When most Americans dine at a South Asian restaurant, dessert isn’t the most memorable part of their experience.
In general, diners may mention fragrant spices like turmeric (everyone likes turmeric). “Oh, how cumin needs to be toasted and ground,” they repeat, possessing the insight of someone who has only scanned the back of a Madhur Jaffrey book. Then there’s the nascent vegetarian or vegan, the one who will question every ingredient on the menu — “What exactly is ghee?” Meanwhile, anyone who turns to Facebook neighborhood groups for tips will find a particular breed of diner obsessed with value — the curries and “naan bread” have to be affordable because cheap food carries some type of soul-nurturing property. But seldom is a word spent remarking on the sweets.
South Asian sweets, or mithai — like jamun, burfi, and jalebi — haven’t caught on with the Western world, which is curious because those eaters sure love to note heat levels in South Asian food; something sweet would surely cool them off. But the desserts of South Asia — which includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka — aren’t plated like European and American sweets, adorned with edible flowers or with precious sauce dots. There aren’t many pastry chefs emerging from sweet shops stationed in traditional South Asian enclaves such as Devon in Chicago, Jackson Heights in New York, and Jersey City. While Michelin may ignore mithai, they’re still wonderful in the eyes of other beholders.
“They’re decorative, they’re beautiful. You go to a store to buy them,” says Meherwan Irani, chef and owner of Chai Pani in Asheville, North Carolina, recognized by the James Beard Foundation in Chicago in June as Outstanding Restaurant 2022 for its refined take on street food. “But nobody in a million years would even attempt to try to make those at home, right?”
There’s a gaudy quality to these offerings, popular during holidays like Diwali — this year observed on Monday, October 24. Supply chain be damned, mithai-makers will still acquire the edible gold and silver leaflets that decorate some of these treats. Diwali rituals call for offerings to the gods and sweets are a popular choice. The simplified explanation is that the five-day festival celebrates good triumphing over evil. The holiday is Hindu but celebrated globally by people of many different faiths.
For Chai Pani, holidays present a chance to expand the dessert menu (selling items like falooda, a Persian milkshake-like dessert with noodles), but on most days Irani serves only two desserts: kheer, made of milk, sugar, and rice; and suji halva made of almond, semolina, and cashews. South Asian sweets present a challenge because they’re so sweet, so chefs like Irani have to find ways to dial the sugar (or jaggery, based on the chef’s preference and the ingredient’s availability) down while keeping the items recognizable.
“Nobody sits down and eats like a whole bowl or a plate of mithai,” Irani says. “Usually in India, it’s a small bite just to sweeten the mouth.”
Making mithai is a social activity for groups, mostly made up of aunties who gather in kitchens to pass along generational traditions: “The men are in the other room playing cards,” laughs Chicago chef Jasmine Sheth.
Diwali is a busy time for the Mumbai-born Sheth. She’s not just a mithaiwalla, someone who specializes in making South Asian sweets for holidays and other events. Sheth also cooks regional Indian dishes for pop-ups and sells spices under her company, Tasting India. “We’re trying to break stereotypes,” she says. “It’s not just butter chicken and naan. There are so many other variations of Indian cuisine.”
Since 2020 and the pandemic’s start, she’s seen a boom in selling sweets for weddings and other celebrations. Tasting India blends tradition and innovation where customers can buy laddoo, those round, orange balls made of flour, jaggery, and ghee. But Sheth will also make mango cardamom flan, saffron truffles, and filter coffee pot de creme for special orders. This year, embracing Southeast Asian culinary traditions, Sheth also made mooncakes with toasted milk (which has the consistency of curd, called mawa) and brandied fruit.
Those popular flavors outside of South Asian traditions serve as a gateway to trying other dishes: “Sweets are something that can bring instant gratification and happiness to people no matter what culture they are from,” Sheth says.
Diwali sweets vary by region, especially when it comes to ingredients. The greatest hits include lentils, rice, chickpea, and flour. In Britain, low-fat versions are even available for those who want to stay away from deep-fried traditions. This year, Sheth is seeing a boom in corporate clients with customers ordering Diwali boxes — packed with a choice of two different laddoos and cardamom khova truffles. Sheth describes these as white fudge spiked with cardamom.
Roni Mazumdar, co-founder of New York’s Unapologetic Foods, likens a box of mithai to a box of chocolate. This analogy is more Cadbury than Russell Stover. Mazumdar’s restaurants include New York’s only Michelin-starred Indian restaurant, Semma, and Eater Best New Restaurant Dhamaka. Earlier this year, chef Chintan Pandya won the Beard Award for best chef, New York.
But the labor it takes to make these desserts doesn’t always make economic sense. Mazumdar says the profit margin for desserts at his restaurants is typically about 4 percent. Economics is why two desserts — gulab jamun and rasmalai — emerged as fixtures on South Asian menus, he adds: They both come in cans. Still, some pay tribute to the nostalgia. At Superkhana International in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, brunch diners can order French toast served with gulab jamun syrup. Co-chef Zeeshan Shah is also known for his bite-sized, cardamom-infused ice cream sandwiches that use Indian biscuit Parle-G.
For South Asian restaurants with tasting menus, a rarity across the country — there are only two in Chicago — operators can hide the cost of desserts in the overall price. But for a la carte restaurants, it’s a bigger challenge, says Dhamaka’s Pandya. With his first restaurant with Mazumdar, they hired a pastry chef that took paan (wrapped betel leaf) and dipped it in dark chocolate, and then infused it with chocolate mousse. They would sell about 10 of those a day.
“You can do traditional desserts, or you can do contemporary desserts,” Pandya says. “Or you can do whatever you know, ‘New World’ kind of dessert — they don’t sell much in Indian restaurants, or for that matter, ethnic restaurants.”
At Dhamaka, the featured dessert is chhena poda, a baked cheese dish with sugar and semolina. Part of why it can stick in an upscale Indian restaurant is its similarity to cheesecake, though Mazumdar bristles at the notion that they’re creating some sort of fusion dish to pander: “Chhena poda has been done for 250 years,” Pandya adds. “But what has happened is we have been so stupid about our own cuisine that we never promoted it.”
Over in Chicago, Manish and Rina Mallick, co-owners of Rooh Chicago and Bar Goa — made the unusual step of flying in a pastry chef. They met Abhimanyu Ghuliani on vacation while staying at the W Goa Hotel. Ghuliani has since moved to the Cayman Islands and the Mallicks brought him to Chicago where he spent two weeks sprucing up their dessert menus and working on mithai.
For Rooh, Ghuliani has a saffron cheesecake with a motichur laddoo and warm saffron cream. At Bar Goa, they’ve taken a besan burfi (normally squares made from condensed milk, sugar, and flour), shaped them like cigars, and dipped them in chocolate. The cigar includes an edible gold wrapper and an ashtray with crumpled pieces of edible gold that look like ashes. The cigar is then pumped with smoke from a cocktail gun and presented under a glass cloche. Manish Mallick says both dishes are permanent fixtures on the menu and hopes the cigar becomes a signature. This is a fun way to bring mithai to an audience beyond South Asians. They are also selling a traditional mithai box.
“Getting the right pastry chef who understands the vision and is able to execute is extremely hard,” he adds. That’s something that’s being seen across all culinary traditions.
Perhaps the diner of the future will be different. Mithai — burfi — officially exists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with a prominent display in Ms. Marvel, a story about a Pakistani American teen. Diners are also more familiar with South Asian cuisine than when Chai Pani opened in 2009. Irani offered dessert on his thali (thali is a traditional offering with small tastes in steel tins on a single steel plate). Irani fielded many questions and found different ways to describe kheer, such as “Indian rice pudding” or a “sweetened polenta.”
“And I remember the early days, watching the thalis come back to the kitchen and noticing what was eaten and what was not eaten,” Irani says. “And often the dessert was not really touched much. But as the years went by, I saw that less and less, as I noticed more and more that the dessert on the thali is now being consumed.”
While Irani says his culinary focus will never be desserts, now the desserts get their own plates: “I’m trying to capture that feeling of when a mom makes, I don’t know, rice pudding at home, or an apple pie at home, or something that seems familiar,” he says.
Irani is even considering new dishes. Nashville celebrity chef Maneet Chauhan (Chaatable) has him thinking about gulab jamun cheesecake.