Much as I love Kolkata (or its earlier avatar Calcutta), the blessed city of my deliciously misspent youth, I have never been able to reconcile with the almost fanatical love its denizens have for its confectionery. At the time of the year when Nahoums and Flurys and Kathleen come to acquire cult status, I have a shocking confession to make - those cakes and pastries overloaded with butter and soaked in cream, never did appeal to my unsophisticated palate.
Firm in the Upanishadic belief that if food is the origin and sustenance of life, sweets are its most magnificent affirmation, it is the more native mithai that has always been my poison.
Even as a bad Punjabi in the city of joy, it was always the rosogolla and the mishti doi that I lusted after. And in that spirit of conveying thanks to the gods through the nectar of libation, it is these that I have always turned to in moments of joy and sorrow, anxiety and relief. Knowing little about food, and completely incapable of identifying even the most basic ingredients, I have been lucky to collect, over a long lifetime, enough sweet memories to last another.
Take the humble rosogolla made of soft cottage cheese doused in sugar syrup with added fragrance from a few drops of kewra or rosewater or as in the North dunked in a mellow thickened milk sauce. Who in his right mind can resist that or its many permutations, kachagolla, malai chops or rajbhog, each with its subtle and indescribable sweetness.
And if cheese be the apotheosis of milk, what about that magnificent dessert mishti doi which combines so many different tastes including the slightly salty and sourish tang of curd with the rich sweetness of palm sugar. Each spoonful takes one closer to heaven or at least my conception of it, distinct from the one outlined by the more spiritual among us.
Almost as an antidote to that is sandesh, gentle, soothing and so reassuring. It is like a daily reminder that the best things in life are available at Ghosh babu’s mishti shop just down the street.
But in the matter of sweets I am not parochial and apart from the ones from the neck of the woods where I live, I am partial to all others. From beyond the Vindhyas, where the base for sweets is more gram flour and coconut than milk, there is the plain coconut toffee with a sprinkling of green cardamom. Along with that is the sinful Mysore pak fashioned out of roasted gram flour with aromatic ghee and sugar syrup, it exemplifies the ingenuity of the cook who can create a little miracle merely by swirling the aforesaid ingredients in continuous circular strokes. I have also been a great admirer of the dexterity with which rice is used as a base for sweets and snacks alike. Among these a perennial favourite has been modakams, steamed rice cakes with a heart of jaggery and desiccated coconut fillings.
Then there are gunja ladoos made from clusters of many gram flour grapes, studded with sugar candy, kishmish (raisins), almonds, cashew and cloves. The only time they look somewhat ugly is when they are mounted into miniature pyramids during weddings.
The crowning glory of the Indian sugar factory is kheer in some form or the other, no matter which part of the country you are in. What’s kheer in the North, morphs into payesh in the East and payasam in the South. To my crude tongue, it is the nuts and the cardamom that make all the difference to this essence of slow cooking.
From my all-too brief working life in Mumbai, I have brought away love for that amazing concoction, shrikhand. Eating it is like biting into smooth clouds and the net effect is to leave your mouth smelling fresh.
To end this paean can there be anything more appropriate than gajar-ka-halwa. This legend of every Punjabi household is strangely an important delicacy in Kenya. Not that we need the geographical reference to appreciate its many virtues which comprise a fire engine red colour which comes from sauteeing grated carrots in ghee softened with milk and then encrusting the result with khoya and a tracery of chopped nuts. All this done over a slow fire such that the flavours are coaxed out ever so slowly.
On that sweet note, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.Also read: Added sugar is putting Bengalis off rosogollas