If you have a sweet tooth, India is the place to satisfy your cravings! Forget about being calorie conscious. You'll want to sample as many exotic Indian desserts as possible. Most bear little resemblance to western sweets though. This guide will help remove the confusion, so you'll know what to order and can indulge to your heart's (and stomach's) content.
Possibly the most popular dessert in India, gulab jamum is super sweet and sticky, and wickedly irresistible! These soft spongy balls are made from a dough of flour and milk powder (or condensed milk), fried and soaked in syrup. They're often flavored with cardamon and rose, which gives rise to their name, meaning "rose berry" in Hindi.
Kulfi is India's version of ice cream. It's much creamier and denser than normal ice cream though, as it's not whipped before freezing. The milk is simply boiled to reduce its volume and thicken it. Traditionally, kulfi is flavored with cardamon. However, other flavors include mango, pistachio, saffron, vanilla, and rose. Sometimes, it's served as falooda kulfi, with the addition of thin noodles and dried fruits.
This classic Indian dessert is most prevalent in the form of gajar ka halwa (carrot halwa). It came to India from the royal Mughal kitchens and is particularly popular in north India during winter. The main ingredient is grated carrots. It's cooked with milk, sugar, and generous amount of ghee.
In south India, rava kesari (kesari halwa) is cherished in the same way that gajar ka halwa is in the north, and is made using the same method. Rava (semolina) is roasted in ghee, and then cooked with sugar and water. Saffron is also added to give it color.
There's nothing healthy at all about colorful orange jalebi, but this sweet is oh so tasty! It's essentially deep-fried coils of dough made from refined flour and soaked in saffron sugar syrup. Jalebi isn't unique to India. Its origins can be traced back to the Middle East, and it's believed to have been brought to India by Persian invaders. However, there's no doubt that India has passionately adopted the jalebi. You'll find it freshly sizzling at street food stalls across the country.
Kheer and Phirni
Kheer and phirni are types of traditional Indian rice milk puddings. While whole rice is used in kheer, phirni is made with ground rice, giving it a smoother and creamier texture. Both are usually flavored with saffron and cardamom, and topped with nuts and dried fruit. However, phirni is always served chilled, whereas kheer can be served warm as well.
Payasam is a south Indian version of kheer. It's frequently served during festivals and is one of the main dishes in Kerala's Onam festival Onasadhya feast.
Another milk-based Indian dessert, rabri consists of sweetened and thickened milk. This ultimate indulgence is very fattening, especially when it has layers of cream in it! Spices, typically cardamom and saffron, and nuts are added to it as well. It's especially delicious when eaten with other desserts, such as gulab jamun and jalebi.
This classic Bengali sweet is made in a similar way to rabri but without the nuts and spices. Fermented milk (curd) is thickened to creamy consistency and sweetened with a generous amount of jaggery.
There are many different recipes for this ubiquitous ball-shaped festive sweet that's a staple at any special occasion in India. In fact, every region has its own specialty. It's popularly made from gram/chickpea flour, ground coconut, or semolina. Milk, sugar, ghee, and dried fruits are other ingredients. India's most famous laddoo has been distributed to devotees at Tirupati temple, in Andhra Pradesh, for more than 300 years. Production is a massive undertaking, with an average of 300,000 pieces sold per day!
Barfi is a renowned Indian fudge dessert that gets its name from the Persian word meaning "snow". The main ingredient is condensed milk but barfi comes in many varieties. Kaaju barfi (with cashews) and pista barfi (with ground pistachios) are the most common. Don't be alarmed by the silver foil that often covers it -- it's edible!
If you're ever in Karnataka, don't miss the opportunity to try some decadent Mysore Pak. This soft, buttery fudge dessert is said to have been invented in the kitchen of royal Mysore Palace and is popularly served at festivals. It's made from chickpea flour, sugar syrup (pak), and plenty of clarified butter (ghee). There's a lesser-known hard, brittle version of it too. Definitely go for the soft one!
Spongy white rasgulla balls are made from cottage cheese, semolina, and sugar syrup. The dessert has cult status in West Bengal and Odisha, and in recent years these two states have been engaged in fierce debate over its origin. The common belief is that a confectioner from Kolkata named Nobin Chandra Das created the rasgulla in 1868, after much experimentation. However, the Odisha government says it has evidence that rasgulla (called rasagola there) existed in the state before 1500 and was first served at the Jagannath temple in Puri. Odisha holds a Rasagola Dibasa festival in July to celebrate the sweet.
Another dessert for dairy-lovers, ras malai is similar to rasgulla except that the balls are removed from the sugar syrup after being cooked, flattened, and immersed in creamy sweet milk (malai) once they've cooled. The dish is commonly garnished with nuts and spices.
A kind of soft milk fudge, peda is made from milk and sugar that's heated and thickened. It's believed to have originated from Mathura, the holy birthplace of Lord Krishna, in Uttar Pradesh. The most popular version is kesar peda, flavored with saffron (kesar) and topped with pistachio.
Flaky and light, soan papdi is a north Indian dessert that will melt in your mouth like cotton candy. It's a must during Diwali festival celebrations. A huge sugar rush is guaranteed! The main ingredients are a mixture of gram and refined flour, sugar syrup, ghee, and milk. Cardamom and nuts are optional. This sweet is difficult to prepare though, as an intensive process is required to give it its fluffy texture.