“We are what we eat!” Now, if this aphorism is to be taken at its face value, we Indians are sure to come out reigning supreme as the sweetest of the lot. Our per capita consumption of all things sweet is probably one of the highest in the world, if not THE highest. A nation that’s sure to be any self-respecting diabetologist’s most potent nightmare!
But isn’t that to be expected? As this book reinforces what we’ve known all along, sweets play a central, omnipotent role in all festivals and celebrations of the subcontinent like no other. Almost every part of the nation has its own special desserts prepared in specific ways and for specific seasons and occasions.
Some often overlap the other as is referenced by the famous ‘rasgulla war’ between Odisha and West Bengal battling each other for claims over the GI (Geographical Index) status of the sweet, but most others work in great symbiosis and affinity with each other. Borrowing ingredients and imbibing preparation techniques to make them similar, yet distinct. Truly, an edible take on the much bandied about “unity amidst diversity” political spiel.
Agree with it or not, this last truism of our unique brand of ‘edible syncretism’ forms the core subject of The Sweet Kitchen. A modest-sized, yet incisive book that throws the spotlight on some of the most iconic sweets and desserts that find themselves as an indelible part of our ethos and Indianness.
It seeks to provide answers to questions often left unanswered in the wake of limited information, lack of historical citation or plain old apathy. Like, why do most states (except for Gujarat, Maharashtra and Assam) not use yoghurt in their desserts? Or, is the beloved (though not to me!) cloyingly sweet jalebi strictly Indian? Spoiler alert: it isn’t...
Rajyasree Sen, a chef, restaurateur, columnist and fellow food writer, brings a certain gravitas and deliberation to the subject. It perhaps also helps that the now New Delhi-based Sen is a Bengali, originally from “Calcutta”, as she insists on calling Kolkata. For, in my humble opinion, there is no better place than the ‘City of Joy’ that serves as a fulcrum around which India’s reverence for and obsession with sweets pivot around.
Let us eat cake!
Speaking of which, the book very poignantly touches on topics like how when it comes to desserts, mithai and more pointedly Christmas cake, barriers drop away. This is reinforced by heart-warming examples of how Muslim bakers working at a Jewish owned bakery (Nahoum’s and Sons) in Kolkata, bake the much-in-demand rum and fruit-saturated festive Christmas cakes for an overwhelmingly 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 fed to infants as part of their annaprashan ceremony. Conversely, barfis and other similar sweetmeats are integral parts of the Hindu mourning rituals of shraddhs and chauthas.
The book also rather intelligently brings to the fore the important colonial influences on Indian sweets and desserts. From Anglo-Indian desserts like the ubiquitous bread pudding and the lesser known, steamed suet roly-poly pudding to the Allahabadi Christmas cake that interestingly, my Anglo-Indian maternal grandmother would bake using ghee and petha in lieu of butter and candied peel, respectively.
As much as I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book—in a non-stop, three hours start to finish session—it would be remiss of me to not point out a few bum notes that I encountered along my journey through The Sweet Kitchen.
To begin with, I felt the narrative could have been a tad more inclusive to the benefit of so many regions of India that we often find grossly underrepresented in so many spheres of art, culture and more pertinently, food. And I’m talking pointedly about Kashmir and more so, the North East that has almost zero references save for a fleeting moment in the sun for Assam with its yoghurt and honey dessert reference and a passing mention of the forbidden black rice chak hao kheer from Manipur.
But perhaps what I’m forced to conclude as either lack of proper research (which I sincerely doubt) on the author’s part, or plain old copy editing snafus and fact checking lazinessis the incorrect spellings for a couple of the sweets featured. So, much to my chagrin as a card carrying Goan, our brown-black hued coconut milk and jaggery-based, halwa-adjacent dodol (pg.88) is given the name of an extinct, flightless bird of Mauritian origin aka. the ‘dodo’. While the soul-satisfying chickpea flour, sugar and ghee-based mohanthal (pg.47) of my neighbouring state of Gujarat seems to be an homage to Malayalam cinema’s demigod ‘Mohanlal’. I rest my case!
(A wearer of many hats in the food and travel space, Mumbai-based Raul Dias is a food-travel writer, a restaurant reviewer, and a food consultant)
About the book
Book title: The Sweet Kitchen: Tales and Recipes of India’s Favourite Desserts
Author: Rajyasree Sen
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Price: ₹399 (128 pages)
Check out the book on Amazon