The Multicultural Mithai & The Great Indian Sweet Tooth

Fruits and revelry in Humayun's court (Image: Muhammad Mahdi Karim/ Creative Commons)
The great Indian Mithai - Rasgulla, Gulab Jamun and Barfi are all products of globalisation and cultural assimilation.

During festival season in Delhi, you’ll find that every sweet has its history. For many years, a visit to Chandni Chowk was considered incomplete without popping by the small display shelves of Ghantewala Confectionaries. Its mithai is common fare in much of India; the delightful variety of besan and khoya-based sweets that are shared and enjoyed at every celebration and festivity.

What makes the shop special is its heritage; the sweet-run to Ghantewala dates back to the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II, 227 years ago. As the story goes, a school once existed near the Red Fort, and the Mughal emperor could hear its bell ring between classes. When the emperor craved sweets, he would send his assistants to “Ghanta Niche Halwai” i.e. the sweet shop under the bell.

The Mughals love for sweets is legendary – and cosmopolitan. The elite in India brought delicacies and traditions from Western and Central Asia. From the Central Asiatic Turks, they took the tradition of the Dastarkhwan, where food is laid out on a tablecloth. These elaborate spreads became a means of displaying one’s wealth and generosity.

Shah Alam once invited the British Ambassador to eat with him at this spread. Edward Terry, a young chaplain to the British ambassador in the Mughal court, was astounded by the variety of sweets offered him. Indeed, the Mughals spent extravagantly on food. It was the direct outcome of a state policy. The children of those under the pay of the Mughal Court would receive no inheritance. As a result, money had to be spent while one was still alive and lavish meals made their way to the tables. Terry counted 50-70 dishes in total on the spread, for the emperor and his guests each. Among them was a range of food that came from Persia and the Middle East – Halwa included.

The Mughal influence is an integral part of Indian confectionary today. At the time, Mughal elites were obsessive lovers of fruit. From Persia, they brought Samarkhand apples and watermelons – shocking observers at the amount they would spend on fruit. This has an effect on Kheer – the popular pudding dish – with the Mughals introducing fruit into the mix.

From rosgulla to kulfi and gulab jamun, Indian festivals would not be what they are without their traditional sweets. But none of these would exist without the influence of the Persians, Mughals and the Portuguese.

Festivals like Diwali and Holi were celebrated by the Mughals as well as by some of the Sultanates. Rulers like Ibhrahim Adil Shah and Wajid Ali Shah were known to have distributed mithai and thandai (sweets and drink) to everyone in their kingdom during these occasions. But the need for sweets precedes many of the sweets themselves, which is why when the Mughals and Portuguese came to India, they also changed the nature of local desserts.

Take Bengal’s most famous sweet – the rasgulla. The history behind rasgulla has its roots in Delhi, with influences from Portugal. In the 1650s, Portuguese migrants to Bengal brought with them the technique of curdling milk and squeezing out the whey using fine cloth – which they used to make cottage cheese. The Bengalis adapted this to create channa, the base for rasgulla, rasmalai and sandesh. When you sweeten the chhana and dollop it with syrup, you get rasgulla.

Channa also played a part in the other great legacy of Mughal rule – that of the Gulab Jamun. Made from deep-frying balls of sweetened channa, they were said to have been an accidental invention of Shah Jahan’s personal chef.

The Mughals also imported halwa to India from the Middle East. Gajjar Ka Halwa (carrot Halwa), the most popular variant of Halwa, is an indigenous variant, however, as it’s believed that the idea of adding milk, ghee and sugar to carrots came from the Punjabi kingdoms.

All these sweets will make your hands sticky – all the better for finger-licking flavour. But this was not acceptable to the British at Shah Alam’s feast – who shocked the emperor by wrapping their sweets using toilet paper to keep their hands dry. In another breach of custom, they drank water during their meals instead of afterwards.

When it came to washing down sweet food with sweet drinks, the Mughals turned to science and the benefits of a large empire. At the time, Sherbet (chilled rose water) and kulfi were both served chilled. But how does one chill a drink in the sweltering India subcontinent?

At first, the Mughals imported snow from the Himalayas explicitly for this purpose. In Ain-i-Akbari, it’s described how ice and snow were brought in from the mountains over 500 miles, by boat and by foot. But the Mughals later found that saltpetre, the component normally used in gunpowder, also had the effect of freezing water if enough was added. This made the Indian interpretation of ice-cream – kulfi – possible.

Surprisingly, for India’s dazzling array of sweets, there was no cake culture in the subcontinent – until the Portuguese brought it to Goa. Since many Hindus didn’t eat eggs, the Portuguese pendent for egg-based sweets made them the first cake-bakers in Goa and the Western Coast.

Altogether, the diverse arsenal of Indian sweets is the result of millennia of contrasting and confectionary-friendly cultures. Every ruler had a different way of interpreting sweetness. During the reign of the Chalukya king Somesvara, sugar was used to make alcoholic toddy. But Somesvara also left behind a cookbook, where a recipe for an Indian doughnut variant – golumu – was mentioned. At one point, the subcontinent’s reputation for sweet treats was so great that during the seventh century, the Chinese emperor Tai Tsung sent an emissary to learn how to make sugar.

With an endless variety of festivals and occasions to celebrate, sweets occupied a prominent place in Indian culture. During the days of British rule, sweets were so important to armies that liquor rations were substituted for mithai.

Today, Indian sweets have been so effortlessly globalised that there is no tag or religious divide to them. Mithai and thandai are for everyone. Ghantewale was as much a shop for Mughal emperors as it was for Delhiites and foreign tourists, who thronged the store. Sadly, Ghantewala closed down permanently in 2015, after the owner faced bureaucratic hurdles from the Delhi Pollution Control Committee

In today’s festivals, the mithai and thandai have no religious divides – everyone shares and enjoys them, participating in a shared legacy of multi-cultural cuisine.

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