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An enlightening guide to the desserts of India through the centuries - Rajyasree Sen

Religion might well be the opiate of the masses in India, but maybe the plethora of desserts offered in the name of religion have a role to play in it, says chef, columnist and food writer Rajyasree Sen, adding that in today's political climate, there are few moments as satisfying as Hindus craving for some creamy sheer korma during Eid, or Punjabis asking their Bengali friends for mishti doi.

And the fact that Muslim cooks bake the Christmas cake in Calcutta ("no, I will not refer to it as Kolkata") for a largely Hindu clientele to celebrate a Christian festival proves that when it comes to desserts and mithai -- and maybe conveniently -- the barriers drop away; one of the biggest reasons to celebrate the sweets of India, she maintains.

"I've been writing on food for a while now, almost 15 years I'd say. And it all started with me opening my Bengali and Anglo-Indian restaurant, Brown Sahib in New Delhi in 2007 (it shut down a decade ago). The thought behind the restaurant was to serve authentic Calcutta cuisine and replicate some of the dishes I grew up eating at home - keema chops, stuffed crabs, smoked hilsa, prawn malai curry. I have a background in journalism and with my interest in cooking, ingredients and in the history of foods and flavours, it was only natural that I'd be writing on food," Sen told IANS in an interview of her book, "The Sweet Kitchen - Tales & Recipes of India's Favourite Desserts" (Aleph).

She was the Wall Street Journal India's food columnist for years, and has written columns on food for a variety of publications and also scripted many food shows for Fox, Nat Geo and Discovery. Thus, when approached to write on the history and cultural influences on Indian sweets - a topic which surprisingly hasn't been written about in detail in any one book - the outcome presents readers with some interesting anecdotes, historical facts and tidbits about sweets in India, and introduces them to some sweets which they might not be familiar with.

Considerable research went into the book.

"As I mentioned, for a country which loves sweets as much as India does - and has a plethora of sweets unique to different communities and regions, it was quite surprising that there was no one definitive book, even academic, on sweets in India. I've referred to old texts, books, articles, recipes and spoken to people to discover and confirm much of what you will discover in the book," Sen explained.

As a result of her extensive research, Sen discovered historical facts she was not aware of or had even considered. For instance, which desserts must we thank the Persians, the Mughals, the Portuguese, and the French for? While she knew that a sweet had been created for Lady Canning in Bengal, she had no idea which Mughal emperor to thank for bringing halwa to India, or the Sikh connection to the creation of kaju barfi. She has also tried to demystify the very controversial question of whether Bengal made the rosogolla first, or if the credit goes to Odisha. She also discovered that daulat ki chaat, an airy, churned milk dessert available only during the cold winter of North India, has a Mughal origin.

Beginning with 'Sandesh: Muse of the Bengal Renaissaince', Sen takes the reader through 13 chapters to discover 'Rosogolla: Who Stole My Cheese', 'The Christmas Cake: Cultural Chameleon', 'Payasam, Payesh, Kheer: The Three Avatars of Sweet Pudding', 'Halwa: The Arab Who Strayed onto the Indian Palate', 'Barfi: When Art Outdoes Nature', 'Gulab Jamun: Everybody's Celebration Sweetmeat', 'Jalebi: Sweet Lord of the Rings', 'Daulat Ki Chaat: The Lingering Taste of Old Delhi', 'Misthi Doi, Shrikhand, Bhapa Doi: Haute Culture Curd', 'Goan Sweets: Gems from an Indigenous Pastelaria', 'Firinghee Sweets: Delicious Relics of the Raj', and 'In God's Name: Sweetmeats and Culutral Congeniality'.

Each of these chapters contains a short introduction of the sweet, details of the ingredients, the method of making, the preparation time and the number of people it serves.

Sen also discovered that sweets are not strictly vegetarian -- they can also be made with meat and eggs.

"For example, there are some non-vegetarian variants of halwa such as gosht halwa and ande ka halwa which are worth mentioning," she said.

"Giving a whole new meaning to the word 'sweet meat', the gosht halwa is a translucent, succulent dessert soaked in ghee and cooked with tender lamb mince. The recipe is referred to in old Persian recipe books, and khansamas who worked in Old Delhi homes have recreated the dish from memory, turning out a delightful dessert prepared by cooking meat for hours by stirring it with milk and sugar till it amalgamates into a thick halwa which is then flavoured with saffron and cardamom. This preparation is supposed to have originated in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh.

"Ande ka halwa, or egg halwa, is made by cracking eggs into a pan with ghee, milk, sugar, and dried fruits. The mixture is cooked until a thick custard forms, which is then sprinkled with saffron. Most Indian halwas, however, use grains, such as the suji halwa and atta halwa," Sen explained.

She earnestly hopes the book will serve the purpose of breaking down barriers. "Like all good meals are supposed to do, this book should bring people to the same table and help create an understanding and appreciation of other communities and peoples. After all, if we love their foods, we can surely extend some affection towards them as well," she elaborated.

What next? What will her next book be on?

"Who knows, maybe I'll write a historical espionage! I'd love to write a book on Bengali cuisine with recipes. Let's see, time will tell," Sen concluded.

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