Courtesy a few leading culinary minds, we have finally broken the big Indian illusion. We have proved — with a fair amount of success — that Indian food is not necessarily greasy, super-spiced and doesn’t always come in a balti.
The one department, however, that’s failed to match up to this level of success in balti-breaking, is our sweets.
Bear with me as I recount the glorious run of “modern Indian sweets” that have been anything but modern — beginning with the omnipresent gaajar halwa cheesecake, the unhealthy baked gulab jamun, the outlandish kala jam crème brulee and the curious case of barfi cheesecake — not to mention a very recent experience, which was a chocolate-slathered mithai/baked rosogulla!
Rosogulla — which can’t possibly be baked, because its very first requirement is steaming!
Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing overtly wrong with making sweets healthy (although baked gulab jamun has more sugar and fat than the classic) or with ‘fusion’ desserts — a term all of the above qualify for, and grandly. They are interesting to look at, fun for a palate quiz and awesome (albeit not always) for the buck spent. The only glitch perhaps is that they aren’t exactly ‘fusion’ or even ‘modern’.
Now, before you go swarm up against the poor pastry chef, who earns brownie points for thinking up such creations, here’s the deal — the issue is that most of the time, the dessert simply isn’t thought through, or at least not beyond the presentation.
Hence, apple kheer becomes a sandwich of two slices of corn flour-coated, fried Granny Smith apple with nitrogen-frozen gelatin milk pudding playing the kheer; simple murabba gets quilted within the jiggly arms of a panna cotta. When all else fails, the sweet is slathered with chocolate of all kinds. For instance, the chocolate-bathed baked rosogulla came smothered with melted chocolate (not just bitter and compound, but dark and white, if you please) with roasted slivers of nuts and rice crispies for crunch and more chocolate nibs— just in case.
So sweets are where our good run on modern cuisine goes downhill. While the presentation is nailed — be it the rasmalai-filled chocolate ball or the besan halwa pie or mithai lollipop — none of these connects like their classic versions.
What goes wrong? Everything.
The thing about working with Indian sweets is the all-familiar taste. Even a minor change can have a huge impact, which ace ingredients like coffee, caramel and chocolate cannot camouflage.
Then is the texture: Indian sweets are texturally sensitive. Turn halwa into dust, it becomes panjiri; make it brittle it becomes chikki. Change the shape of an imarti into pearls and you have a boondi ka laddoo. And the gulab jamun can take on the shape of a ledikini or a chenna jhilli – two very different sweets related only by milk and sugar.
Most important is the matter of skill. Sweet making in India is a highly complex, hard-to-master art. This is why you’ll have designated shops across India known for that one particular sweet they make best. Unlike other places, where a good bakery with standardised recipes can dole out an entire buffet of goodies.
Add to this the fact that many of our sweets are milk-based, one dimension texturally, and have a single defining characteristic that sets them apart (eg. the crispness of a jalebi, grainy smoothness of a barfi etc).
When you try to mix them around unmindfully, what you end up with is a ‘gulab jamun cronut’ or a ‘sandesh cheesecake’. It’s a mélange all right, but calling it modern is misguided.
What happens in all these fusions is the Indian sweet ends up playing a supporting role rather than that of the hero. The only exception to this is the versatile kulfi.
This makes modernising Indian desserts, without losing their character and appeal, a very difficult task.
That’s not to say that it can’t be done. Two successful examples of it are the daulat ki chaat at Indian Accent or the rasmalai tres leche at Masala Library. While both desserts offer up India clasics for a global palate, the only influence is on the presentation. While Masala Library’s rasmalai borrows heavily from the Mexican/Spanish tres leche, it works, as the Indian classic too is a play on milk in various forms. Daulat ki chaat — the closest representation of Delhi’s winter delicacy — uses modern techniques to create a palate friendly experience.
The jalebi caviar also deserves a mention. The dessert retains the trademark crispness of the jalebi even as the saffron syrup is flavourful. Or the besan ladoo tart, where the tart is made of besan and the filling is a sublime mithai cream.
Even with a modernised dessert, the very first bite should make you believe you are sampling the classic — with the addition of an element you haven’t experienced before.
If not, all you’ll have is a bittersweet ending.