While there are some Indian sweet shops, such as LMB in Jaipur, that are large and slick and air-conditioned, most are decidedly humble affairs, often simply a display case on the street and a kitchen and perhaps a table or two in the back. Despite their diminutive size, they sell all manner of burfi, batti, katli, and other confections in pale colors and geometric shapes made from mixing milk, sugar, and ghee (clarified butter)—the foundation of most mithai—with some nuts or spices thrown in for variety. In the photo: Khateswar Sweets in Jaisalmer.
Streetside display case
Temptations on every corner, sweets from every direction. Resistance was futile!
Gulab jamun is a quintessential Indian sweet, beloved by everyone we mentioned it to and costing as few as five rupees (about ten cents when we were there) from a street vendor, who may serve it in a nifty little banana leaf cup. The wee ooze of syrup beneath this fried orb only hinted at what was to come. When we took a bite, a shock of hot syrup kerpowed us. How did the syrup stay so perfectly enclosed and hot inside the lukewarm mass? We’ll never know, unless we go back and eat about 50 more.
Made from winter melon (also known as ash gourd), translucent petha are a specialty of North-Central India, particularly Agra. Petha come in a wide range of flavors—we liked lemon and rose the best—with a hard outer layer yielding to a cool crunch.
For many years, people traveling through Agra on the train would jump off at the Cantonment station, buy buckets of petha, and climb back on before the train pulled out. When the government winnowed out the competition and set up a state-run petha stand that couldn't serve customers fast enough to allow them to return to their trains, a black market developed: vendors will now board the trains outside of Agra and sell as much as they can before conductors hound them off. Meanwhile, various groups have petitioned Indian Railways to delay the trains at Agra in order to allow everyone a chance to buy their petha. That's serious dedication to the cause of sweetness.
Into a gummy red halwa sheet went cashews, almonds, pistachios, and chunks of other nuts. The halwa itself had the gelantinous consistency of the inside of a gumdrop.
Chai shops are an essential piece of the fabric of everyday life in India, a place people swing by anytime they’re craving a sugary pick-me-up. This Varanasi shop sits at the intersection of the old city—full of windy lanes, cows, and sadhus (ascetic holy men)—and the new, filled with broad boulevards, cars, and cellphones. The strips of foil packets, for sale everywhere, contain pre-packaged paan. The blue bucket in the center holds water used to rinse the glasses after customers are done, while the chai itself is prepared in large pans in the back. Each glass set us back one rupee (about two cents).
Masala Coke, Limca, and sweet lime soda
Here’s how to make a masala Coke (left): open a Coke. Pour in garam masala (a mixture of such spices as cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, cumin, and mace). Add salt and lime. Mix. Here’s how to drink masala Coke: with the understanding that it tastes exactly like Coke mixed with spices, which is to say sticky, saccharine, and very seasoned. Lemon-lime Limca, a major bottled soda, is similar to Sprite but more bitter.
But after chai, sweet lime sodas (right) might just be the most popular drink going. In cities, small towns, and even a few dusty intersections, we saw young men carrying trays of limes and glasses, with bottles of soda water and simple syrup stuffed in their back pockets. Our favorite, an incredibly effervescent take served with ice (something of a rarity) and in a fancy curved glass, came from, of all places, a Jaipur restaurant specializing in Indian pizzas. Sweet lime is an actual fruit, citrus limetta, closer to what Americans would call a lemon than a lime. You can also order it salty, but we thought that version tasted pretty much exactly like tears.
In the US, crispy fried dough rarely makes an appearance outside of state fair midways. In India, it nearly comes out of the faucets. We stayed with a family in Varanasi who thought nothing of frying up a few jalebis with breakfast, a couple more with lunch, and perhaps a handful as a mid-afternoon snack. After you fry them, you soak them in a syrup made from cardamom and two parts sugar-to-water. Good cold, they are heavenly hot, and small crowds may form around vendors as they make ready the next batch.
These little goodies only look like little savory tacos. A marzipan-like shell enclosed a log of nuts and spices, held together with syrup. After buying a few on a whim in Mumbai, we searched in vain for their twins, or even siblings, elsewhere on our travels. But, as with a rainbow, the beauty and delight of this sweet, was due, in part, to its fleeting nature.
We selected this raasmadhuri because it resembled a hot dog, a small bite of home in the middle of Rajasthan. Usually served in a cute little banana leaf wrapping, this version of the stuffed-rasgulla treat came on a printout full of phone numbers and email addresses. A Bengali woman we spoke to later rolled her eyes at the raasmadhuri served in western India, saying that you have to go to the east to get the real deal. Unable to squeeze in a 1300-mile side trip, we made due with the Jaisalmer take on it, which was like eating a log of icing.
Lassi shops, Varanasi
After chai, the lassi is the Indian drink foreigners are most familiar with. While people do sometimes have it with a meal in India as they do in the US, it's more commonly seen as a treat, and often sold by dedicated vendors.
Here, along a busy stretch of street in Varanasi, three brothers run three competing lassi shops. The city has enough lassi lovers to keep these three—and many more—afloat.
We chose the left-most brother. Our sweet lassis were served in terra cotta cups, more environmentally friendly than plastic, and topped with scoops of tan yogurt, as dense as clotted cream, which we ate with little wooden sticks.
Ladoo only looks like a golf ball. In this version from Jaipur, gram flour (chickpea flour also known as besan) had been mixed with sugar, producing a moist delight. Some bites squeaked slightly.
Like so many Indian sweets, sandesh comes from milk and sugar. The white shell snapped crisply to further reveal a brilliant yolky center. Rather than egg, the yolk was made with mango, brightening the two bites in taste as well as appearance.
Rabri, sweetened condensed milk combined with flour or sugar, serves as the basis for many other desserts and even savories, or it can be drunk on its own, as we did in Jaipur. This version included pistachios and crushed cashews suspended in the rich, creamy liquid.
Rasmalai is a dairy lover’s dream. Dumplings made from paneer bob in a pool of condensed milk spiked with cardamom. Cream gets mixed in on occasion, because sometimes too much is never enough.
Dry fruit lassi
A specialty of Varanasi, a dry fruit lassi mixes nuts, spices, and flowers—the khaki-colored bottled liquid—into the white yogurt. The result revealed delicate hints of roses, broken up with slivers of almonds.
This cake can be served hot or cold. A base of flour, ghee, and sugar gets flavored with masala, nuts, rose, or paneer, as in the above. The result is airy, chewy, and honeycomb-like, sharp with sugar. We tried to buy just this one piece, but through the magic of our guidebook Hindi wound up with a whole cake, which can easily feed eight people. We ate it in an afternoon.