Bal Mithai is a Kumaoni specialty, supposedly invented a century ago in Almora. It is exactly the kind of thing an ordinary halvai would dream up with ingredients at hand. Cut browned khoya into cubes, roll them in the little balls of sugar that are a second common ingredient in a sweet maker’s kitchen, and you are ready. The recipe is so simple that it has taken over the hills. Since the smoke of forest fires prevented us from taking walks, I’d decided not to have much in the way of sweets. But passing through a small town through a road lined with halvai’s shops I stopped the car momentarily and bought a hundred grams of these sweets. They are as toe-curlingly sweet as I remembered them to be. But a halvai’s tray full of them is a nice subject for a photo.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t look into a display of sweets in a shop and sigh. As a child I would spend my time looking at all the sweets in a display (while an accompanying adult took charge of buying the most boring thing visible) and trying to fix their shapes and colours in my mind. Now I gaze at the things I do not really want to eat, but a lifetime’s habit makes me want to photograph and share with the Youngest Niece.
I got a very satisfying smiley back from her. What will I do when she is too old to respond so spontaneously? Then I saw this tray of gujia. They reminded me that Holi was just a few days away. 1750 meters above sea level, in New Tehri, Holi was probably celebrated in much the same way that people would celebrate it down in the plains. At least, with the same sweets. There will always be people who enjoy sweets, to look at, if not to eat.
Odisha and Bengal are the two states of India with wonderful sweets, and when you travel through here, it seems that every street corner has a sweet shop. The morning’s shopping is not complete without stopping at one of these for the daily titbit. I was reminded of this when I was in Bhubaneshwar last week. I passed a shop early in the morning and saw the lady in the photo above come shopping. She’d bought her vegetables and fish already. She placed them on a high stool outside the shop (you can see the plastic bag to the left of the photo, if you look closely you can see she has bitter gourds in there) and then turned her attention to the sweets. It was clearly a daily stop, because the shop keeper chatted with her while he measured out the chhanapora.
In India most sweet making is too technical for home cooking, so there are specialized shops for sweets. Odisha and Bengal have different traditions. In my experience, Bengali sweet makers tend to be innovative: constantly trying out new tastes and combinations; even the corner shop will innovate. But the classics, roshogolla and mishti doi, are not always well made. The sweet shops in Odisha which I’ve been to tend not to innovate, but make their reputation on technique.
The four Oriya classics which I love are:
Chhanapora (literally, burnt chhana, ie, cottage cheese) is the one Odisha sweet you should not miss. A mass of paneer is kneaded with sugar, and sometimes with cinnamon or chopped nuts, and then baked in a coal-fired oven. The smooth, smoky tasting, caramelised mass is available in every sweet shop in Odisha, but seldom outside the state. I have great memories of a mildly cinnamon infused, and very smoky, chhanapora from a shop in Puri, not far from the Jagannath temple.
Rasabali is a deep-fried sweet chhana patty soaked in a saffron infused thickened milk syrup. It’s the kind of thing designed to burst your arteries. I was introduced to it in a little bazaar between Konarak and Puri. The sweet shop was fly infested, and I nearly left without trying anything. But Sky, my friend and local guide, insisted that this was the best place within tens of miles for the sweet. I’ve been a fan ever since that first taste.
Kheer sagar looks like the north Indian rasmalai, but tastes quite different. It consists of balls of chhana dipped in a thin rabri. Again, the combination is not good for your cardiac system; but then I get to eat this less than once a year. I judge it by the smoothness of the chhana and rabri. I’ve had some really nice Kheer Sagar in Bhubaneshwar.
Chhana jhili is meant to be Odisha’s answer to the north Indian jalebi. The version I first ate in a shop between Bhubaneshwar and Puri was a patty, like a rasabali, in sticky sugar syrup. Later I had versions which look a little more like a jalebi. Whatever it looks like, it is designed to kill.
When I go to Odisha for work, I ask taxi drivers about the best place for sweets. They’ve always been helpful, and very often taken me to places which I later found are generally supposed to be among the best.