The overflowing plate of dessert arrives and you look at it greedily, your exocrine glands release a flood of saliva which you quickly gulp. You wait impatiently for the others at the table to begin and then you dig in and place a generous scoop in your mouth. The taste buds on your tongue tingle and sizzle and you experience a sensory pleasure so intense, that it borders on ecstasy.
Is there anyone out there who has not yielded to such a seductive temptation by the queen of the five taste sensations (Bitter, Salty, Sweet, Sour and Umami), namely Sweetness?
I was so fascinated by this temptress that I embarked upon a voyage of discovery to trace her roots. The journey took me across the lands of India where she has reigned supreme for centuries and centuries.
Before I started my journey I did some research into how Man became enthralled by the sensation of sweetness. I discovered that the predisposition to the sweet taste was evident even in our leaf eating primate ancestors who sought out tender leaves with high protein and energy content as opposed to mature leaves. The early Man started associating sweetness with high energy, something to be welcomed and bitterness with poison, something to be abhorred. Thus was born the concept of the ‘Sweet Tooth’.
India, a land as varied in its landscape and culture as the colors and designs in a kaleidoscope also has a rich tradition of sweets stretching back in time to as far as before 500 BCE, when sugarcane was grown and crystallized. India started trading in sugar, making it available to places like Macedonia, China and the Middle East by 600 CE. In ancient India, Indian sweets were placed as offerings to God and then partaken of as food blessed by God.
My travels in India have taken me across the length and breadth of the country, to its modern cities, its small towns and remote villages and wherever I have gone, chances are I have found one unique signature sweet dish which the place claims as its own! I present here a few authentic India sweets.
I start my sweet odyssey of Indian sweets with a dessert known simply as Kheer in the Northern parts of India and Payasam in the Southern parts of India. This dessert or its numerous variations occupy the pride of place across India as it is a mandatory dish which is associated and prepared in all religious ceremonies and feasts including weddings, birthdays, baptism or naming ceremonies, death ceremonies, etc..
Ancient Sanskrit literature from India mention feasts and offerings of sweets. One of the ancient texts, still surviving which has a detailed description of sweets and their recipes is the Mānasollāsa, which literally means delight of the mind and the senses. This is an ancient encyclopedia on food, music and arts. The Mānasollāsa was written about 1130 AD, by the Hindu King Somesvara III. The treatise describes meals that include a rice pudding which was called payasam.
The Kheer is a pudding with milk and sugar being the basic ingredients. This is cooked with either rice, Semolina, Lentils, wheat, etc., and then garnished with dry fruits like Cashew, Raisins, Almonds, etc., powdered cardamom is added as a flavoring agent. As one travels across India one comes across a rich and diverse variety of this ancient dessert, each unique in its own way, yet somehow linked to its roots.
Tip: The best place to taste authentic Kheer or Payasam is at one of the religious events, like wedding etc., where the taste is steeped in ancient history and has the flavour of celebration.
Bengal, this Eastern state of India, is synonymous with many things; its rich heritage and culture, Calcutta’s old world charm, Rabindranath Tagore’s literature and the mellifluous sounds of Rabindra Sangeet, Satyajit Ray’s films among others. And nothing epitomizes the sweetness inherent in the rich culture of Bengal more than its favourite dessert, the Rasgulla.
The popular Rasgulla’s history is very interesting with the two states of Bengal and Odisha laying claim to its origin.
According to one theory, the Rasgulla originated from the famous Jagannath Temple, Puri, where it was part of a ritualistic offering to the Goddess Lakshmi. Local legend has it that Goddess Lakshmi is angry because her husband, Lord Jagannath goes on a solo travel for 9 days, known as the Rath Yatra without her consent. She is so upset that she closes the gates of the temple on his return and does not allow him to enter the sanctum sanctorum. It is then that Lord Jagannath pacifies her anger by offering her Rasgullas.
On the other hand some historians claim that the Rasgulla was first introduced to the world in 1868 by a Calcutta based confectioner named Nobin Chandra Das, however there are claims that what this Calcutta based confectioner did was to just modify the Odisha version to ensure that it was less perishable and lasted longer.
Whatever be the truth behind the origin of this spongy, gooey delicacy, there is no doubt that it has conquered the palates of all and sundry across India and other countries.
But what is this Rasgulla? Rasgullas are small cheese balls that are simmered in hot sugar syrup, the cheese balls become soft and spongy as they absorb the syrup. They are served floating in the sugar syrup.
Tip:If you think all that sweetness is too much for you, try this! Squeeze the rasgulla to remove the sugar syrup and then eat it, you will love it!
We now move towards Mysore, the royal city in the state of Karnataka in Southern India, also home to the magnificent Mysore Palace, former seat of the royal Wodeyar Dynasty which ruled the then Kingdom of Mysore from 1399-1947. Mysore is a lovely city which somehow seems to have been caught up in a time warp. As you walk along its shady streets you can catch slices of history from ages long since gone. Such a city has given birth to a sweet dish and has its name associated with it.
If we rewind in history to a little more than a hundred years back we come to the time when Mysore was ruled by Krishna Raja Wodeyar IV. During this time, in the Royal kitchens worked an unknown cook named Kakasura Madappa. In a bid to catch the the King’s eye or more specifically his palate, Kakasura Madappa concoted a unique and unheard of dessert, which was a mixture of Gram flour, clarified butter and sugar. When the cook was asked the name of the dish that had been served to the royal family, he blurted out, “Mysore Paka”, Paka in the local language meant sugar solution.
Thus was born the ubiquitous Mysore Pak, which today is available across the state of Karnataka and also elsewhere.
Mysore Pak is available in different variants, one variety simply melts in your mouth releasing a flood of sweetness and energy that simply surges through your being, the other one is a harder variety which you would need to bite on and chew, relishing it till the last grain releases its sweetness.
Tip:If you are in Bangalore and would like to taste some awesome Mysore Pak, the place to do it is Sri Venkateshwara Sweets
How did you like this sweet odyssey of Indian sweets? This is just the tip of the sweet tooth! We have continued our sugary journey further. Here is another post in this series of Indian sweets! 5 Indian Desserts That Will Have You Salivating
After all this rich sweetness of Indian sweets, in case you are having a sweet rush, you can relish some spicy snacks by checking out one of our other posts :