The Indian subcontinent has had a history of extensive spice trade since nearly 4000 years ago. We have been major exporters of spices like pepper, cloves, cinnamon and cardamom. European traders have benefitted from our rich produce for many years, and yet the west has grown to mock Indian food for being too ‘spicy’. Having a culture of making rich food preparations, our spice usage is not limited to just savoury food, but also percolates into our desserts. Here are some interesting Indian sweets that redefine India’s ‘spicy food’ –
Anarsa is a traditional Marathi sweet dish that is relished for weeks from the day of Diwali in breakfast, as dessert after a meal, and if you have a sweet tooth, as a snack at any time of the day you fancy. Also known as Hilsa, this dish is also a popular preparation in Bihar. Made primarily from soaked rice powder, its dough features saunf or fennel seeds in a popular variation. The dough is prepared using rice powder that is soaked in water for several days, which is then mixed with jaggery and left to ferment for a few more days. The final dough is flattened to cookie-sized disks, garnished with some poppy seeds, and fried in ghee to a beautiful golden brown colour. Some variations use bananas to enhance the texture of the dough. The Bihari version looks more like a laddoo as opposed to the biscuit-like Marathi version. In all its forms, however, it is a breakfast favorite.
Adrak ki barfi or Ginger barfi is a popular winter preparation. Ginger’s properties of providing warmth and healing a cold or sore throat make it an ideal ingredient in winter preparations. Being big on festivals, celebrating one of the grandest national festivals – Diwali during this time, we have found a way to incorporate our remedy spice into a taste bud delight – a dessert. Like many other barfis, this too has a rich preparation, coupled with another common Indian dessert spice – cardamom. The ginger and cardamom are ground with milk to a paste and roasted in ghee that is clarified butter. The paste is finally added with sugar, loaded with dry fruits, and then spread out and cut into the delicious bite-sized barfis.
The Lobongo Lotika is also another interesting dessert that makes use of a spice typically used in savoury dishes – lavang/laung or clove. Traditionally a Bengali dish, it is also quite popular in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Although there is no strict seasonal specification of this dessert, it is often enjoyed on Holi. Gorging on special treats after a tiring run of colouring and watering down friends and family is the unspoken tradition of this day. Coupled with cardamom and nutmeg, this sweet dish is made of a filling of coconut, khoya, dry-fruits, and the three spices, covered in dough made using flour, which is then fried in ghee and dipped in sugar syrup. Clove buds are also used to secure the cover once it encloses the filling. This ultimately becomes a quirky yet finger-licking good memory of the beloved festival.
Khus Khus Halwa
Khus khus ka halwa is made with poppy seed being the star ingredient. Although poppy seeds are not a spice, they are a unique element to be used in a dessert. This dessert only uses cardamom for flavouring. Loaded with nuts and dried fruits including makahana or lotus seeds, this sweet dish is prepared for Rakshabandhan and Diwali. Soaked poppy seeds are cooked in ghee and then mixed with milk and sugar. Nuts and cardamom are added for flavor, and later for garnishing to complete the dish.
Every one of these mouth-watering desserts shows off a unique spice as an essential element to their preparation. Spices have been integral to Indian cooking for the longest time, and are inseparable not only from our savoury dishes but from our delicious sweets as well. Our spices are the pride of our food, and a huge contributor to our rich history and culture.