Indian cuisine is known throughout the entire World as a sweet cuisine and this tag doesn’t come along without some extremely solid arguments. How else would you call a country’s cuisine if almost half its dishes are either sweets or desserts? Actually, Indian sweets have not only made Indian food famous throughout history, but they have been acquired and accommodated to European and North American dishes, finding great success in fancy “Baltic” restaurants through-out England, France, the United States or Spain.
The Rasgulla for example, one of the most popular relished sweetmeats in India, originating from the Eastern part of the country, has an interesting modern history. This dish produced by the boiling of small pops of casein in sugar syrup has become emblematic of the quintessentially effeminate stuff of ridicule of the Bengali people. This sweet dessert can be found in almost all Eastern Indian households, while global malls sell it like there’s no tomorrow.
Another Indian dessert that blends with the Hindu culture is the Payasam (or Kheer as it is called by the Hindi). This dessert has been an essential dish throughout the history of India, being usually found at ceremonies, feasts and celebrations. In Southern India, ancient traditions tell that a wedding is not fully blessed if Payasam is not served at the wedding feast, this tradition being kept alive with each generation, still being practiced by newly wedded couples, mostly in the southern regions, from where the tradition started in the first place.
The best and most popular Payasam dishes are found in the temples of Guruvayoor and Ambalappuzha. In the Ambalappuzha temple, Payasam is served as part of a tradition, based on an ancient legend. The legend states that Lord Krishna (the eight avatar of Vishnu, playing a major role in the Hindu religion) took the form of an old sage and challenged the great king who ruled over that region to a game of chess. Being a true chess player and a master of the mind game’s tricks, the king gladly accepted the sage’s invitation. Asking what the sage wanted in case he wins the game, the king remained bedazzled by the sage’s request: an amount of rice grains for each square of the chess board, each pile having double the number of grains than the previous pile. So the first square would have only one grain of rice, the second would have 2 grains, the third would have 4 grains, the fourth would have 8 rice grains and so on, each pile growing at a geometrical progression from the past pile of rice grains. Hearing this request, the king was shocked that the sage wanted only what he taught were a few piles of grain, when he could have betted for his whole kingdom or the immense riches that he held.
Naturally the king lost, (because playing chess against a God is not that easy, mind you) so he started placing grain piles on each square, starting with only one grain. He soon realized that the sage’s demand was not entirely what he thought of, when the number reached one million grains of rice by the 20th square. By the 40th or so square, the entire kingdom’s rice reserve was depleted and when he got to the last square he calculated that he would have to pay the sage 18,447,744 trillions of tons of rice, which he could have never paid off. The sage then revealed his true form, that of Lord Krishna, and said that the debt does not have to be paid immediately, but the king will have to serve Payasam freely in the temple of Ambalappuzha, to pilgrims, homeless or whoever comes there for peace of mind and prayer or for those seeking shelter. This is how the Payasam became famous, integrating in the Hindu culture. The tradition of freely serving Payasam in Ambalappuzha still lives today and pilgrims all over India have an easier ride knowing that a hot bowl of the sweet dessert awaits them at the end of their journey.
Western India also does a great job on satisfying the sweet tooth of its inhabitants, with one of the most delicious desserts you will be able to find throughout the history of Indian food: the Shrikhand. The Shrikhand is a creamy dessert made out of strained yogurt, from which all water is drained off, leaving the thick yogurt cream by itself. Adding exotic dry fruits like mangos only enhances the Shrikhand’s delightful taste to newer limits. This great dessert is one of Western India’s most popular traditional dishes, since it has ancient roots in the Indian cuisine. Comparisons of this dessert to the Indian people have stated that Indians are a people who like to extract the best of things from everything, leaving everything else behind, their true and hospitable nature being a result of the fact that they dry out every spiritual detail that has no substance or meaning.
Other important traditional Indian sweets and desserts, famous throughout the history of Indian food, include the following: Gulab Jamun (a popular Indian dessert made out of fried milk balls in sweet syrup), Mysore Pak (a delicious dessert made out of ghee, sugar and chick pea flour), Halwa (or Halva in modern English spelling; made out of semolina and sugar, the Halwa is one of the most popular Indian desserts that have spread in every corner of the World), the Kulfi (often referred to as Indian ice cream, the Kulfi is made out of boiled milk and a wide variety of mango, kesar or cardamom flavors), the Jalebi (a common sweet dish from North India, the Jalebi is basically a pretzel-shaped fried batter, which is soaked in syrup) and the Jangiri (the South Indian look-alike of the North Indian Jalebi).