The Ultimate Guide to Indian Desserts

An Indian sweet shop in Mysore, India.
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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.

  • 01 of 11
    Gulab jamun.
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    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.

    Kerala, in south India, has a similar version of gulab jamun called unni appam. It's made from rice flour, jaggery (unrefined sugar), banana, and coconut.

  • 02 of 11
    Kulfi - Indian ice cream with pistachios
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    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. 

  • 03 of 11
    Gajar ka halwa in a bowl
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    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.

  • 04 of 11
    Close-up of phirni served in bowls on table
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    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 cardamon, and topped with nuts and dried fruit. However, phirni is always served chilled, whereas kheer can be served warm as well.

    Payasam is the 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.

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  • 05 of 11
    Cropped image of hand holding fresh rabri
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    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.  In West Bengal and Odisha, mishti doi is similar to rabri, but without the nuts and spices.

  • 06 of 11
    Indian laddoo.
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    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!

  • 07 of 11
    Kaju barfi.
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    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!

  • 08 of 11
    High Angle View Of Jalebis For Sale In Market
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    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.

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  • 09 of 11
    Top view of rasgulla
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    Spongy white rasgulla balls are made from cottage cheese, semolina, and sugar syrup. This Indian 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 existed in the state before 1500 and was first served at the Jagannath temple in Puri

  • 10 of 11
    Soan papdi/patisa/sohan papdi
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    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.

  • 11 of 11
    Kesar peda.
    ••• Wikipedia Commons

    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.