Beginner’s Choice: Why Sweets for Celebrations?

By Anna T

Diwali Sweets

Cultures across the world invariably celebrate happy occasions with the consumption of sweet food. It is a natural thing to do, and Diwali is no exception. When my friend asked me if I could contribute a Diwali sweets article for this blog (only on the basis that I enjoy Indian sweets!), it got me pondering on the why of it.

Why do we arrange to satisfy the sweet taste buds on such occasions? Why is it that happy times are not the right time for bringing out your prized lemon pickles, or the latest variation of your matcha smoothie with bitter undertones? Is there a basis for sweet taste being the star of the show?

Sattvic food

In the Indian Ayurvedic ancient medicine system, unrefined jaggery (whether sourced from palm sap or sugarcane) is considered a pure or sattvic food that promotes happiness.  

Sattvic foods are juicy, succulent, nourishing, and naturally tasteful. The consumption of such food promotes one’s life span, and increases virtue, strength, health, happiness, and satisfaction. Milk, ghee and jaggery are prime examples of sattvic food and feature prominently in auspicious events. Traditionally, jaggery was not for daily consumption but special occasions.

In the modern diet, there is an over-consumption of refined white sugar daily. Anyone who has sugar binged can attest to the pleasure of sugar high and inevitable discomfort of sugar crash. Sugar used irresponsibly is like a drug.

So, how can I write an article on Diwali sweets with a clear conscience? With all seriousness and based on tradition, I wish to share a practical measure – please enjoy the sweets and correspondingly consume in tandem and moderation some salty snacks.

The Diwali goodies spread is not entirely sweets. It also comprises savory snacks such as murukku and chivda (a crispy savory snack made with puffed rice, nuts, curry leaf) and various other lentil, flour and rice-based crisps which lend the much-needed salt to balance the increased sugar intake.

Mithai

The generic term for Indian sweets is mithai. The connection between mithai and happy occasions is long standing and pervasive in Indian culture. Whether the happy milestone is passing a crucial exam, finally getting that driving license or even if it is your own birthday you want to celebrate, it is perfectly normal to announce, “I am going to distribute mithai”. Diwali, being the mother of all happy occasions, brings forth an obligatory overkill in offering mithai to guests. Correspondingly, it is considered impolite to refuse sweets offered on this occasion. As a guest you will need to gear up and adjust your appetite for some sugar, so as not to disappoint your host.

Little India Sweet Shops

If you visit Singapore’s Little India sweet shops and Indian restaurants that have a confectionery menu, you will notice that most of these sweets would be available all year round. The difference during Diwali is that the presentation, quality of the ingredients and variety available within each category of sweets is enhanced to reflect the customer’s need to purchase the sweets as gifts and for prayer offerings at home. During Diwali the “more sattvicthe better. In this regard, milk, nut, and ghee-based sweets are featured extensively in the season while oil-based and non-dairy sweets move off-center. The sweets are also garnished and flavored with various extravagant ingredients to delight the senses, such as saffron, mace, cardamom, pistachios, rose petals, edible silver foil.

Within the term mithai there is a great variety of sweets that reflects the culinary traditions of various cultures in the Indian subcontinent. In exploring the variety, mithai may be categorized according to its base ingredient or method of cooking as follows:

Milk based sweets-barfi and gulab jamun

Most milk based mithai is made from khoya as a base ingredient.

Khoya is the milk solids remaining after full fat cow or buffalo milk is long simmered to the point of evaporation of liquid. There are different textures of khoya from crumbly to smooth, depending on the extent of evaporation. Although frozen khoya is available, many households knead full cream milk powder with evaporated milk to arrive at a workable khoya substitute. Khoya cooked in ghee and sugar is a basic fudge or barfi. The flavor is further enhanced with the addition of cardamom, pistachios, almonds, rose essence etc.

After cooking, the barfi mixture is flattened out in a shallow pan to cool and harden. Then it is cut into small square or diamond shapes. The mixture can also be shaped in small round molds or presented as dual flavors in the style of mini Swiss rolls.

There is really no limit to the variety of barfi, it can be anything you want it to be. It is not uncommon now to find matcha, chocolate, coffee, and liquor barfi recipes on the internet. Barfi can be made into:

  • colored barfi (like green, orange, or pink barfi).
  • fruit barfi (with the addition of fruit pulp such as mango, strawberries, or dried fruits such as figs, tutti frutti).
  • nut barfi (addition of finely ground almonds, pistachios, cashew nuts). Nut barfi were stocked up in my home during school exam season. They are a delicious and excellent brain food.

The famous gulab jamun is made from a dough of khoya, flour and milk. The round dumpling is first deep fried to a golden brown, then immersed in sugar syrup scented with rose extract, saffron and cardamom. Gulab jamun is usually something that is love or hate at first bite due to its immense sweetness. Traditionally, this sweet is garnished with sev (crispy tiny noodles made from chickpea flour), which adds a savoury contrast. Ready to eat plain sev is widely available. So, if you plan to buy some gulab jamuns, remember to include sev, for a tempered taste – just so that you enjoy your jamuns better and will not stop at one. Another way to manage the sweetness is to add chopped nuts and crushed cardamom seeds as a garnish, or gently squeeze out some of the absorbed syrup before serving. I love gulab jamuns, hence these pointers, inspired out of a sense of advocacy. It would be sad to hear that you had to experience anything other than love at first bite.

Paneer based sweets

Paneer is cottage cheese made by introducing lemon juice to full cream boiled milk. It is easily made at home. The split milk is strained through a coffee sock, excess water is thoroughly squeezed out to get a dry crumbly paneer texture which is the base for both savory and sweet dishes.

The sweet dishes derived from paneer are the recognizable white spongy sweets such as rasagulla (paneer balls cooked in syrup), rasmalai (paneer patties simmered in malai, a type of clotted cream) and Sandesh (paneer kneaded with sugar). Sandesh is a Bengali specialty and comes in a variety of shapes, decorations, and flavors.

Nut and seed brittles

Brittles are enjoyed all over the world. During Diwali, ghee-based brittles are usually made at home as it is quick to make and the sattvic nature of the few simple ingredients enables it to be offered for Diwali prayers.

Popular brittles made at this time are pistachio, puffed rice, sesame seed and sliced coconut brittle.

The awesome deep-fried, orange-colored pretzels

I tried, but I could not come up with a shorter heading for these sweets which made me giddy with sugar high in my childhood. I do not exaggerate when I say that when done right, these delights are a little piece of heaven for the taste buds.

Jalebi is made by deep frying a dripping batter (made from flour and curd) in concentric circles or the infinity symbol, resulting in a pretzel. It is then soaked for a short while in a thick sugar syrup. Jalebi is crispy and has a slight tart taste which nicely offsets the syrup.

The equally orangey Janggiri which has defined rings bordering the pretzel circumference to resemble a flower is made with black gram lentils. Janggiri has interesting contrasts with a dense texture yet delicate flavor.

Gheeyar is a Sindhi delicacy traditionally made during the Holi festival in spring. It has a unique deep orange lace-like appearance and is garnished with silver foil, pistachios and rose petals. It is popular now as a Diwali sweet and called Sindhi jalebi.

Halwa

Indian Halwa ranges from the chewy, colorful, and translucent concoctions of corn flour, known as Bombay/Karachi halwa, to firmer puddings such as carrot and semolina halwa, known as gajjar ka halwa and kesari respectively.

Kesari is renowned as a delicious comfort food, and a small batch is usually ready under 15 minutes. In most families, on arrival of good news, this will be the first sweet prepared at home as a thanksgiving offering at the family altar.

Other mithais where milk is not the chief ingredient

These are preferred to balance out the milk and paneer-based Diwali mithai menu, examples of such mithai are:

  • soan papdi, mohanthal, Mysore pak – made with gram flour, these taste better made with ghee rather than oil. Mohanthal stands out in its unique use of mace powder as a critical ingredient.
  • coconut candy – a favorite not just in India but also across Asia.
  • Laddus – hand pressed spherical shaped sweets, mostly made from the compression of sweetened tiny fried flour balls called boondi. Variations include the compression of cooked dough derived from gram flour, semolina or ground coconut mixed with sugar and ghee. Laddu incorporates an interesting array of spices such as cloves and peppercorn. Much like barfi, there is room to experiment and come up with your own version of laddu.

End of the sweet exploration trail

We are at the end of the Diwali sweets trail exploration. I hope the overview has piqued your interest in these sweets, and to even consider making them while staying safe at home. There is no lack of reputable tested recipes on the internet. Kesari halwa may be a good start, given its simplicity and that the ingredients are available from your neighborhood mart.

But more essentially, the next time you are going to be face-to-face with a showcase of Indian sweets, I wish you will look forward to it, and have some idea on what you would like to try.

A note from the Editor:

A Special Thank You to my friend Anna, who has been through many adventures in life with me, including helping me out went I made my first trip to India.

Barbara, my American friend in Delhi, brought me to a sweet shop to buy soan papdi to bring back Singapore. Since then, it has remained my favourite Indian sweet. It’s a bit like the Chinese Dragon’s beard candy.

In the featured photo, you will see ladoo and kaju katli on the white plate. They are both very sweet. In the sundae goblet, you will see some savoury peanut cookies baked by Siew Hua who lives down the road. The combination of sweet and savoury is perfect.

A Special Thank You to Siew Hua too.

Posted by Chayo, HomSkil Editor 1, 9 November 2021

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