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Sweet Talking Jai Hind
Here’s a primer on some of India’s most famed sweets and just why they’re so… sweet.
Savoury Indian cuisine may enjoy a large global following but its sweeter counterpart hasn’t made as much headway due to its rep as being “too sweet”. Even a few mouthfuls of barfi or a single ring of jalebi is excessively saccharine for many, but there’s more that goes into these intricate delicacies than just sugar.
Many Indian sweets pre-date refrigeration and contain dairy; therefore, sugar – or a form of it – was used to preserve these treats. And in an India divided by class, religion, and dietary cultures, Indian sweets can be seen as a symbol that transcends these divides. Anyone – whether a vegetarian priest or a beef-eating Muslim – can devour them.
Indian sweets aren’t baked, and contain key ingredients such as fresh cow’s milk, coconut, condensed milk, semolina, cardamom, khoya (evaporated milk solids), rice (sometimes ground into flour), and in the case of North Indian desserts, rosewater and saffron. Bear in mind that these sweets are as diverse as India itself, so methods and ingredients can vary.
At Jai Hind – a Punjabi institution near Masjid Jamek, Kuala Lumpur – the sweets are exceptionally fresh and milky, both good qualities to look out for when buying sweets. Next door to the bustling restaurant, guests can peek into the dessert kitchen where staff can be seen coddling each treat with ghee-slicked hands.
Perhaps the most universal Indian sweet of all is gulab jamun, deep-fried ghee balls soaked in rosewater- and cardamom-scented syrup. Undoubtedly rich and indulgent, a good gulab jamun should let you taste the cakey milk solids paired against the heady, floral notes of the syrup.
Barfi cut into cubes and packaged.
A more “everyday” Indian sweet is barfi, what you may know as milk candy cut into diamonds. Made with khoya or condensed milk, these morsels have a soft, fudgy consistency and can be made into variations such as chocolate, pistachio, carrot, mango, and almond. Soan papdi closely resembles barfi’s flavour, but achieves a more dry, flaky consistency. Because both barfi and soan papdi last long and are portable, they make good gifts.
Jalebi – the most striking of Indian sweets – are tangerine swirls of deep-fried chickpea or lentil flour that lends them a crispy exterior and a moreish, chewy middle. The bright hue of these spirals are a result of saffron or turmeric in the batter, both which lend little taste to the finished product but offer a kitschy quality. As if not decadent enough, each jalebi is dropped into a vat of sticky cardamom- and rose-laced syrup after fried.
Ladoo comes in all colours, flavours and textures but the common thread among the different varieties is its signature spherical shape. In South India, these rich balls are used as prasadam (religious offering) during Hindu rituals and are often distributed to guests at weddings and functions as favours. The most common type sold in Indian restaurants is motichoor ladoo – chickpea flour and milk deep-fried in ghee to form tiny “pearls”. The “pearls” are then soaked in rich sugar syrup and rolled into balls.
Kesari is a ubiquitous South Indian dessert made of rava (semolina) flour, ghee, and sugar, sometimes adorned with cashew crescents. Cut into diamonds or served in soft, crumbly mounds, kesari is wonderfully creamy and soft with complex notes of roasted ghee – akin to that of brown butter.
Address: Jai Hind, 13 Jalan Melayu, 50100 Kuala Lumpur (012 927 1288). Open daily, 8am-8.30pm.
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