Sweet Foods of India
Customs of Confectionery

Indian confectionery revises and reworks European confectionery traditions in the use of ingredients and the manner of preparation and presentation. Sweets serve an important role in the culinary culture of India: they serve as snacks; as offerings of hospitality; and as symbols in exchange rituals.

Against the Grain

While the prevalence of sugar relates to British influence, halvais (Indian confectioners) will immerse sweets in cereals, pulses, and milk products. The distinction between sweetie (British: hard candy, boiled sweets, toffees) and pudding (a dessert of a soft, spongy, or thick creamy consistency) is less pronounced in India. The two areas continue to co-influence each other, however, and the results run from simple brittle and toffee candy through more elaborately prepared halva (flaky confection of crushed sesame seeds in a base of syrup), barfi (a sweetmeat made from dried milk and spices), and sandesh (mixture of pressed curd and sugar or syrup cooked together; of Bengali origin).

Regional Variety

The choice of ingredients used in confections varies by region. For example, the wheat-growing northern areas of India favors sweet breads and biscuits while southern and western India have an entire group of sweets based on the taste and texture of coconut. Pak, a specialty of Karantaka (area of Southwestern India formerly known as Mysore; pop. 44,977,201), is a fudge-like sweet prepared by adding gram (see: chickpea flour) to a sugar syrup producing a frothy mixture; the result is a sweet crumbly texture.

The Prominence of Milk

Indian cuisine contains within it a tradition evolved around the various stages of thickness that milk attains as its water evaporates, its proteins coagulate, and its natural sugars turn a gentle brown. The practice of gently boiling milk to reduce its water content is known as milk reduction.

When a halvai reduces fresh milk by boiling it, the first product is rabadi (1/4 of original content), a beige, aromatic and creamy substance used in kulfi (ice cream). Sweets produced from rabadi include: Basoondi, a cream pudding with the almond and pistachio popular in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan; Ras malai, dessert dumplings based on rabadi cheese; and a sweet beverage made from combining rabadi with rediluted regular milk and sugar.

Khoya: Binder and Sweetener

The second product of milk reduction (when 1/2 of original content is boiled off) is a solid known as khoya. A broad variety of barfi (fudges) are produced from khoya, often flavored with pistachio, cardamon, ground cashews, coconut, ginger, mung beans, semolina, and pumpkin. By cooking khoya with grated carrots, the result is a moist pudding called halva.

Indeed the nutty richness of highly reduced milk has been applied to virtually every vegetable purée and flavoring. A particularly complex example, Khoya poli is a thin, fried whole wheat puff (resembling the spherical bread poori) stuffed with a paste of khoya, grated coconut, sugar, sultanas, ground cardamon, chopped almonds, and rose water.

A Distinctive Use of Sugar

Sugar, as in most culinary traditions, is used as a sweetener; in India, sugar is ordinarily used at one-quarter the amount of the base ingredient. Traditionally, a finer confection is expected have a smaller proportion of sugar than lower quality foods. While western cooks tend to use refined sugars in their confectionery traditions, the Indian halvai favors jaggery or gur, unrefined sugars that are brown and highly aromatic. They are employed to add various nuances of flavor to barfi and other toffee-like desserts. Boiled sugar syrup, while originating in India, holds a dearer role in Western European confectionery. They are however still used to make rasgulla, a small dumpling made of a mixture of chhenna (curd) and semolina which is boiled in syrup so that it becomes soft and spongy. Gajjak, a type of brittle, are made from sugar syrup and are enjoyed particularly in the winter months, when they are thought to create a warming effect.

Nuts and Spices

Almonds and pistachios, the most widely appreciated nuts in India, add flavor and texture to confectionery. Together with goldleaf (an edible, extremely thin sheet of gold), these nuts are highly visible as culinary decoration. Common spices such as cardamon, nutmeg, cloves, and black pepper are used to flavor sweets. rose water and sandlewood essence are frequently used, as well. Uniquely Indian flavors include khus khus, used for centuries in India as a perfumed culinary additive, it is thought to have a cooling effect on the body; and kewra, from the plant screwpine, producing a pulp tasting somewhat like apricot or custard apple.

Deep-Frying as an Art

Deep-frying holds a prominent role in Indian confectionery. Various sweets, for example, involve the deep-frying in ghee (clarified and evaporated butter from water buffalo milk) and a small amount of sugar syrup. These sweets include: jalebi (whorls of batter based on yogurt, besan (or chickpea) flour, and semolina; forced through a nozzle to form loops in hot ghee; scented with rosewater and saffron), gulab jamun (prepared from khoya or milk powder mixed with flour, warm milk, and ghee); pantua (made from flour dough and sugar mixed with milk powder, besan flour, curd cheese, coconut, sweet potato, and green banana; flavored with cardamon and rose syrup).

Confectionery and Ritual

The Hindu religion prescribes special significance to sweetmeats (that is, sweet or confections, esp. candied or crystallized fruit); piled high in temples, they are considered effective religious offerings. Desireable spiritual states are often described in terms of sweetness and nectar. Panchamrita -- which means 'five nectars' or the five foods of the gods -- are used for libations and in purification rituals. The November-celebrated Hindu New Year, Divali, includes sending confections to neighbors, friends, and family.

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