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Indian cuisines don’t really have the concept of dessert

What should a dessert be like?

Well, there are two views on this. There is the reasoned view of all the great Michelin-starred chefs. And then, there is my slightly prejudiced view.


At most fancy restaurants, the dessert course is now no more than a way for the pastry chefs to tell us what artistic geniuses they are. Nearly everything will have some baked biscuit/cake component. The items will be small or scattered so that the dessert can show itself off in the centre of a large plate. There may be (in imitation of the main course), many different little things on the plate; a scoop of this, a sphere of that, a little piece of crunch, a smear of something colourful. And so on.


   The flavours will be restricted. Chefs like fresh berries. They think chocolate is a religion. They feel healthier cooking with fruit. They believe that a dessert should have many elements: something cold, something crisp, something wet, etc. The more adventurous ones will use air-dried or powdered ingredients: a ‘dust’ of something, a ‘soil’ of something else.


   I yield to no one in my admiration for the tireless striving of pastry chefs. And these days, I have a new reason to be grateful. Thanks guys, I always say, you stop me from putting on too much weight by making desserts that I never, ever want to eat.


   If you guys want to reinvent the Snickers bar or pretend to be painters when you design your plates, or re-interpret cheesecake as a milky foam – go right ahead!


   But I’ll never eat it.


   And I am eternally grateful for that. Pastry chefs (who follow in the footsteps of Albert Adrià or Jordi Roca, without knowing who they are) spend lots of time trying to keep up with global trends. Which, I guess, is fine.


   The problem is me.


   My attitude to desserts is that of a man with an Indian palate who probably spent too long eating nursery food.


   We don’t really have the concept of dessert in most Indian cuisines. In many parts of the country, our ancestors ate on thalis and did not waste time on multi-course meals. There were sweets, of course, but we put them on the thali, next to the savoury dishes, and ate them whenever we liked – not necessarily at the end of the meal.


  "We are brought up to enjoy sweets and fruit – but not in the same bite. So, fruit-based desserts rarely hit the spot."

   At my grandfather’s house in Ahmedabad, the thali would always contain something sweet; perhaps a laddu or shrikhand. At the end of the meal, they took away the thali. There was no question of serving a dessert afterwards. The only sense in which our meal had courses was that chapatis were served first and the rice after that. The idea of a dessert course was alien to our food culture.


   So it has also been in much of North India. A gulab jamun or a jalebi would find a place on the thali. It would not be served at the end of the meal. In India, dessert or the sweet item is just another way of balancing the thali with a little sweetness.


   For most of us, this has fundamentally shaped our attitude to sweets. We will eat barfi or sandesh or laddus whenever we like. We don’t think of them as dessert items. When I was hungry, my mother would do what many other Gujarati mothers did, she would make a sweet sheera out of suji. (What they call suji ka halwa in parts of North India.) It was a convenience dish, which would have looked terrible on Instagram. But I still remember the glorious taste.


   As Indians, we come from a background where the idea of a fancy dessert at the end of a meal sounds strange. Even the new, popular, dessert restaurants that have opened in Indian cities (like The Big Chill) are not mealtime places. People go there whenever they want to.


   Though we don’t necessarily realise this, our Indian childhoods determine the kinds of desserts we like. Many Indian sweets involve milk. So we are biased towards milk- based desserts: that is why Indians like ice cream and don’t have much time for sorbet.


   We are brought up to enjoy sweets and fruit – but not in the same bite. So, fruit-based desserts rarely hit the spot. We may like the odd mango dessert but we have no interest in red, blue and black berries of the sort that Western chefs are obsessed with.


   We don’t necessarily like crunchiness in our sweets. Western chefs like putting a little crunch in everything. We value crispness (in say, jalebi) but on the whole, we want our sweets to be relatively soft and yielding: rasgullas, gulab jamun, barfi etc. (That’s why gelatine-filled cheesecakes work with younger people: they like the soft but firm texture.)


   Nor do we care that much about how wonderful a dessert looks. It’s important for Instagram but not for real life. And in any case, in visual terms I would take a plate of jalebis over some over-designed Western plate with perfect little spheres and lurid smears.


   Speaking for myself (and, I think for many urban Indians), the Western desserts I really like are the ones that the West regards as ‘nursery food’. The French invented the Crème Caramel but I suspect that Indians love it much more than Europeans, whether we call it Caramel Custard or Caramel Pudding. (It helps that you don’t need an oven to make it. It can be steamed, which is useful in a country where there was no real baking tradition.)


   Few of us ever leaned how to make a real custard (or a Crème Anglaise to use the culinary name) so we have made do with custard powder. (Useless but interesting little fact: Custard powder was invented by a man called Bird who loved custard but was allergic to eggs. He had no idea how many egg-hating Gujaratis were going to benefit from his invention! His name survives in ‘Bird’s Custard Powder’.)


   Because we grew up on milk based sweets (kheer, shrikhand, mishti doi, ras malai, etc.) we like the idea of custard: it is a sweet milky liquid.


   I don’t know how many people share my love for Bread and Butter Pudding, but I suspect many of you do. The idea of a bread and milk dessert is very Indian. Think of the Shahi Tukra. (And that’s without considering the Parsi bread pudding or Malai Toast.)


   Eggs (outside of a Crème Caramel) are a little tricky. There are as many Indians who love them in desserts and sweets as there are those who don’t like the taste. But whenever I have made anyone try something like a Floating Island (beaten egg whites in a custard sauce), they have loved it. We are not that familiar with meringue, but I think the texture appeals to us.


   No matter what people say about Indians and chocolate desserts, I am sceptical about how popular they really are. We grew up on milk chocolate (Cadbury’s mainly) and I am not convinced that we have really embraced the taste of fine dark chocolate, however much money over-excited chefs spend on importing it.


   The only chocolate desserts that I have seen work at most Indian restaurants are the ones where chocolate is used to flavour flour and ideally, also served warm. So, a warm Chocolate Soufflé will always sell. So will a melting chocolate cake (the one where the centre is just gooey chocolate).


   I don’t think most Indians like the taste of real chocolate. Why don’t more people order chocolate mousse, for example? And when chefs start talking about ganache, cocoa content, Valrhona and all the other things they have read about in books, most Indians switch off.


   The truth is that no matter how sophisticated we think we are, we are all prisoners of our Indian childhoods. When we respond well to a macaron, we are not demonstrating how refined our palates are becoming.


   We like a macaron for what it really is: a badam biscuit.


   So thank you, chefs. We admire your skill with classy Western desserts. But what to do?


   We are like this only.





  • Soumya Banerji 31 Oct 2019

    Bengali meals always have sweets at the end and they are served separately. Sweets are rarely served along with the main course. Desserts like mishti doi, rosogolla are always served in the end and in separate dishes.

Posted On: 26 Oct 2019 03:51 PM
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