We might plunge a knife into a cream sponge, fruit-decked pavlova or dense brownie when a birthday rolls around, but nothing compares to the opulence of the sweets table at an Indian gathering. Sporting every colour of the rainbow and adorned with glints of edible gold or silver leaf, they complete every celebration, no matter how large or small. But, says Guneev Singh of Surry Hills’ Maya Indian Sweets, they’re also nice to just have around when the tea is poured. This year, Maya Indian Sweets is celebrating 25 years in the business of sugar and spice and supplying Indian restaurants all over Sydney.
“They really are unique to other sweets on the market in terms of ingredients, the processes and the skills required,” says Singh.
“They’re so hard to describe, because they’re something you have to experience to know. It’s very hard to relate them back to anything else you’ve had.” Even the sweets of the neighbouring Greek or Persian regions, with their sweet and flaky, layered pastries, are incomparable, though it’s this characteristic that makes the sweets of India so wonderfully niche. “They’re very seasonal,” says Singh. “Once you understand them it’s very easy to be hooked, but it’s about getting that initial understanding.” Warm a pot of chai on the stove, it’s tasting time.
Kaju roll – With an almond and cashew-flour base and an almost marzipan-like texture and flavour, the kaju roll sits toward the lower end of the sweetness scale. Swirled with orange colouring and flecked with edible silver on top, this is an easily transportable, decorative sweet.
Almond Burfi – Milk reduced in a tilt pan to prevent burning – “One of the most offensive flavours on the palate,” says Singh – lends this burfi, of which there are many types, a fudgy consistency with a strong hit of cardamom. It may appear to be quite dry, in fact it’s not at all, which is a sign of freshness.
Boondi Ladoo – Bright yellow and texturally astounding, boondi ladoo is made when a besan (chickpea flour) batter is strained over a pan of hot oil. The strainer is repeatedly whacked on the side of the pan to stop the flow, creating droplets of batter that fall to be fried below. The droplets are then mixed with pepitas and sugar syrup and are pressed into a pan before slicing.
Jalebi – “If you get Jalebi, you get it,” says Singh. The most common sweet found on every street corner and shop in India, it consists of bright orange, fermented batter piped in coils into hot oil before being immediately soaked in a sugar syrup. This results in a glassy, crisp, shattering exterior, which when fresh will ooze with syrup when bitten into. Break off a piece and drop it into the bottom of a glass of hot milk, so it melts away into a soft sweetness.
Carrot Halwa – Shredded carrot soaked in sugar syrup is what gives this halwa its vibrant colour, while the heat of cardamom ensures this rich dish is synonymous with winter and celebrating. Seldom enjoyed during an Indian summer, with carrots available year round in Australia, we can eat it any time.
Mini Rasgulla – With a squeaky, thick ricotta texture against the tooth, these bite-sized white balls are made from milk curds drained of their whey. When dipped in sugar syrup, the balls instantly soak it up like a sweet, milky sponge.
Arachi Halwa – A bright pink and jellyish square, Karachi halwa’s caramel taste comes from being made from a straight combination of ghee and sugar. Not one for the fainthearted, but very pretty indeed.
Ras Malai – In Hindi, ras translates as juice, while malai is the skin that forms on the top of heated milk. Malai is considered a bit of a treat in India, as crema is in coffee in Italy, and is sometimes enjoyed on toast. Best described as a scoop of chilled milk curds served in a strongly cardamom-scented milk ’soup’, this is one for a warmer day.