Sweets for the Sweeties

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Eid Mubarak! Monday marked the end of pilgrimage for millions of Muslims in Mecca, and here at my home we celebrated the only way Bengalis know how to celebrate – with Bengali sweets. The table was heavy with juicy plump roshugullahs, creamy shemi, sweet gager halwa, and moist pistachio burfi. And of course, pecan pie.

With mishthi fresh on my mind, my ears particularly perked up this week when I heard on NPR a story about how a couple of food scientists played with making the classic birthday cake better.Varak 2.pg

An electrified, edible birthday cake with LED light bulbs instead of candles is just one of the concoctions that Patrick Buckley and Lily Binns have dreamed up for The Hungry Scientist Handbook. The wiring is edible, but Buckley says figuring out how to make it wasn’t easy.

“We went through filtering gold out of Goldschlager and trying to lay traces of gold leaf on top of the frosting, which just wasn’t quite robust enough,” he says.[npr]

Have you guessed the desi angle yet?

Eventually they settled on Twizzler Pull-n-Peel licorice rolled in varak, a silver foil used as a garnish in Indian cooking. The foil is edible, Binns says, but only in small amounts.

These wires are essentially the inverse of a traditional wire, Buckley says. “The electricity’s getting conducted on the outside.”[npr]

The perfect desi-American fusion mishthi. For nerds.I remember when I was a little kid and my mother told me the shiny surface to mishthi was made of real silver. At that moment, I thought being Bengali was so cool, because those other kids, they might have had their chocolate icing. But where I came from, our icing was decadently made of real silver. After I learned this tidbit, I cherished my sweets all that much more, slowly peeling off the varak and saving to eat it last.

Where does this silver delicacy come from? The authors of The Hungry Scientist Handbook have a blog where they source the silver all the way to Lucknow. vakar 3.jpg

Each silver foil starts as a paper-thin, thumb-sized piece of silver. A number of these silver thumbnails are stacked up between leather pieces, and a gentleman hammers them until the silver is stretched ten times bigger than it was. The leather pouches are then handed to the man with the silver hands for a most delicate exercise. He takes each leaf one by one with a flat and very thin spatula and carefully lays them between the remains of a local telephone book. This is very delicate work, as the paper is so thin than the slightest movement in the air will fold or break it.[fxcuisine]

Quite innovative, those hungry scientists. Their blog has recipes for bacon chocolate, dry ice drinks, and alcoholic ice cream. They take the term ‘playing with your food’ to a whole new level. How do you play with your food?

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About Taz

Taz is an activist, organizer and writer based in California. She is the founder of South Asian American Voting Youth (SAAVY), curates MutinousMindState.tumblr.com and blogs at TazzyStar.blogspot.com. Follow her at twitter.com/tazzystar

53 thoughts on “Sweets for the Sweeties

  1. Vegans (or any really strict vegetarian) might skip the “Varak” since it’s made on an animal skin. At least that’s how it was made in the old days, maybe there’s a new method that doesn’t involve unholy stuff like animal products.

    Eating too much silver causes some people’s skin to get unusual colored patches. This is probably not a problem with Indian sweets, I guess. The mithais with Varak don’t have an excessive amount of silver.

    But after reading Alok’s comment, I wonder if it’s better to skip the Varak since it could come from aluminum. (Or was the post meant to be humorous?)

  2. 3 · gm said

    Vegans (or any really strict vegetarian) might skip the “Varak” since it’s made on an animal skin.

    not skin, but cow intestines. they’re hammered between cow intestines (because these are soft and allow the silver to be thinned without damaging it), not the pages of a phone book at least from what i’ve always heard. one reference.

    (although i’ve always thought this seemed particularly egregious since diwali sweets do have silver foil, and using cow intestines especially on a hindu festival, seems mindbogglingly inappropriate. i mean, the legend of indian independence has a high-caste hindu spurred into action because he was coerced into biting into a cartridge whose manufacturing process involved cow fat. so, who knows? maybe this is just one way this is manufactured (which begs the question of what replaced phonebooks back in the day before pa bell and ma bell)?)

  3. When compared to other nation’s sweets, I think that India’s is too over-colored, too synthetic, too buttery, and simply an amalgam of syrup and something with fat in it. When it comes to our desserts, we’re crude.

  4. When compared to other nation’s sweets, I think that India’s is too over-colored, too synthetic, too buttery, and simply an amalgam of syrup and something with fat in it. When it comes to our desserts, we’re crude.

    Indian please!

    The Milk Cake from the Benglai Markets in Delhi is nonpareil in the world of sweets. Also what about the Indian version of the British Bread and Butter pudding? Thats not too sweet and pretty subtle.

    You are probably right about the over-color, however, you sir, are overstating the rest of the case. Middle-eastern sweets are as sweet and syrupy. Baklava is not exactly an exercise in the making of nuanced sweetness. I find traditional American sweets to be too sweet as well. Btw, has anybody has traditional Chinese sweets. The different kind of gross sugary cakes in Chinese buffets are surely geared for the palates of Joe the Plumber.

  5. 7 · Amitabh said

    That top picture looks awesome…

    That top picture I took at a relative’s house in the morning after Eid prayers. It was potluck style where all the aunties had to show off their Bengali mishthi making skills, you know, because they were slightly competitive. It was beautiful and I had to take a picture. Just looking at that picture makes me drool.

  6. This is cruel. Those rosogollas look delicious. There used to be a time when I could devour 15 of those in the space of a couple of minutes ! Thankfully you didn’t put any “macher kalia” on that pic. That would have killed me. Time to give a courtesy call to my aunt in Long Island !

  7. Taz and others, EID MUBARAK!

    Nothing beats Bangla sweets. And slow cooked goat meat in minimal curry spices.

    A lot of love to our Muslim brothers and sisters around the world.

  8. Aside from sandesh, I can’t stand Bengali, or other Indian, sweets and desserts. Slice me a piece of flourless German chocolate cake.

  9. I have to agree. As a Bengali, I find sweets to be a bit too sweet. I prefer a bowl of dal.

    When compared to other nation’s sweets, I think that India’s is too over-colored, too synthetic, too buttery, and simply an amalgam of syrup .
  10. The Indian sweets that one gets in the US are more often than not terrible. Even the places which are famous for sweets here are not that great. Which is not to say that in India you wont find halvais make overly colored and excessively sweet versions of mithais which are not supposed to be that sweet. The best thing about Indian sweets is the variety – you can have super sweet fried gulab jamuns or subtle flavored kaju katlis (if done right, the sweetness should be mediu to mild and the kafu flavor subtle) to rasmalais or sevaiyon ki kheer or basundi which vary in sweetness depending on where its made (not to forget the subtle flavor of the kesar and pista garnishing).

    And yes, a good Chinese sweet is very mild in its sweetness. A lot of Chinese people do not like Indian or American desserts because of the sweetness factor.

  11. As a red chilli powder loving Andhra babu, I never cared too for sweets. All I care for is ulli pakodi and all other kinds of mirchi bajjis and pakoras, arr :)

    The pictures look nice, though.

    Eid Mubarak to one and all :)

  12. The Indian sweets that one gets in the US are more often than not terrible. Even the places which are famous for sweets here are not that great. Which is not to say that in India you wont find halvais make overly colored and excessively sweet versions of mithais which are not supposed to be that sweet. The best thing about Indian sweets is the variety – you can have super sweet fried gulab jamuns or subtle flavored kaju katlis (if done right, the sweetness should be medium to mild and the kaju flavor subtle) to rasmalais or sevaiyon ki kheer or basundi which vary in sweetness depending on where its made (not to forget the subtle flavor of the kesar and pista garnishing).

    And yes, a good Chinese sweet is very mild in its sweetness. A lot of Chinese people do not like Indian or American desserts because of the sweetness factor.

  13. Eid Mubarak! I agree with PAfd, Middle-eastern sweets have so much sugar/syrup that they seem to taste bitter. This from my experience in Dearborn shops, which are considered excellent. For me Eid memories are Hyderabadi mutton biryani accompanied by a grated coconut-chopped onion yogurt that is lightly sweetened. This followed by a very nutty double-ka-meetha. Ahhhh! that’s an orgasm right there.

  14. How do you play with your food?

    like these two. “They take the term ‘playing with your food’ to a whole new level.”

    [link NSFW]

  15. Taz,

    Your photo assaults me. I cannot even seek out SM as an island of sanity, now. :-)

    Mark my vote for desi sweets. I’ll take a bowl of daulat ki chaat, a kala jamun from the Nathu’s, gajar halwa make with creamy milk and red carrots, shondesh made with gur from one of the small non descript halwais near Sealdah, mishri mewa from LMB, a homemade wedding boondi laddu from an eastern AP home, and shot of insulin.

    Eid Mubarak!

    Can you guys post a less tempting photo?

  16. It was potluck style where all the aunties had to show off their Bengali mishthi making skills, you know, because they were slightly competitive.

    Now that statement is a little sexist. Maybe bangladeshi males don’t cook that much?

  17. Now that statement is a little sexist. Maybe bangladeshi males don’t cook that much?

    Probably realistic rather than sexist.

  18. 29 · Ami bangla janina said

    Now that statement is a little sexist.

    It wasn’t sexist! It was fact. At this particular potluck, it was all the aunties that were showing off their ware (competitively, might I add). If there had been any men that contributed to the table, we would have known, and I would have stated so.

    Anyways, from my experience I think Bangladeshi males do cook – just more savory then sweets. Though I do recall all the Bengali sweets stores in India being run by Bengali males… ;-)

  19. When compared to other nation’s sweets, I think that India’s is too over-colored, too synthetic, too buttery, and simply an amalgam of syrup and something with fat in it. When it comes to our desserts, we’re crude.

    You have never had good Indian sweets – and are probably right when it comes to the crap sold in most desi haunts in the US, and many cities in India. The delicate rosogulla or the earthen misthi doi of KC Das in Kolkata is hard to find.

    While on the topic, could someone post a few good recommendations for Indian Sweets, in the NJ/PA area?

  20. Mercury,

    I agree witn you about Indian sweets. There is a rajbhog on Newark Avenue in Jersey City close to Journal Square station which is pretty good.

  21. I like Goan sweets myself, but don’t know what they’re called. There’s a crepe-type thing filled with grated coconut and sugar that’s delicious.

  22. 37 · patm said

    There’s a crepe-type thing filled with grated coconut and sugar that’s delicious.

    that description also sounds similar to a bengali sweet called patishapta.

  23. Eid Mubarak!

    Thank you, Taz! I’m thinking some dorbesh or some langcha with lal doi would be great about right now… actually, I have found a substitute for lal doi anyway — Brown Cow makes a maple yogurt that’s almost close enough to fool me. I think if patm @ 37 were talking about Bong desserts, that would be malpoa– not so sweet.

    Actually, what I crave is some real Hyderabadi biryani, and real parathas that are flaky with layers, or some real rumali roti worthy of the name to wrap around some Royal Hotel sag gosht, oh my…..

  24. that description also sounds similar to a bengali sweet called patishapta

    Yes, this looks and sounds like it, or is at least very similar.

  25. I’m hallucinating about “bebinca” now. Egg yolk ,sugar, flour – over sloooooow fire for hours. Yum!

  26. I crave for a time when desi sweets will fuse with western desserts, chocalate covered rasgollas are quite good.

  27. There’s a crepe-type thing filled with grated coconut and sugar that’s delicious.

    Patm, Are you referring to “alle-belle”? I never thought i would have to spell it out someday :-)

    One Xmas Goan sweet i miss is “Gos” – literally hot sugar and coconut ribbons plopped on colored tissue paper.

  28. I avoid all sweets for health reasons but I’ll never understand why so many brown people claim not to enjoy Indian sweets. Although I do agree, the ones available commercially in the US tend not to be very well made.

  29. Patm, Are you referring to “alle-belle”? I never thought i would have to spell it out someday :-)

    O my god, this is it!! I was even able to find a recipe online now that I know what they’re called, thank you!!!! :)

  30. Taz, you’re the BEST! This made me realize how long it’s been since I hit Curry Hill in Manhattan!

    I wonder whether my resultant food-spendings will impact the economy in any way or not…hmmm!

  31. Yeah, miss the Mishti Doi! And Shandesh too. The real Kolkatta kind. Fond memories of my childhood in Cal. Have not found anyplace here that serves them, at least not in Dallas.

  32. Hey y’all Eid Mubarak.

    Hmm Bengali sweets are amazing esp the great variety of them that you can find.

    Firni is one of those sweets which are so amazing. but whats nice is hot fresh shondesh and clotted cream hmm really nice…

    Does anyone make home made fresh Jilabis?