Intro to Indian Desserts, Culture

Intro to Indian Desserts, Culture

Just like Bollywood movies, every Indian meal deserves a 'sweet ending'. The highlight in Indian cuisine is the classic sweetness that are invariably rich, fragrant and sweet. They really do bring the meal to a sweet ending, soothing the palate that may have been set ablaze by the hot curries and spicy preparations.

Sweetmeats in India and Indian cuisine are a little different from the normal idea we have of desserts. They do not play second fiddle and share the same kind of respect the mains enjoy. This is perhaps because traditional desserts in an Indian household aren't merely food at the end of the meal. They are also used as offerings at altars and, are one of the main elements at religious and cultural festivals. No self-respecting Indian would dare do away with sweets at festivals such as Deepavali - the Festival of Lights. A common saying amongst Tamil-speaking Indians insists that: "A festival without fried sweets is hardly a festival at all."

The variety of desserts from the sub-continent kitchens is as diverse as the country itself. Ingredients reflect the region the sweets originate from. As such, from the south, rice flour and coconut milk are used extensively. From the north, wheat flour, yoghurt and nuts are the main ingredients. The common ingredients in these two regional styles are the sugar and ghee (clarified butter) that are used in copious amounts.

For many, Indian sweets can be overpoweringly sweet or cloyingly rich but it's worth remembering that these sweets are eaten in small quantities. Culturally, at festivals and happy occasions, it is customary to offer guests a bite of something sweet before anything else is served. Figuratively, the act symbolizes 'sweetening of the mouth' so that only sweet words, thoughts and deeds flow that point onwards. And you really can't help getting all cheerful with a delicious little morsel in your mouth!

At happy events like weddings or birthdays, instead of getting slices of cake or chocolates to take back home, Indian families will pack little laddoos for you to remember the happy occasion. When a boy seeks a girl's hand in marriage, one of the gifts they exchange is a huge tray of sweetmeats. A South Indian bride will bring with her a vessel full of sweets made by her mother the day she leaves for the home of her in-laws after the wedding. Additionally, based on Ayurvedic principles, a meal is said to be incomplete if it doesn't include a sweet preparation, as it is said to promote a general feeling of well-being.

Indian desserts are generally divided into two categories, the first being milk-based and the second, flour. Basically, Indian sweets are different forms of rice, wheat or milk puddings such as kheer. A huge variety of fudge-like sweets made from rice, wheat, mung bean and chickpea flours make up the second category. Barfi, mysore pak and pal kova fall into this category. A third category consists cakes made from a batter of rice, wheat or lentil flours, and fried in oil. Cakes like jelebi and gulab jamun are soaked in scented syrup for a few days before serving. Some sweet cakes are simply deep-fried and served hot such as athirasam, which is a South Indian concoction. And if you simply can't wait for festivals to start feasting on the desserts, certain preparations are made throughout the year and served at daily meals like payasam, which is a thin, sweet gruel made from lentils, jaggery (raw sugar) and milk, or kulfi; a traditional Indian ice cream flavored with nuts and spices.

Almost all Indian sweets are flavored or garnished with raisins, almonds, pistachios and cashews. Spices are important too and you will find cloves, cinnamon, cardamom and ginger imparting the most heavenly aroma to these desserts. Certain cakes rely on spices to cut the sweetness, like the use of full peppercorns in laddoos. Color is important as well and, the preferred shades are red and yellow, as they symbolize prosperity. Saffron is reserved for the grandest of occasions to impart its sunny hues but food coloring does the trick quite well.

Why Indians love and cherish their sweets is no real surprise. The preparation is quite laborious and often requires hours of stirring the mixture as it slowly hardens to the right consistency. And when an Indian kitchen starts releasing the wonderful aromas of a sweetmeat being cooked, it can only mean that a happy occasion is drawing near.

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