every Indian child born some time before the new millennium dawned on the world have fond memories of their childhood summers where mishri and mishri paani were such a humble but sweet treat. In its cooling properties as well as in being served to the Gods as prasad, mishri is and feels like one of those traditional Indian delights rooted in sweetness- metaphorically as well as literally.
Speaking of prasad though, it perhaps is also India’s continuing tryst with religion, Hinduism in particular that has made it so much a wonderland as far as sweets is concerned. For a country that relies on appeasing the Gods with sweet servings of halwas and kheers and ghul and panchamrit of course, India’s love affair with sweet is rooted in every element of its existence. Be it the pearly white discs of sugar called batasha or the ‘designer’ small sugar roundels, be it the many concoction of honey and sugar and milk with bananas and flour or semolina, the religious parlance of India also is one that prepares us for a lifelong craving of the sweets. For, a people whose presiding deities call for sweetness in reverence and celebration can only turn out to be die hard sweet lovers the Indian way!
And why just sweet preparations meant exclusively for the Gods, our supreme beings also happily partake of the many mithais that dot the counter of every quintessential Indian sweet shop. From the modaks of Maharashtra that are a must have during the Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations to boondi laddoos that make for an appearance in just about every puja, from luscious creamy kheer bowls served on every Krishna Janmashtami to an edible rice flour sweet lamp Maa Vilaku that is exclusive to Tamil Nadu to of course the rasgulla that finds place in every prasad thali simply because its pristine whiteness perhaps equate the sanctity of the divine, the many celebration of religious festivals in India are no less a conglomerate of sweets than they are an amalgamation of festivities steeped in reverence.
This religious ‘requirement’ conveniently paved the way for a whole nation of people to openly proclaim their love for sugar, and not feel guilty about it. No festival in India, be it Holi or Diwali, Makar Sankranti or the regional New Year celebrations can be complete without its quintessential mithais. Of course the range of mithai varies greatly within the country as well, with specific states and regions each dishing out their own sweet claim to fame. So there’s the rasgulla of West Bengal and the rasagollas of Odisha, each with it on unique Geographic Indication tag, there are a panoply of rice flour based pithas native to Assam, West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkahand, Odisha and Kerala, there also is the uniquely popular Mysore Pak from Karnataka, there are a whole lot of chikkis and barfis and halwas and kheers and laddoos and pedas from all over the country even as probable national sweets like jalebi and kalakand are enjoyed in equal measure by all and sundry, in yet another heartwarming reflection of the unity in diversity that all Indians stand so proud of.
Beyond however the commonplace offerings of mithais that still retain their ‘power’ to make anyone drool at their very sight no matter how much they have been gorging on similar sweet fare all through their life, there also are lesser know Indian sweet offerings that are not just regional but also seasonal specialties. Take for instance the unimaginably delightful Daulat ki Chaat of Delhi that which is a winter exclusive delight and that which slightly varies as nimish in Lucknow and malaiyyo in Varanasi. Or the amazingly unique honeycomb like sweet ghevar from Rajasthan or another wintry delight Phenni from the royal land of India. Also on offer is the sweet crumbly mixture panjiri while another exclusively Bengali sweet sondesh dominates sweet orders in sweet shops across the country. A rather interesting and unique sweet happens to be the parwal mithai popular in Bihar as other vegetable based sweet dishes, pethas being the most common, are no less relished. The Holi special gujiya and puranpoli or the Diwali special lapsi are as celebratory sweet treats as they are everyday food affairs dominating the laughs and humour shared over tea with small snippets of everyday life, such anecdotes and incidents that render us more in sync with the common Indian experience of deriving happiness in mundane things.
The great Indian sweet experience might be a diversive lot of which we can go on and on and on with even variations of the same sweetmeat so distinct from each other that can arouse a world of flavor profusions. Even then, the many mithais of ours still are binding in some common strands of sweetness, much like the identity of the country which stems from its conglomeration of happy togetherness. Much of its commonness stems from the ingredients which make generous use of milk first and flours later. The most iconic and most Indian of sweets like rasgulla, kalakand, sandesh, pedas, milk cake, rasmalai, cham cham, kheers, many barfis and even fried ones like gulab jamun and pantua make use of milk, either in curdled or in condensed form to create syrupy or crumbly or dry or juicy worlds of indulgence. Even the mishti doi of Bengal which isn’t a sweet but no lesser a sweet treat is a rich resident in milk as is the frozen treat kulfi and the south Indian offering of pongal. Even some variants of the hugely unique pithas like patishapta, doodh puli and regional favorites like chenna poda also derive their richness from the infusion of milk. No less steeped in the richness of the dairy decadence is delicious imports like falooda while the other imports of halwas and jalebis reside in a range of flours, ranging from wheat flour and besan to rice flour and other healthier alternatives. Some varieties of barfis and many of the laddoos as well as pithas, and also the pancake like preparation malpua or the other many really Indian, really unique delishes like dehrori or the khapse of Arunachal Pradesh are also emergences of a variety of flours, mixed and matched in various proportions to lovingly churn out such desi treats that are only an extension of the sweet nature of us Indian folks. For a land so welcoming in the comfort of its enamoring sweetness, it only is a shared trait of the India on the plates and the Indianess in the hearts that makes it a nation diversely rich in its many mithais. To the great Indian sweet experience, here’s raising a whole thaali of mithais to endear you and your taste buds with its mishti and mithaas!