From sandesh to double ka meetha, Indian mithai is all about innovation and influences
Luxury mithai is being redefined with high-quality, centralised production, packaging and inventiveness.
A khoya barfi came topped with a generous layer of 70% dark Valrhona chocolate accented by orange. Coconut laddoos were filled with lemon tart, and a rose-flavoured confection was dubbed “Ispahan”, not just after the city of Isfahan, famous for its roses, but also as a tribute to the macarons popularised by the Parisian patissier Pierre Herme.
The fusion was courtesy of Delhi-based, trained-in-Paris patissier Sahil Mehta whose resume includes La Opera in Delhi. He has been roped into a unique collaboration by one of India’s oldest makers of mithai and snacks, the Bikanervala family. “This is new mithai for new India; it is less sweet and the flavours are global. One needs to innovate, keeping current tastes in mind,” says Sanjay Aggarwal, a thirdgeneration scion of the Bikanervala family, who has started this new line of fusion mithai called Saugaat.
Though fusion mithai has been doing the rounds of Indian festival season for a while, it has generally been looked down upon by purists, who swear by pedas from Mathura, sandesh from Kolkata, kheer kadam from Banaras, milk cake from Alwar and nuqti ke laddoo from Lucknow and even by specific halwai shops in these towns.
Provenance has traditionally marked the idea of luxury in the world of mithai. This is rapidly changing as luxury mithai is being redefined by new players in the business with high-quality, centralised production, packaging and inventiveness.
Inventiveness, however, is not new to the mithai tradition. Global ideas and availability of newer ingredients have always been responsible for innovations throughout history and many mithais that we consider traditional today started as novel delicacies evoking wonder.
Malai or balai ki gilori, now a vanishing Lucknow delicacy, is a case in point. A spin0off of the nawabi paan culture, dry fruits and mishri (sugar crystals) are sandwiched between two sheets of thick malai (called balai in Lucknow) and folded like paan.
Then, there is jalbhara sandesh, which is pure ingeniousness. Apparently conjured as a trick to amuse a bride’s family, it was filled with rose water that dribbled over the unsuspecting groom’s kurta as he bit into it. Given that this sweet was invented in Chandannagore, the French colony near Kolkata, one theory is that it may have been inspired by European liqueur chocolates.
As new ingredients gained currency, halwais started using these in older confections to create flavours. Saffron in many dishes such as Karnataka’s rawa kesari is a latter-day idea. It gained popularity only during the Mughal period, replacing turmeric in many older dishes as a richer, more exotic ingredient.
Even refined sugar was not widely used. Homely confections in India used honey, jaggery or khand, the less-refined sugar, till colonial enterprise took over and large-scale sugarcane farming in the colonies reduced the price of sugar. It was one of the most expensive commodities the world over till the 19th century. Before mid-19th century and even early 20th century, mithai itself was a luxury on special occasion for most people.
During the Revolt of 1857, as the mutineers camped in Shahjahanabad, Delhiwallahs complained, according to many accounts, including William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal, that the “purabiyas” (literally, “men from the east”, referring to the soldiers) were spoilt by the luxuries of Mughal Delhi, including sweets from Ghantewala, a halwai shop established in 1790 and famous for its ghee-laden sohan halwa, patronised by the emperor.
The British, French and Portuguese influences gave rise to many mithais in India. Rosgulla and sandesh may be the most famous but there are lesser known ones too such as Hyderabad’s badam ki jaali, made from almonds and sugar and moulded into floral shapes reminiscent of lattice work or jaalis. It may have referenced marzipan, given the taste. Another famous Hyderabadi dish, double ka meetha, may be a combination of the Mughlai shahi tukda and the French toast. Former hotelier Habib Rehman, who is from Hyderabad, says, “Although there are various stories of the transformation of the shahi tukda, its Hyderabadi cousin, double ka meetha could well be an easier derivative, possibly by someone who had knowledge of the French toast.”
Shahi tukda was a laborious dessert, made from Mughlai bread and thickened milk. As factory-made English bread became popular, it replaced the older roti. Instead of painstakingly thickening milk, as Rehman points out, some cooks began to use condensed milk to coat fried bread. “Double” was what the people called sandwiches. And double ka meetha was born.
As you bite into a mithai this festive season, do remember to savour the inventiveness behind it.