HOW SWEET IT IS: INDIAN SWEETS IN CHICAGO
There is no other region of the world where sweets (mithai in Hindi) are so varied, so numerous, or so invested with meaning as the Indian Subcontinent, (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.) Sweets are an essential component of hospitality and celebration. People send sweets to friends and family as gifts and consume them to celebrate passing an examination or getting a new job. They are markers of rites of passages, such as the birth of a child, pregnancy, marriage, even death.
In the Hindu classification of foods by qualities, sugar, milk and ghee- all ingredients in sweets- are considered sattvic — pure, conducive to lucidity and calmness — and can be eaten by everyone, even spiritual leaders and the most orthodox vegetarians. Sweets are also considered ritually pure and are offered to the gods and distributed to the devotees at Hindu temples. Sweets are sometimes eaten during fasts or used to break a fast.
Muslims also celebrate holidays and important religious occasions with sweets. For example, at the end of the Ramadan, the fasting month, they prepare sheer khorma (khurma), a thick pudding made of sauteed vermicelli, milk, sugar, dates and sometime nuts, raisins, rose water and saffron for breakfast. India’s Christians celebrate Christmas with delicious fruit cakes while India’s Parsi community (descendants of Persian Zoroastrians) enjoy dishes that reflect European, Iranian and Indian influences, such as mava malido, an egg and semolina pudding, or koomas, a spiced baked cake. Moreover, every region, city, even village has its own sweets.
Paradoxically, however, everyday Indian meals do not usually end with a dessert, except perhaps fruit or yogurt, sometimes sweetened. Instead, sweets and savory items are part of the late afternoon meal called tea or tiffin. Some varieties, notably jalabis, are sold as street food. Some sweets are made at home, but many are purchased from professional sweetmakers, called halwai or moira. The process of making some sweets can be extremely lengthy and labor-intensive. Fortunately, Chicago has an abundance of shops where you enjoy these delicacies first hand.
The main ingredient in Indian sweets is sugar. Sugarcane has been grown in India for thousands of years, and the art of refining sugar into various products was developed here. (The English word sugar comes from a Sanskrit word sakhar meaning jaggery, a brown sugar, while candy comes from khand, a crystallized sugar).
The other main ingredient is cow or buffalo milk. Milk has been an important part of the Indian diet from ancient times, especially for vegetarians.. One way of using milk is to make khoa, a semi solid or solid product made by slowly boiling milk, constantly stirring to prevent caramelization. Often it is pulverized and sifted before adding to a dish.. Chhana, or curds, is made by bringing milk to a boil, then adding a souring agent, such as citric acid or old whey. It is drained through a thin cloth and should be used immediately. Pressing the drained chhana under a weight to remove more moisture yields paneer, an ingredient often used in North Indian vegetable dishes such as the popular sag paneer. .
Other common ingredients are chickpeas and lentils; rice, wheat and other grains; fruits; vegetables; nuts (especially almonds, cashews and pistachios); seeds (notably sesame seeds); andraisins and dates.. Clarified butter (ghee) is a preferred cooking medium. Popular flavorings include rose or kewra (screwpine) water, and spices, especially cardamom. Coloring agents include saffron, cochineal (red) and turmeric. Most sweets are subject to some form of heat treatment which enables them to be preserved.
Some sweets are eaten everywhere; others are specialties of a region, city, even a single village. Some are variants of those found over an area extending from Turkey through the Middle East, and Central Asia to India, such as falooda, halwa, and jalebi. The most popular Indian sweets are barfi, laddus, jalebi, halwa, and a rice pudding known variously as payesh, payasam or kheer. In Chicago, they are available in restaurants and Indian/Pakistani sweet shops, some of which are listed at the end of this article.
Barfi is made from khoa cooked with sugar and clarified butter that, when cooled, is cut into squares, diamonds and circles. Sometimes melon seeds, guava, grated carrot, or grated coconut is added. Popular flavorings include saffron, rose water, vanilla, orange, mango, and especially cardamom powder. .
A popular street food, jalebis resemble large pretzels.. A thin batter of chickpea, dal or white flour, sometimes mixed with a little yogurt, is extruded into hot oil to form large spirals that are soaked in warm sugar syrup for a few minutes. In North India jalebis are enjoyed for breakfast, often with puris (puffed wheat bread) and halwa — a combination served at Tahoora Sweets & Bakery on weekends.
Unlike Middle Eastern halwa, usually made from sesame seeds, Indian halwa comes in two basic varieties, one made from semolina cooked with jaggery, clarified butter, and sometimes nuts and raisins, the other from vegetables (especially carrots and bottle squash), lentils, nuts or sometimes khoa. Both versions require a lot of clarified butter and are moister and flakier than Middle Eastern halwa. Karachi halwa is a bright orange, somewhat rubbery translucent halwa made from cornstarch, nuts and ghee.
Kulfi, the Indian version of ice cream, is frozen sweetened khoa in cone-shaped molds. Unlike ice cream, the mixture is not churned and the consistency is denser. Typical flavors include mango, pistachio, orange, rose, and saffron. Commercial kulfi may be frozen onto a stick for easy eating. It is often served with falooda, thin rice noodles scented with rose water.
Rice pudding is a favorite throughout the subcontinent. Kheer, called payesh in Bengali, is made by slowly cooking rice and milk until the mixture thickens, adding sugar and then flavoring it with kewra water. Almonds, raisins, and pistachios can be added. South Indians prepare a version called payasam, that is served in South Indian restaurants such as Udupi Palace or Mysore Woodlands.
Laddu. a round sweet ball is probably the most universally popular Indian sweet and one of the most ancient. The basic version (besan laddu) is made with chickpea (gram) flour, sugar, clarified butter and cardamom powder. Motichoor laddus are tiny balls of deep fried chickpea batter pressed into larger balls and soaked in sugar syrup. Sukadia Sweets has a great selection of this and other sweets.
Gulab jamun, a famous Bengali sweet, consists of brown balls of khoa and flour that are fried and then soaked in sugar syrup. A close relative is ras malai, balls of paneer or sometimes flour served in cream. Both are popular restaurant desserts.
The city of Hyderabad has a rich culinary and sweet culture. Double ka mitha (also known as shahi tukra) is a bread pudding (and probably an adaptation of English made from Western-style bread, khoa, saffron and spices sautéed in ghee, soaked in milk, covered with sugar syrup and baked. Another popular sweet is khubani ka meetha, apricots cooked with sugar and served with cream. They are available at Hyderabad House .
Indian Sweet Shops in Chicago
(Check the web pages or call to confirm hours).
Hyderabad House, 2225 West Devon 773. 381.1230
Kamdar Plaza, 2646 W Devon Ave, Chicago, IL 60659
King Sweets, 2308 West Devon, 773. 262.8000
Mysore Woodlands, 2548 W Devon Ave. 773. 338.8160
Pak Sweets, 2326 W Devon Ave, 773. 465.9200
Patel Brothers, 2610 W Devon Ave 773. 262.7777. Also 873 E Schaumburg Rd, Schaumburg, IL 847. 524.1111
Patel Cafe, 2600 W Devon Ave,. 773. 262.0100
Punjabi Sweets, 6411 N Western, 773. 381. 3333
Sukhadia Sweets, 2558 West Devon, 773.338.5400. Also 1016 W Golf Rd, Hoffman Estates, IL 847. 490.4400
Tahoora Sweets & Bakery, 2345 W Devon Ave. 773. 743-7272
Udupi Palace (2543 W. Devon Ave, 773. 338.8160)
Chicagoan Colleen Taylor Sen is a food historian and writer specializing in the cuisine of the Indian subcontinent. Her articles have appeared the the "Chicago Tribune," "Chicago Sun-Times," "Travel and Leisure," "Food Arts" and other publications. Her books include "Food Culture and Indian Curry: A Global History," "Pakoras, Paneer, Pappadums: A Guide to Indian Restaurant Menus" (2010) and its e-book version "Decoding the Indian Restaurant Menu." She is co-editor of the recently published "Street Food Around the World: An Encyclopedia of Food and Culture" (available on www.walmart.com). For more information, check out www.colleensen.com
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