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Haute sweet

How do you spell Deepavali? M-i-t-h-a-i. Deepavali is perhaps the only pan-Indian festival in which celebrations seem familiar, whether you reside in Karnataka, Gujarat, Delhi or Kolkata. Everyone and their nosy aunt indulge in the great Indian exchange programme — of sweets, gifts and goodies — wrapped up in aspirational colours, no doubt, but also fragrant with love and tradition. The happy part is how the recipes of the sweets made or bought for Deepavali hold centuries of heritage within them. Each region has its own distinct favourites, of course. However, there is change afoot when it comes to Indian sweets. Younger, more savvy customers want to move away from the done-and-dusted or the “too sweet” stereotypical mithai. This is, more often than not, not just a desire to do something different but also due to growing awareness about lifestyle ailments as well as the necessity to cater to a palate that is today both diverse and accommodative.

And when there is demand, supply there will be. Brands and confectioners are busy ‘rethinking’ mithai and giving it a (much-needed?) makeover and a contemporary twist. Global flavours like peanut butter, dulce de leche, tahini and bubblegum are blended seamlessly with laddoos, pedas and barfis. While this new trend may seem bold and adventurous, the creators are also equally conscious of keeping traditions alive. Why then the urge to constantly innovate and how do they strike that delicate balance between keeping the essence of the mithai intact and yet not holding back on experimentation?

Not fusion for the sake of fusion

Adding a touch of modernity to traditional sweets is what the Mumbai-based Bombay Sweet Shop specialises in. Looking at sweets with a fresh new lens, the brand’s aim is to “prompt surprise and wonder” in their customers.Take, for instance, the Ferrero Rocker Besan Laddoo. The humble besan laddoo gets a leg-up with the inspiration being provided by the much-loved Ferrero Rocher chocolates. Gram flour laddoos are dipped in sugar syrup and then rolled in hazelnuts, recalling the flavour of the Italian classic.The crunchy exterior and crumbly interior make for a winning combination. Some of their other inventions include Kaju Marzipan Bon Bon, Dulce De Leche Peda and Hazelnut Besan Barfi.

Sameer Seth, the founder and CEO of Hunger Inc., spoke to us about what led to this creation. “For us, Bombay Sweet Shop came out of our experience in running our restaurants. The real change in the last few years has been that people are open to new ideas and experimentation. We are recreating tradition for the current generation,” he says. The first step in this journey was to understand the process of making Indian traditional sweets. The late Chef Floyd Cardoz, who was one of the co-founders, believed firmly that unless you understand tradition thoroughly, you will never be able to innovate or experiment with it. He spent three years travelling the length and breadth of India, visiting old mithai shops, meeting halwais (sweetmeats makers) and learning the traditional techniques. “The idea was not to do fusion for the sake of fusion,” Sameer adds.

Caramel and Katli

But combining flavours comes not only with the freedom to let one’s creative juices flow but also with the responsibility to respect the tradition the sweets originate from. Chefs walk that thin line where they sidestep unwritten rules and ensure they don’t rein in their creativity. In this context, Delhi-based Kshir & Canelé has opted to take a more European approach. Here, you can find flavours like Nutella, pumpkin spice, blueberry, bubblegum and cotton candy. For the co-founder and chef Ajay Chopra, the motivation to experiment and push the boundaries stems from an urge to break free. “Creativity, in my view, means breaking free from the constraints that limited our mithai innovations for so long. Like Kaju Katli — it’s essentially a marzipan base, and the creative possibilities with marzipan are endless. It’s not fusion, it’s a harmonious blend of flavours without confusion. The objective is to curate a melange of flavours that complement each other.” The brand offers choices such as Cashew, Lavender and Mango Opera Barfi, and the rainbow-coloured Niño Viejo Mawa Barfi. “For instance, tahini is an ingredient which is rarely associated with Indian sweets. But when combined with caramel it creates a uniquely Indian yet international taste. From bubble gum to pumpkin spice mithai, we have explored diverse global flavours,” he adds. Another favourite of ours was their Biscotti Bellini Mithai which has cashew nut fudge folded into a caramel custard-like base. The Mathura Peda takes on the flavours of Biscoff and their PB&J Laddoo brings together the fan favourites peanut butter and berry jelly.

Bikanervala is a legacy brand that started its business seven decades ago in Bikaner, so they know a thing or two about tradition. While the legacy business sticks to conventional mithais, the inventive creations are nurtured under the brand name Saugaat. For example, you can bite into a Lemon De Leche Laddoo or a Cherimoya (custard apple) Mawa. “The creativity behind Saugaat’s mithais is sparked by a combination of preserving tradition while embracing innovation. In our test kitchen, we experiment not only with flavour combinations but also with cooking techniques. The goal is to redefine and elevate mithai while still honouring its traditional roots,” saysRenuka Aggarwal, the founder of the company. They boast both a national, as well as an international clientele because of their diverse catalogue.

Ajay Chopra tells us a little about the numbers and market research that went into creating experimental and specialised mithais. He explains, “Before entering this venture, we conducted an extensive survey to recognise the significant demand for mithai in North India, which is massive, with an impressive valuation of Rs 11,000 crores. The specialised mithai segment is around Rs 3,500-4,000 crores and growing.”

Health as priority

The reasons for this spurt in innovation stem from two main motivations. While some companies and chefs wanted to experiment and push the envelope, others were forced to do so because the common complaint that customers had was that Indian mithais were “too sweet”. Both taste-wise and for health reasons too. Today, lifestyle ailments are way too common and thus many customers have health issues that limit their diet, while others are simply health conscious and want to avoid sugar. This is why many of the newer mithais are usually never “too sweet” and are sometimes made from sugar alternatives.

With Delhi-based Berfila, customisation is the name of the game. “We are into customisation where customers may choose to replace sugar with jaggery and alter the base from khoya to chocolate. And the customer gets to choose their own flavour combinations,” says co-founder Neha Niwas. Berfila claims to be the first to introduce many innovative sweets such as Mango Kalakand, Rose Kalakand, Raspberry Motichoor Laddoo, Cinnamon-walnut Pinni and multi-flavoured Ghewar from way back in 2017. “We have over 300 sweets and have offered more than 2,000 variations based on the customised requirements of our clients. Since we don’t limit ourselves to 20-30 sweets, no fusion is unattainable as long as the customer demands it. Each flavour combination has a niche customer base. Multi-flavoured pedas and multi-flavoured coconut laddoos have been our bestsellers. Even liquor-based coconut laddoos pick up during the Deepavali season. If you need Stevia or honey-based Methi Laddoo, we will make it for you,” she quips.

Keeping up the spirits

Nihira and Co, a luxury Indian mithai company, comes with the tagline ‘eat your drink’. And they mean it! The brand offers fun choices of alcoholic mithais. The Pina Colada Laddoo has a mix of pineapple, coconut cream and lime juice, while the Gin and Cranberry Laddoo is an infusion of gin, motichoor and berries. A popular choice among customers is also the Jagerbomb Laddoo, described as a shot in a laddoo.

But while innovation and creativity have their merits, CEO Chaitanya Muppala, from legacy brand Almond House, feels differently. The Hyderabad-based company, which has been in the mithai business for over 30 years, believes in the value of tradition. “I have a little bit of an antithetic view on this entire thing,” Chaitanya tells us, explaining, “My view is, the value of the mithai lies in its traditionalism refined over centuries. So I’m generally averse to ‘fusion’. The merit of Indian mithai is in this very fact that it has been developed over generations, with ingredients fine-tuned over many centuries to bring it to the shape, texture and flavour that it has now. The lazy way to make mithai relevant again is to put chocolate or liquor or make it Westernised. We try to leverage the beauty of the traditional trajectory that these products have been developed with. Some of the things we focus on are form and levels of sweetness. Maybe, as a generation, we want smaller portion sizes, so we do a range of products called Miniatures. We use 30% less sugar in our products. But I generally feel twisting it by changing the very nature of it or by appropriating the culture of some other country is not really sustainable.” Almond House offers options such as Millet Laddoos and Apple Jalebis.

So no matter where you stand on the debate of traditional versus modern, whether you like your mithais old school or more experimental, the fact is, after decades, the mithai market is being looked at from a new prism. There may be some hits and misses in the process, some combinations which may or may not work, but the expansion of the segment is exciting. Where it goes from here as confectioners play around with taste and flavours is something to watch out for.

(Published 11 November 2023, 21:56 IST)

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