Did your Diwali mithai box contain Sohan Halwa, Balushahi and Anarse?

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Before the generic laddoo, barfi, chocolate fusion, coffee, raspberry and blueberry mithai we are now forced to grapple with at festivals like Diwali, Indian mithai was a unique sweet tradition rooted in both seasonality and provenance.

Each region had its own special mithai, made not only on special occasions, but specific to the changing seasons. Mithai was sought after by connoisseurs of specific towns, specific shops known for the dexterity and skill of its karigars (craftsmen), specialist cooks who had probably learned their craft from ancestors or spent long years in the craft at the polish.

So you had Sandila ke laddoo, balushahi of Sitamarhi, Kozhikode halwa, gazak of Meerut, Malai ki gilori of Ram Asrey in Lucknow, shaped like betel leaf gilori but made from the thick top layer of broom, or clotted cream in Nawabi language. These forged halwai confections were different from homemade sweets like Khaja, Anarse, Payesh, Pithe. But which mithai was eaten also depended on the changing seasons: Feni or ghewar for monsoons, heavy daal-based halwa in winter, light milky kalakand for spring, and Holi, you get the idea.

Homemade mithai was occasioned many times: brides traveled to their new marital homes with tuck boxes that included things like mitha pakwan, beautifully formed cakes of fried wheat flour dipped in sugar syrup. In my UP Kayasth home, the edges were pinched into lovely designs, and skilled Halwais specializing in these wedding confections were sought after for their fine handwork. In Bihar, this sweet which lasted a long time and could be eaten up to months later took the form of khaja ​​resembling a flaky biscuit, and is still called by various names in other parts of the subcontinent, including understood what most of you might be familiar with – “meethi mathi” (sweet cookie, vague translation).

The forerunner of this wheat candy was khisti, or a “brick-shaped” sweet cake made from flour, sugar and ghee known in India from the Delhi Sultanate, from the 12th to the 13th century, and probably borrowing from an earlier tradition of papdi/mathematics making.

But mithai’s biggest festival was, and remains, the Festival of Lights. Homemade Diwali mithai from Delhi and UP included Anarse, elaborately prepared with ground rice into a paste, mixed with warming ingredients like sesame, as well as deevle, shaped like diyas or lamps. Both are elusive now.

In their place, I am appalled to see the deluge of sweets arriving on our doorstep as the festive season begins – colorful, sometimes inventive but too often generic mithai, purchased from brands and chains that no longer employ tradition. skilled karigars, and where the cooks themselves may never have tasted the high quality mithai of yesteryear.

Mithai, after all, is not just something soft, heavy and khoya. Regional and seasonal mithai from halwai stores known for their quality came with a nuance that copies or reinterpretations lose when the skill is lost. But this dying art of mithai making in India is also tied to a loss of patronage.

If you go to Cremona, a small town in northern Italy known for its cheese and fiddles, you’ll be directed to its torrone, a local nougat. In Scotland, it would be shortbread, in Turkey, baklava… so why do we have to look for Bengali mithai in South Delhi? Or, the ubiquitous kaju katli that tastes nothing like cashew all over India in the name of festive treats?

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Craftsmanship flourishes when there is patronage. Indian mithai, despite all that floats around, steadily loses its context and foundations because ancient artisans who may have perfected just one recipe in their lifetime no longer exist and younger generations have neither the desire nor the attraction to perpetuate the heritage. After all, much of the public today can no longer distinguish between the fine nugdi / motichoor laddoo with tiny boondi resembling saffron-scented pearls from all the generic stuff floating around in pretty fancy boxes. If many young people turn away from mithai, it is probably because they have only tasted mediocrity.

To change this, perhaps we can start focusing on provenance and seasonality in mithai – familiarize ourselves with the taste of our towns, the old halwai shops in mithai were known and advocate for them.

In Delhi, until the 1950s-60s, two mithai synonymous with Diwali were balushahi and sohan halwa. Both were probably late 18th century inventions. Both suitable for northern Indian winters, with ghee, flour and nuts warming the body. Ghantewala, the famous halwai shop, established in 1790 in Chandni Chowk, during the reign of Shah Alam II, was famous for both confections, and even today old mithai shops in Delhi such as Chainaram offer them as their specialty. winter.

Balushahi, also known as Badushah in southern India, where it is also popular, is an invention of the late Mughal era – its name suggests – and may have been transported south with the Marathas, who started to maintain a presence in Delhi early on. 18th century. The Maratha Empire at its height stretched from Peshawar to Tamil Nadu.

Often described as a “donut”, the Balushahi is not a donut, however. It gets its flaky texture from the use of maida, the fine flour that began to be used as an oil grind yielded a finer flour for the rich post in the late 1800s, as well as from the use of ghee, as a fat and as a medium. for frying. At its heart, the Balushahi is a reimagining of the khisti/papdi tradition, using the new material, maida and rich ingredients to become a beloved winter candy.

Sohan halwa, is another endangered North Indian delicacy, and will forever be associated in my heart with Kipps Bareilly. Each winter, the thick, small, rock-hard galettes studded with almonds, cashews and melon seeds arrived from Bareilly Confectionery, courtesy of my maternal grandparents. A box was supposed to last all winter, and small pieces of mithai were broken off after dinner to nibble on cold evenings.

While the karigars who invented this confection may have come from UP – “sohan” in Khari boli meaning “beautiful”, this incredibly “tasteful” dessert appears to be an old Delhi invention. It reminds you of nougat or toronne, which is made with nuts, sugar (or honey) and egg whites, but in southern Spain it looks suspiciously like sohan halwa.

In Andalusia, from where torrone/nougat spread to other centers of gastronomy in Europe, it was the result of Moorish or Arab influence.

Halwa in India is also from Turkish influences and hence has a common ancestry. Sohan halwa meanwhile innovates on halwas made from cereals, vegetables or sesame seeds and uses corn flour instead.

Cornmeal was invented for culinary purposes only in 1854 by Brown & Polson, in Paisley, Scotland, and used as a thickening agent. Its use in an Indian mithai indicates English influences in Delhi, the capital, as Mughal rule waned before finally ending in 1857.

19th century mithai makers tried their hand at a new ingredient brought by Europeans – Sohan’s cousin, gelatinous Karachi or Bombay halwa too, in fact, is made from corn flour but without ghee to harden the texture .

Meanwhile, another endangered old Delhi halwa, the rather racist habshi halwa, named for its dark texture, was made from wheat, milk, sugar and nuts cooked for a long time over low heat, resulting in rich caramelization. Sohan halwa, more beautiful than this confection, may have been an innovation about it, more pleasing to the eyes at the same time.

Which brings us to the next point: if inventiveness has been the basis of the Indian tradition of mithai for so long, why shouldn’t we accept the fusion mithai that will come next?

As with other Indian dishes deeply rooted in their subcultures, mithai can and inevitably will be innovated. But whether it is expertly made by people who know the quality, understand the context and are exposed to traditional tastes or inelegantly without nuance depends not only on the skill and research of the craftsmen, but on us, the patrons. How can you compare the taste, the old and the new, the delicacy of each, when you have never taken part in this particular feast?

Read also : Breaking the Stereotype: Why Indian Food Isn’t Just About Chilies


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