Long time readers know I’ve got a sweet tooth. Oh gosh does it ache with frequency. It guides my restaurant decisions, it forces me to stop and drool at any number of counters lining local markets, and winds me into a frenzy when I’ve discovered a new regional twist on an old favorite. Indians too have been well documented as lovers of sweet foods. It’s nearly impossible to avoid a confectionery stall, stocked with India’s most popular sweet treats, in places urban to desolate.
A day spent strolling through markets will at some point mean a stop for an energy boost. Sweet! A picnic lunch sprawled out under the shade of park trees will at some point end in the desire for a sugary snack. Sweet! I’m not talking cake or cookies here folks. Most Indian sweets are painstakingly prepared with a pinch of this, a dash of that, the right amount of heat, and a lot of care and attention. They’re formed into circles and diamonds, balls and nuggets, served cold or warm, chunky to soupy, and sometimes even crunchy. Always easy to eat, Indian desserts are comfort food for the weary traveler.
Trays of snacks stacked in pyramids in multi-colored hues can intimidate first time tourists. Here is a guide to 10 Indian Sweets you should try at least once during a trip to India.
Condensed milk mixed with sugar is cooked until it forms a thick yet moist paste. Multiple varieties of this chewy confection include the use of cashews, pistachios, cocoa or dried fruit, added for flavor as well as color. Garnished with silver foil and cut into squares or diamonds, this mild flavored treat registers fairly low on the sweet scale. It’s thin, bite size appearance makes for perfect snacking in moderation without feeling guilty later.
How does one pass up freshly cooked bright orange jalebis? Fermented batter swirled into hot oil expands into rigid golden brown pieces. After frying, these crispy whimsical formations are quickly soaked in a clear sugary syrup. It’s at this point the once dull looking concoction takes on a glistening orange hue. Slightly sticky to the touch, fresh jalebis are stacked into various formations in plain sight of hungry customers. Biting into a freshly made jalebi releases the warm sweet syrup contained within its crunchy exterior shell. As it hits your tongue for the first time, slightly oozing with just the right amount of sweetness, you realize jalebis are unlike any other treat in India.
Fried dough balls soaked in sugar syrup produce a rich dark brown sweet to be enjoyed both hot or cold. They’re a relatively easy to make dessert, perfect for last minute guests. And because they can be kept for long periods in the refrigerator, restaurants commonly offer gulab jamun as a quick after dinner treat. A simple base of flour, baking soda, milk, and butter is all it takes to form small round balls, about 1 inch in diameter, ready to drop into hot oil. The result are golden brown, slightly crispy balls which are then transferred to a warm sugar syrup prepared with a hint of cardamom or rose water flavor. This Indian sweet is a street food staple.
Perfect for a hot sunny day. Ras malai is one part sweetened thick milk (flavored with cardamom) and one part soft cheese balls. When completed, the cheese balls (about 1 to 2 inch diameter) are soaked in what looks like soupy milk. Slivers of dried fruit are sprinkled on top for garnish while adding a flavor that pairs nicely with the mild cardamom aftertaste. One or two sweet milk infused balls is all it takes to satisfy a craving, three at the most, as ras malai’s rich texture can easily turn overindulgent. Straight from the cooler is the best way to enjoy this Indian sweet.
Ras malai with a twist. The same soft spongy cheese balls used to make ras malai above are boiled in a sugar syrup instead of a milk-sugar mixture. The result is a classic Indian delicacy that looks eerily like uncooked gulab jamun. Rasgulla has a milder flavor and surprisingly firmer texture than gulab jamun. The flour-less balls soak up a tremendous amount of liquid resulting in each bite squirting with sweet flavor. Rasgulla has a rather fragile shelf life due to it’s dairy base. It’s best tried at a reputable sweet shop with a high volume turn over of food.
Dense, creamy, and in palette pleasing flavors like cardamom, pistachio and saffron, kulfi immediately smooths out an overly spicy Indian meal. Most commonly likened to ice cream, it can be difficult to find in many parts of India for no specific reason other than varying regional tastes. Restaurant waiters often confuse kulfi’s pronunciation by foreign tourists for coffee causing hilarious confusion for all parties involved. Restaurant single servings presented in terracotta pots are heavenly straight out of the freezer. Kulfiwallahs on the other hand sell the smooth, mildly sweet tasting dessert on popsicle sticks. Either way, the first bite of kulfi will make anyone feel like a kid discovering ice cream for the first time all over again.
Laddu or Laddoo
So many varieties so little time to taste them all. Ladoo incorporates flour, sugar, nuts and ghee which is cooked, then blended with spices before being formed into small round balls. Colorful to bland beige, laddu are perfect any time of the day. They keep well for up to 3 weeks at room temperature making them a particularly good gift item.
Three varieties of halwa are commonly found throughout India, based on seasonality of ingredients: flour based, nut based and vegetable based. Preparing halwa is an arduous task of vigilant stirring under perfectly tempered heat. When prepared with love, warm halwa melts in the mouth, saying hello to the palette as if it were an old friend passing by for a visit. Chilled halwa, however, is an acquired taste. Butter fats rise and separate reducing the once harmonious texture that begs to be enjoyed warm. A small serving can satisfy a hunger for sweets with the perfect blend of sweet and crunch.
Known more affectionately as rice pudding, kheer is a creamy sweet mixture of rice and sugar. Sprinkle in dried fruit, nuts, spices and top with silver foil, this delectable Indian dessert can be enjoyed cold or warm.
A rich and creamy thick milk based dessert. Like halwa, rabri requires constant attention under a low heat to achieve the perfect dense consistency. Sugar, spices and nuts are added for flavor as well as a little shelf pizazz. Enjoy rabri cold during hot summer months or piping hot during clammy cooler winter times. Either way the ingredients in rabri explode with flavor when paired with jalebi or gulab jamun. Yum!
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