Takeaway

How sugary is your Eid

Priyadarshini Chatterjee | Updated on May 22, 2020 Published on May 22, 2020

Sweet something: Zardah, a rice dish that finds a mention in The Arabian Nights   -  IMAGE COURTESY: CHEF REETU UDAY KUGAJI

From thin strands of stewed egg yolks to deep-fried pancakes, the Meethi Eid platter has much more to offer than just seviyan and firni

  • Eid sweets and desserts in India is as diverse and rich as the country

  • Egg-based sweets are popular festival desserts

  • Some of these Eid specials even find mention in food essays and famous literary works such as Bagh-o-Bahar by Amir Khusrau

Think Eid and a platter of aromatic biryanis, smoky kebabs and gossamer parathas start floating before the eyes. Or a bowl of luscious sheer khurma — a rich pudding made with milk and vermicelli, and packed with dates and other dried fruits and nuts. Some households prefer the dry, sweetened seviyan laced with ghee and loaded with nuts and raisins. But considering the fact that Eid al-Fitr is also known as Meethi Eid, the world of Eid ki mithai has got to be more varied and exciting. And it is.

There is a propensity to club Mughal-influenced dishes under a homogenous banner and label it as Muslim food. But Muslim food in India is as diverse as the country itself and there’s not one but multiple strands of influence that form the tapestry of Muslim cuisine. Rich, exotic flavours and culinary traditions imported from the Arab and Persian world have mingled with indigenous food habits and local ingredients to compose a fascinating food story. The Eid sweets platter serves up this diversity with a generous helping of sugar and honey.

A dessert particularly popular in northern India is the zardah or zarda pulao, a luxurious dish right out of The Arabian Nights. US-based food historian and journalist Charles Perry writes in his essay Food of ‘The Arabian Nights’ that the “yellow rice” mentioned in The Tale of Mercury Ali of Cairo is zardah, a sweet rice dish coloured with saffron or turmeric. The zardah made on Eid is no innocuous coloured rice — it’s a rich dish crammed with dried fruits and nuts, and delicately perfumed with rose water (see box).

A richer — and meaty — cousin of the zardah is a dish called mutanjan. It has a long, illustrious history and, interestingly, Sufi poet Amir Khusrau’s 13th-century collection of allegorical tales Bagh-o-Bahar (also known as Qissa Chahar Dervesh) described mutanjan as a dish made with “rice, meat, particularly that of kid, sugar, clarified butter and occasionally pineapples or nuts”. “In Lucknow, once upon a time, mutanjan was an Eid must at a connoisseur’s table,” says chef Mohsin Qureshi, who has added this near-forgotten recipe to his menu at the Lebua Lucknow. Chef Qureshi’s mutanjan comprises a mix of delicate saffron-tinged grains of rice and shreds of sweetened meat, topped with cashews, raisins, almonds, makhana (fox nuts), khoya (a milk product) and varq (silver leaf).

Traditional regional treats prepared with local ingredients also make an appearance at the Eid table. In Goa, for instance, sanna (steamed, sweetish rice cakes leavened with toddy) and patolio (a mix of rice, coconut and jaggery, steamed in leaves) are just as much a part of Eid as they are of Hindu or Christian festivals. “But a particularly special Eid dessert is the kheer made with tender coconut scrapings,” says Afreen Fahad Shaikh, a Goa-based doctor and home chef. “Many Goan Muslims also make the West Asian mahalabiya, an elegant milk pudding typically flavoured with rose essence,” Shaikh adds.

While Muslims of the Konkan coast of Maharashtra make ghee-laced sweets with purple yam, bottle gourd and bananas, enriched with dried fruits, nuts and saffron, Bengal has its favourite Eid sweets, too.

“Sweet treats such as doodh lachhi (vermicelli with sweetened milk) and sweet pua (deep-fried pancakes made with milk, flour, eggs and sugar) are popular,” says food blogger Debjani Chatterjee Alam, who is married into a Muslim family from Bengal’s Birbhum district. Pitha or rice cakes with sweet stuffing are also popular in some parts of Bengal and Assam, and then there’s luscious firni that no Eid in Kolkata is complete without. “Besides, a range of sweet halwas (made of lentils as well as poppy seeds and eggs) is also made in many homes, ” Chatterjee Alam says.

Egg-based desserts are quite popular when it comes to festive treats. On the one hand there’s the rich egg halwa, a lesson in the virtues of slow-cooking, and on the other is the gorgeous muttamala, which literally means a garland of eggs. “It is an intricate Mappila delicacy comprising thin strands of egg yolk stewed in sugar syrup,” says home chef Abida Rasheed, who has been a crusader for Kerala’s Mappila cuisine for years now.

In neighbouring Tamil Nadu, Muslim communities such as the Labbai or Ravuthars also have their variety of traditional sweets. “Among the most popular Eid desserts are vattalappam, a spiced coconut custard made with coconut milk, eggs, jaggery or sugar, and thengai paal javvarisi payasam, which is kheer prepared with coconut milk and sago,” says Trichy-based baker Ashika Kader.

And then there are unique family traditions that make food stories more personal and intriguing. Indian-born British chef and restaurateur Asma Khan, for instance, talks about chwara doodh — an unusual Eid dish made at her maternal grandmother’s (the daughter of a nawab) home in Bakhtiyarpur, Bihar. “For chwara doodh, dates are first soaked on chaand raat, after the sighting of the moon, and left overnight. The next morning, the dates are added to thickened, sweetened milk, which is further reduced at a leisurely pace,” says Khan. It’s a tradition that is alive even today.

Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a food writer based in Kolkata

Zardah by Chef Reetu Uday Kugaji
  • 1 cup Basmati rice, soaked in water for 1 hour
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 green cardamom pods
  • 1 black cardamom pod, crushed
  • 1/2-inch cinnamon stick
  • 2 cloves
  • 1 1/2 cup water
  • 4 tbsp desi ghee
  • 1/4 tbsp charoli or chironji seeds
  • 1/2 tbsp cashew nuts
  • 1/2 tbsp raisins
  • 1/2 tbsp dried coconut
  • 1/2 tsp saffron, steeped in half a cup of lukewarm milk along with 1/2 tsp rose water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • A generous pinch of saffron
  • 40g khoya, grated
  • 1/2 tbsp rose water
  • Fried mixed nuts and rose petals for garnish

Method

  • In a deep non-stick pan, add water, bay leaves, green and black cardamom pods, cinnamon and cloves, and bring to a boil. Add the rice. Cook until the rice is 90 per cent done.
  • In another deep non-stick pan, heat the ghee and toss in the nuts, coconut and charoli. Fry until they acquire a brown tinge. Be careful not to burn them.
  • Now throw in the raisins. Once they swell up, tip in the sugar, followed by the steeped saffron and milk. Once the sugar melts, stir in the lemon juice. Finally, add the rice and mix it lightly. Sprinkle the grated khoya and drizzle the rose water. Cover and cook on dum for 10 minutes. Garnish with fried nuts and rose petals.

Published on May 22, 2020

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