Our country has a diverse range in a multitude of things, be it food, people, cultures or communities. You name it and India will prove to be a house to a variety. And it is these differences that set us apart from the norm, in a way so brilliant and beautiful, it calls for admirers from all across the globe. And while we still have a long way to go to document the glories of this heterogeneity, Rajyasree Sen is one step closer to giving us a comprehensive understanding of the genesis and influences in the world of Indian desserts, our much loved mithais.
Rajyasree Sen is a chef, columnist and food writer, who has recently penned the book The Sweet Kitchen: Tales and Recipes of India's Favourite Desserts. Filled with anecdotes, some drawn from personal experience, this book collates the historical and modern influences that some of you favourite mithais have seen over a period of time. In this interview, we talk to Sen about her motivation to take up such a project and some interesting details about the lady herself. Keep scrolling.
Edited excerpts from the interview.
At what point did you decide that the history of the diverse and numerous Indian desserts need to be documented? What is it about these dishes that moved you?
Ever since I started cooking, in my early twenties, I've always been interested in the genesis of various dishes. Growing up, we were lucky enough to eat daily meals which introduced us to various international cuisines. While lunch was always Bengali food, my grandmother would return from her social work and prepare food like lobster thermidor, roast lamb, paella, Szechuan dishes and so on for dinner with the help of our cooks. And we were encouraged to widen our palates and learn new flavours. We also learnt that the cuisine of a land or people was an integral part of its culture, and my grandmother would always bring back ingredients from her travels abroad. And we were encouraged to always try local foods whenever we travelled. I think this is what piqued my interest in foods and ingredients. When it comes to sweets specifically, in today's India there are few moments as satisfying as seeing the many diverse groups and cultures of the country borrowing and enjoying the sweet delights of different communities proves that when it comes to desserts and mithai, suddenly – maybe conveniently – the communal and cultural barriers drop away. This, to me, was one of the biggest reasons to celebrate and explore the sweets of India.
It is true that Indian cuisine as a whole has been influenced by different cultures and countries, given our happening history. Could you elaborate a little more about what the premise of your book is?
The book tries to explore and collate various historical facts and anecdotes on some of India's most popular sweets. Various historians and writers have written about the cultural influences on different sweets in India, but never in one book. And my publishers felt that we could try and provide a snapshot of the historical and cultural influences, along with a smattering of tried and tested recipes from my kitchen. You will find in this book a treasure trove of anecdotes, facts, trivia and a tasting menu of the hundreds of sweets present in India. For instance, who knew that gajar ka halwa has roots in the Dutch and Arab cuisine? It was only while researching for the book I discovered that the thirteenth century Arab text, Kitab al-Tabikh written by Muhammad ibn al-Hasan Ibn al-Karim, is the first known text to mention halwa along with eight different recipes for the same. It's a slim book, but catering to people with a healthy appetite for both food and facts.
With the world of food building on a new foundation of fusion and innovation and for instance we've seen the rise of a gulab jamun paratha as well, what's your take on the trend when it comes to Indian desserts?
Well, it is the end of days clearly. It's one thing to innovate, it's another to butcher a good dish and just serve up a hotchpotch in the name of creativity. I steer clear of things like Maggi Kheer or Gulab Jamun Paratha, although I suppose the latter could be a version of puran poli. Sometimes, it's good to be a purist. That is how I feel.
Our country's diversity has indeed birthed way more dishes and desserts than one can attempt to remember. But if you could pick a different country, whose cuisine inspires you the most, which one would it be?
I think every country has its unique preparations, some just have larger repertoires than others. India, for example, purely because of the melting pot of communities and religions that it is, tends to have a larger variety of cuisines, ingredients and flavours than other countries. I think China is one such country as well, where every region has its own unique flavours. Thailand is another favourite, with the taste palate changing region to region, slightly sweeter near Chiang Mai, more spicy and cosmopolitan near Bangkok. If you travel through Italy, it's remarkable how different Roman food is to Milanaise cuisine. I can't really choose just one country. There is always something to explore everywhere.
Finally, if you could pick only one Indian sweet dish to eat for the rest of your life, which one would it be?
My favourite Indian sweet is a warm gulab jamun, followed by a thin, crisp, freshly fried but not-too-sweet jalebi. Those little ones which you can eat in one bite, are just fabulous and also my favourite, so one of the two would have to be my choice.
Natasha Kittur is an aspiring writer. Her love for anything with cheese and spice is profound, but a white sauce pasta always tops her list. In her free time you will catch her reading or watching crime books and shows or go on and on about psychological experiments and theories. She aims to write a book in the fictional genre someday.