Sweet talk

Remember that box of ‘mixed’ mithai often exchanged during festivals? The glowing laddoos competing with colourful barfis and pedas. As the season turns and the festive lights grow brighter this year, we might be munching on some macaroons or sugar-free sandesh now, but the flavours of tradition are not forgotten. From gulab jamun to gulab jamun cheesecake, we want to have it all…

A GOOEY, milky sweet with a dash of cardamom, a hint of saffron or a sliver of almond. One bite leads to another and then another. Think of a light-as-air rasgulla, a syrupy, dense gulab jamun, a delicate kaju katli or an intense nariyal laddoo. Who can stop at one?

Desserts are not a ubiquitous part of a meal in India, but there is perhaps no other country so obsessed with sweets as ours. Any festival around the corner—and there are plenty—and the first question on any mind is, what sweets are in order? Even the smallest market will have at least one sweet shop and no neighbourhood is complete
without one.

But if food has whole new dimensions of ‘fusion’, ‘modern’ or ‘guilt-free’ in the present times, desserts are perhaps the most experimented with. You might not find an oil-free dish at a neighbourhood eatery, but there will definitely be a sugar-free option in the corner sweet shop. That’s the power of a sweet tooth!

This brings us to explore the metamorphosis of a regular, assorted box of sweets over the years.

First is the fad of sugar-free sweets. Diabetics unfortunate enough to have a sweet tooth (are there any other kind?) have no option but to settle for this type, while always lamenting the limited variety they get. Then there are the weight-watchers, who can’t resist the temptation of mithai and opt for the ‘guilt-free’ sugar-free version.

But thanks to things like figs, dates, mango and raisins, sugar-free sweets have been around for years now, where sweet shops rely solely on these natural ingredients to provide the sweetness. As Anuj Goyal, director, Brijwasi Sweets, a chain of sweet shops in Mumbai, tells us: “We have been using things like figs and dates to make barfi for more than a decade now. They have no sugar and need no substitutes as well.” However, he also notes that they have reduced the sugar quotient in their sweets over the years. Kunal Bajaj, director of Punjabi Ghasitaram in Mumbai, adds that they use less ghee these days, while using better-quality sugar, which is needed in much lesser quantity.

But in these times when the millennials are a generation of the past, and Generation Z is taking over, and when festive celebrations, once comprising whitewashing and sweetmeat preparations, have moved on to lanterns, décor and parties, sweets are also no longer ‘cool’ in their original avatars.

Walk into any outlet of Gopal Sweets, a popular chain across Punjab, and you will see that the first counter is one offering at least 10 varieties of baklava. Various chocolate and dry fruit concoctions tempt you next, while the rasmalai, rasgullas and gulab jamuns are the backbenchers.

“The sweet and delicatessen industry has witnessed numerous changes in the food habits of neo-age consumers with their cosmopolitan way of life. People want to enjoy traditional sweets, but are looking for a healthy version of it, which would mean replacement of some of the ingredients used with a healthier choice, but without compromising on the taste,” says Anand Dhoundhiyal, pastry chef at Vivanta by Taj, Gurgaon. He cites sweets like steamed sandesh, flourless chocolate cake and baked yoghurt as some current favourites.

However, there’s no denying the emotional bond that we all have with food, and sweets in particular. As they are associated with festivities and auspicious occasions, the traditional flavours can’t be forgotten. Perhaps that explains why the sweet industry is compelled to create delicacies like gulab jamun cheesecake, gulukand cupcakes, betel leaf panna cotta or macaroons in pistachio and saffron flavours in an attempt to marry tradition with modernity.

The adventure can get more daring with dishes like nitrogen phirni, bubbling kulfis and jalebis garnished with flavoured foam, which have their own takers, as chef Nilesh Dey of the Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi, tells us. “Almost everyone appreciates a little sweet treat after a meal, whether it is a cookie, fruit or a scoop of ice cream. Even with consumers increasingly making better-for-you food and beverage choices, they are not ready to desert dessert.

Out-of-home dessert consumption is on the rise, as consumers expand their definition of dessert to include more non-traditional items. Dessert is also no longer limited to the final course of the evening meal. It has become an all-day, any-day phenomenon. In fact, 40% of our customers now eat dessert twice a week or more often. This is where the unique and appealing factors come in,” he says.

The all-day phenomenon certainly holds true for the coming days, when, with a string of upcoming festivals, plus the onset of winters, there is every reason and just the right season to indulge in the sweet array of mithai that India offers. For those looking for a twist, there are always choco-chip modaks!

With inputs from Mini Riberio in Mumbai

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