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.