The purity of a plain ‘barfi’, the incredible varieties of a ‘laddu’, the sugary swirls of a ‘jalebi’ evoke a deep passion
I love sweet things. I can kill for gooey chocolate cakes and fudgy brownies and tart cheesecakes. And a weekly injection of pound cake into my system is practically a medical necessity. But if this is love, sweet and romantic, then I also have to confess to a passion, an obsession, a crazy addictive mad desire. And that is for mithai.
I adore mithai. I dream of fields of barfi and kalajamuns and bundi laddus, lush and sweet, waiting for me to scythe my way through them. When I reward myself, it is always with creamy tracts of kalakand, crisp hot jalebis and crumbly Mysore paks that melt in your mouth. I know that it’s incredibly naff to admit to this—in fact, it has been outlawed by the sophistication police to like the 100% injection of fat and dairy and sugar that constitutes an Indian sweet. But I am a rustic through and through: Helpless before mithai, weak-kneed with desire and panting with lust before almost any member of that delicious family.
As always, the fault isn’t mine: My parents did it milord. My unhealthy obsession with mithai is entirely an inherited trait, passed down in my DNA along with my irreverence and my long, meandering nose. When we were kids, if there wasn’t any meetha after a meal, Mummy would slope off to stuff an entire serving spoon of Bournvita into her mouth. And Daddy, diabetic Daddy, who preferred to dress down his complaint by saying he had a “little blood sugar”—he could often be found with his snout in the refrigerator, polishing off whatever meetha was there on the sly. And while Mummy was a fabulous baker and could whip up all nature of orgasmic baked delights and puddings, we took all of that in our stride, saving our primal yearning and drooling for what, in our family were dubbed Hindu sweets. (Hindu as opposed to puddings and cakes, not Hindu as opposed to other religions). My sister, when she was little, confessed that she loved and wanted to marry the neighbourhood halwai, so they could live happily forever after in the magical land of mithai. My other sister devised a way to pilfer rasgullas by hollowing them so just the outer shell floated in the syrup, delaying the discovery of her pilferage till they were long digested.
This is how I came by my unholy greed, a mithai devotee in a family full of mithai worshippers and now, in a cycle all too familiar to social scientists, have created a family of mithai addicts all of my own. Mithai addicts who have made sure that there is hardly a mithai that we haven’t eaten, and many that we are BFFs with.
Since the keyboard has been swept away with my own salivary gland tsunami, it may be wise for me to pause and first list out the mithai I am NOT so crazy about. Pethha. Those (especially the juicy syrup-encased ones) with kewra or rose water or elaichi centres. Imarti.
That’s it. And because I don’t like them that much, I’m a little sniffy about how much I eat at one time, limiting myself to a very ascetic two-three pieces. But the ones I like (and the list there is far, far longer) I can eat to first fill up my hollow leg and then layer quite neatly and efficiently in my tummy. So of all the mithais I love love love with my heartsoulliverkidneys, as we used to say breathlessly when we were young, here is an incomplete list.
1. Barfi. In the beginning, was the word. And the word was with God and the word was clearly barfi. For those of us who worship at the altar of mithai, a plain barfi is the mother lode, the start of the journey, the shubh aarambh, the shri ganesh, where it all begins. A good plain barfi is a one-on-one conversation with all that’s good and right in this world: heartwarming, unadorned, simple. And delicious. You can always add chocolate and pista and other lurid coloured things to make it more aesthetically, gastronomically and financially seductive. But the real McCoy? It wins every time.
Different in composition and texture and taste, but similar in its basic one-note appeal are also milk cake and kalakand, one dense and divine, the other lush and creamy, but both resplendent with cooked down dairy solids in a brilliant duet with sugar.
2. Laddus. I love laddus—bundi laddus, atta laddus, besan laddus, rawa laddus, nariyal laddus, til ke laddus, chaulai laddus, gond laddus, tirupati laddus, modaks (which aren’t technically laddus at all)— I have yet to meet a laddu I don’t adore instantly and slavishly. I love laddus that are slick with ghee: The roasted chana dal and ghee maladus from the south, the bundi laddus from Novelty in Amritsar and the besan laddus from Chitale Bandhu in Pune being prime examples, so good that they can be eaten in sick-making quantities. I love those that have no ghee—the til and chaulai laddus that all paharis eat on Makar Sakranti, yummy with just gur and crumbly goodness. I love those crunchy with nuts and lush with raisins, those chewy and moreish with just one basic ingredient, I love those that melt gloopily on the tongue and those that need more enthusiastic wolfing down. More than just simplicity and yumminess in mouth friendly shapes; to me, laddus represent childhood happiness.
3. Chenna murgi. I can eat them a combine harvester load of, one or two or three or 15 at a time. The best chenna murgi is juicy, but not overly syrupy, with just enough bite to have some texture and just enough softness to melt into yumminess in your mouth. Back from hospital after having my son, I am proud to report that I knocked off half-a-kg of chenna murgi the first night, in a few forays, snout in refrigerator in time-honoured Daddy style. Hey, don’t judge me, the baby wouldn’t sleep and I was hormone-crazed hungry. AND the chenna murgi was divine.
4. Bengali mishti. If there is a heaven—and there must be one because I know so many people who deserve absolutely to not go there—it will have a Bengali mishti counter the size of Russia. (And in hell, there will be one too, except no one will be allowed to get their greedy paws on even one single yummy.) I am crazy crzay about Bengali mishti: My happiest memories of my impoverished student life in Calcutta involve going with a few pennies to tiny humble mishti shops and emerging laden with the yummiest, most sophisticated and most delirium-inducingly wonderful mithais I had eaten in my life till then. The sandeshes, delicately shaped, flavoured and sweetened with nolen gur, the crowd-pleasing rasgulla, the yummy kanchagollas, the ledikenis, the pastry-based lobongolotika, the creamy juicy malai chops, the cham chams, the kheer kadams, the pantuwa, there isn’t one I cannot demolish in a heartbeat.
(The other reason that Bengali mishti sustains me through life is, of course, knowing that no matter what, I am headed straight to heaven—they definitely need the likes of me to clear the inventory on a daily basis.)
5. Jalebi. I know this is the most naff of all my desires, the one that fewest people can get on board with, but if I have a favourite in a field of favourites, jalebi it is. My heart beats faster for jalebi, my longest and most steadfast love affair has been with it. As a kid, this was my favourite treat: Waiting with my grandfather as the halwai first fried then steeped the jalebis in sugar syrup, then eating them out of a brown paper bag while walking home, stopping only when the jalebis were over and the sugar that had congealed on my hand from reaching into the bag repeatedly had all been ritually licked off. And no memory of a vacation at home is complete without one involving Daddy going for an extra long walk and coming back laden with hot jalebis that he loved to help demolish. I’m truly blessed because today, my family, my sisters, my nephew and niece all adore jalebis, so I can still order a gleaming mountain of them and recreate some of the magic that only the ritual gathering of your flesh and blood getting a group intravenous injection of sugar can conjure up.
This then is my ritual cleanse. When the stresses of modern living build up, this is my go-to detox diet. A visit to a mithai shop, where for a few hundred rupees, I get to indulge all my sugary longings and desires and fantasies. Once sated, me and my cleansed soul are good to go.
What more can one ask for from one’s passion?
Vatsala Mamgain is a glutton, cook, runner, tree lover, shopper, reader, and talker.