The Indian sub-continent is a high stakes roller in the competition for the region with the sweetest tooth on the planet. For centuries, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have cooked, scoffed and celebrated sweet foods until their waistlines or hearts have been fit to burst.
Based around rivers of milk, condensed milk, sugar and flour, producing ghee to delight an army of tooth-fairies, the region’s sweets (‘mithai’ in Hindi and Urdu) are fused with a host of different ingredients.
I pretty much love them all.
Exquisitely flavoured by wannabe cooks across the land, the endless choice of sweets and confectionery for special occasions includes tinges of every spice and aroma you can think of. Cardamom, clove, dried fruit, nuts, herbs, spices, rice, cheese and yogurt, among others, combine to produce every texture and flavour of syrup imaginable.
These freshly made sweets vary enormously from place to place. With local, seasonal produce, climate and above all, individual know-how offering something different at every corner. Reputations rise and fall on a cook’s signature dish, with independent shops vying for ‘top-sweet-dog’ status everywhere.
In my experience, the people from the northern state of Gujarat (Ghandi’s home), who set up confectionery parlours, outlets and kitchens across the land, are probably the most well respected.
These photos were taken in a family sweet shop in southern India. Owned, run and staffed by third generation Gujaraties, their hard-earned reputation for top-rupee sweets is legendary.
With what on the face of it looks like a simple and leisurely job for the mixers and dippers, they produce thousands of sweet taste bombs on a daily basis. For example, Khoya (a semi-solid thick ghee solely from boiled milk), is enhanced with a variety of flavours – including raisins, cardamom, saffron, rose water and almonds.
One of their specialities is jalebi. A dish that goes back to western Asia’s 14th century trading roots. A deep-fried, spiral of warm crispy, molten syrup welcomed as enthusiastically in the cold of the Himalayas as in the heat of the southern Indian plains. Whipped up and squeezed through a narrow funnel into a bubbling wok-sized oil pan, it is super sweet, with every mouthful producing an explosion of tasty, sticky, bright yellow goo.
As the shop’s chi-wallah brings out deliciously hot tea it is impossible not to start on an assortment of biscuit, sponge and marzipan triangles, squares, blobs and balls. Decorated with every colour and construction of natural and not-so-natural food colouring. All seemingly soaked, swilled and ultimately drowned in syrup.
Whether you are looking for street-food donuts, a pit-stop tea and cake, or a smartly boxed gift, you can be sure that pretty much any street in the sub-continent of India will have their well-honed version of sweet products ready and waiting.