INDIA: India is a land of mixed cultures, induced thanks to various international traders and a number of invasions by Mughals, Portuguese, Britishers, and others. Because of them, for major parts of the early centuries, India was a hub of political and social confluence. These traders and invaders also brought new varieties of fruits, vegetables, and new recipes, culinary delights, and more importantly desserts with them. These recipes gave locals an opportunity to learn techniques to prepare multi-ethnical cuisines along with a number of sweet dishes.
For example, orange carrots were introduced in India by the Dutch, and their sweet taste prompted confectioners to invent a new flavor for the already adopted Halwa, and we saw the birth of gajar ka halwa (Carrot Pudding).
Indians have long been lovers of sweets and perfected in making sweets. The effect of culture played an important role as having sweet was and is a part of the Indian life cycle. Also considered energy food in those days, sweets were a form of remunerations given to the armed forces. The evolution of Petha, Churma, and others are perfect examples of this.
Srikhand, a combination of honey and sugar/jaggery with yogurt for an instant sweet tooth was a delicacy that was served to the Marathas as a reward during wars, with an added advantage of additional energy to help sustain a workforce for hours. Candies made of nuts, milk, ghee, honey, and sugar for long journeys are now part of the Indian sweet story and its vast inventory of sweet-making skills.
Indian adaptive nature was an important factor in the modification of a lot of sweets brought in by these foreigners. Kulfi, Halwa, Jalebi, Gulab jamun, and Phirni are a few of such sweets which soon became the poster boys of India’s dessert almanac. The only common factor is that none of them have an Indian origin. Today they are identified more as Indian, and not Iranian or Turkish, their original hometowns.
Almost every foreign sweet was modified to suit the Indian palate. Take, for instance, Phirni, a version of rice pudding that arrived in the early 6th century from Iran as Bahtiyeh. The sweet was easily adapted as Indians were already using milk, an essential ingredient to add creaminess to a dessert.
Halwa arrived from Turkey as Helva (made of ground sesame seeds and honey) in form of a dried, grainy mush that was rehydrated with rosewater, sugar, and ground pistachios to get a creamy, velvet-like rich texture with the addition of the traditional mixture of ghee-sugar. Halwa has evolved from the Arabic word ‘hulw’ meaning sweet and is more Indian today. It has even given an identity to the confectioners in India – Halwai.
Another example of how India changed a sweet is the spiral-shaped Jalebi. Jalebi arrived in India from the Middle East where it was called Zalabiya or Zellabiya. Halwais in India used a different batter and sweetener and gave it the current form that we all love, crispy, and a colourful sticky sweet delicacy.
Similarly, Gulab jamun came to India as a fritter and was turned into a coloured globe of soft sweetness, thanks to the addition of milk and mawa.
Whatever may have been the innovations added to the sweets over the centuries, the fact is that the local populace adopted it wholeheartedly and we are the fortunate generation who love feasting on these masterly culinary delights.