It is interesting to note that happy events all over the world are celebrated with distribution and consumption of sugar based confections. How this ‘sweet tooth’ tradition originated, is a question that can best be explained by social scientists, but the bottom line is that no celebration or festival in the Subcontinent is considered complete without ‘Mithai’ or sweet meats- in ample quantities. It is in the fitness of things therefore, that I am dedicating this week’s column to this group of mouthwatering delicacies and the people, who make them.

‘RasGulla’is a mutated version of the name ‘RaskaGola’ or literally translated – a Syrup Ball. Originating between three hundred to six hundred years ago from Odisha (formerly known as Orissa), this popular item is made by boiling small balls of Casein (a core ingredient of cheese) in sugar syrup. This wonderful dessert was later introduced in Bengal by Oriya cooks and became famous as ‘Bengali RasGulla’. A more exotic and richer version of this confection known as ‘RasMalai’ is now a very popular treat in our part of the world.

GulabJaman (called Lal Mohan in Nepal) is a cheese based delight throughout the Subcontinent. It is made from freshly curdled milk and ‘Khoya’ (milk solids obtained after reducing full cream milk) that is kneaded into dough, rolled into small ovals and balls that are deep fried. These are then soaked in sugar syrup flavored with Cardamom, Rose Water and Saffron. The name ‘GulabJaman’ is derived from two Persian words Gul (flower) and Aab (water), which when combined, produce the word ‘Gulab’ or Rose with reference to the aroma and flavor exuded by the sweet syrup. The oval shape and deep color of the balls lent incentive for use of the word ‘Jamun’, a summer fruit native to the Subcontinent. There are some, who claim that ‘GulabJamun’ was first prepared and served to Ranjit Singh by a Sikh chef named SajjanDhillon. I however find this hard to believe for if the name is Persian, then its origin is also more than likely to be from that or the Central Asian region.

‘Barfi’ (not to be confused with a film of the same name) is a sweet confection made from reduced milk and sugar and left to cool in trays till it solidifies. It is decorated with silver foil, almonds and pistachio and then cut up into diamond or rectangular shaped pieces. Its milky white color and the fact that it is best served in a cold state has perhaps contributed to it being named after snow or ‘barf’. A popular sweetmeat called the ‘Qalaqand’ is a form of ‘barfi’, but with the difference that it is granulated.

The Jalebi is the most popular street dessert in Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh. This orange colored confection is also found in the Middle East and North Africa. It is made by deep frying pretzel shaped runny dough and soaking the result in sugar syrup. A delicious concoction of ‘Jalebis’ soaked in milk is a favorite during winters and is rumored to have rejuvenating effects. The complicated shape of this delightful food is often referred to as a negative simile, when referring to someone who is devious and difficult to understand.

The origins of Jalebi can be traced to ancient India, where it was called ‘Jal-vallika’, a Sanskrit name later transformed by usage into its present form. The ‘Jalebi’ was perhaps introduced into the Middle East by Indian traders as a written reference to this confection is found in a 13th Century recipe book written by Muhammad bin Hasan Al-Baghdadi.

A close relative of the ‘Jalebi’ is the ‘Imarti’ - larger in size and more compact in shape. The true ‘Imarti’ is made from a thin batter of ‘Urad’ lentil and the best that I have ever tasted anywhere was perhaps made by an East Punjabi migrant family, which had set up shop near the Lohari Gate end of Lahore’s famous Anarkali Bazaar.

The ‘Laddu’ is a popular ball-shaped sweet that is served at engagements, weddings and births. It is made of flour and sugar combined with other ingredients that vary from recipe to recipe. The name comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Ladduka’ or ‘Lattika’ meaning a small ball. In an unconfirmed claim, the confection is reputed to have originated from Bihar during the reign of Chandra Gupta Maurya.

The royal treats featured in this piece are, but the tip of the iceberg. Each item covered by the term ‘Mithai’ has a history and stories attached to it. Who knows, someday I may pick up the cudgel and set about producing a tome on what is undeniably an inseparable part of our culinary culture.

The writer belongs to a very old and established family of the Walled City. His forte is the study of History.