“We are what we eat!” Now, if this aphorism is to be taken at face value, we Indians will be sure to come out as the sweetest of the bunch supreme. Our per capita consumption of anything sweet is probably one of the highest in the world, if not THE highest. A nation that will surely be any self-respecting diabetologist’s most powerful nightmare!
But isn’t that to be expected? Because this book confirms what we’ve always known, candy plays a central, all-powerful role in all the festivals and celebrations of the subcontinent like no other. Almost every part of the country has its own specialty desserts prepared in specific ways and for specific seasons and occasions.
Some often overlap, as referenced by the famous ‘rasgulla war’ between Odisha and West Bengal competing over claims over the sweet’s GI (Geographical Index) status, but most of the others operate in great symbiosis and affinity with each other. Borrowing ingredients and applying preparation techniques to make them comparable, yet distinctive. Truly, an edible take on the much-discussed political story of ‘unity in the midst of diversity’.
Agree or not, this final truth of our unique brand of ‘edible syncretism’ is the core subject of The Sweet Kitchen. An unassuming, yet penetrating book that shines a spotlight on some of the most iconic candies and desserts that claim themselves as an indelible part of our ethos and Indian.
It attempts to provide answers to questions that often go unanswered in the wake of limited information, lack of historical citations, or just plain old apathy. Why don’t most states (except Gujarat, Maharashtra and Assam) use yogurt in their desserts? Or is the beloved (but not for me!) sugary sweet jalebi strictly Indian? Spoiler alert: it’s not…
Rajyasree Sen, a chef, restaurateur, columnist and fellow food writer, brings a certain seriousness and deliberation to the subject. It might also help that now New Delhi-based Sen is a Bengali, originally from “Calcutta” as she insists on calling Kolkata. Because, in my humble opinion, there is no better place than the ‘City of Joy’ which serves as a focal point around which India’s reverence for and obsession with sweets revolves.
Let’s eat cake!
Speaking of which, the book touches very poignantly on topics like how when it comes to desserts, mithai, and more outspoken Christmas cake, barriers fall. This is reinforced by heartwarming examples of how Muslim bakers working at a Jewish bakery (Nahoum’s and Sons) in Kolkata bake the much sought-after rum and fruit-filled festive Christmas cakes for a predominantly Hindu majority clientele. Often all year round.
Or how, for most in India, sweets both open and close the circle of life. Payesh or rice cooked in sweetened milk is often the first solid food given to infants as part of their annarashan ceremony. Conversely, barfis and other similar sweets are an integral part of the Hindu mourning rituals of shraddhs and chauthas.
The book also quite intelligently brings out the significant colonial influences on Indian sweets and desserts. From Anglo-Indian desserts like the ubiquitous bread pudding and the lesser-known steamed roly-poly pudding to the Allahabadi Christmas cake that was interesting enough that my Anglo-Indian maternal grandmother would use ghee and petha instead of butter and candied zest respectively.
As much as I have enjoyed reading this book – in a non-stop three-hour session from start to finish – it would be remiss if I didn’t point out a few clunky comments I made during my journey through The Sweet Kitchen. encountered.
For starters, I felt that the story could have been a tad more all-encompassing in favor of so many regions of India that we often find highly underrepresented in so many areas of art, culture and, more relevantly, food. And I’m emphatically talking about Kashmir and more so, the Northeast which has almost zero references save for a fleeting moment in the sun for Assam with its yogurt and honey dessert reference and a passing mention of the banned black rice chak hao kheer from manipur.
But perhaps I should conclude that either a lack of proper research (which I sincerely doubt) on the part of the author, or just old-fashioned snafus and fact-checking of laziness, misspelled some of the candies on offer. So, much to my chagrin as a map of Goan, our brown-black hued coconut milk and cane sugar-based, halwa-adjacent dodol (p. 88) takes on the name of an extinct, flightless bird of Mauritian origin. the ‘dodo’. While the soul-satisfying chickpea flour, sugar and ghee-based mohanthal (p. 47) of my neighboring state of Gujarat seems to be a tribute to the demigod ‘Mohanlal’ of Malayalam cinema. I rest my business!
(A wearer of many hats in the food and travel space, Mumbai-based Raul Dias is a food travel writer, restaurant reviewer and food consultant)
About the book
Book title: The Sweet Kitchen: Stories and Recipes of India’s Favorite Desserts
Author: Rajyasree Sen
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Price: ₹399 (128 pages)
View the book on Amazon
06 June 2022