Festival of Bites
Mithai make my teeth hurt and my tongue happy. I’ve always been a sucker for hyper pigmented foods, sweets in particular. But I’m more familiar with tiny S.E. Asian style snacks than these Indian counterparts. Where Malaysian/Singaporean kueh, Thai kanom and Vietnamese banh tend to be variations on glutinous rice, rice flour, coconut milk, agar-agar and mung beans (it’s amazing the mileage you can get out of small repertoire), mithai revolve around evaporated milk, ghee, chickpea flour, nuts and spices (often cardamom and saffron). Dairy definitely looms larger and creates a richness that coconut milk can’t.
I’ve come to know and love the fudgey-textured burfi (sometimes called barfi, but I prefer the more appetizing spelling) and syrup soaked galub jamun. The high sugar content isn’t what causes the tooth ache—my sweet tooth knows no bounds—it’s the sometimes used edible silver leaf that’s the culprit. I have the feeling that if these goodies were all whites and neutrals I would be less enamored of them than in their magenta and chartreuse glory. That is their beauty. Americans (of a certain type) tend to be down on the unnatural and artificial, but how do you argue with tradition? But then, I also like the fake green pistachio gelato better than the dull toned purist version.
There are quite a few places around the city to pick up some mithai. Sukhadia’s and Rajbhog are both chains, but there are also smaller shops and branches of these two biggies in neighborhoods like Jackson Heights and Richmond Hill, Queens (not to mention my new favorite New Jersey locale, Edison). Buying these gems is almost an old fashioned candy counter experience, they are tucked on trays in glass cases, come by the pound and are placed in a little box tied with string.
Having a limited knowledge of mithai, I only a vague idea what any particular item is since they’re not labeled or described in any fashion. And being NYC, there’s always a crowd around the counter so I feel pressured to move it along and pick and point quickly and without questions. But then, I’m overly sensitive to this sort of thing, holding up lines, looking dumb, when I see inquisitive, indecisive folks all the time.
I recently stopped by a storefront whose name I can’t recall on 74th St. in Jackson Heights. My interest had been rekindled while reading a recent New York Times article on mithai, but I waited until the weekend after Diwali to beat the holiday hordes. I indulged in the sweets pictured below, and I’m not sure how long six pieces are meant to last, but I purchased them Saturday afternoon and had eaten them all by Sunday evening. That’s exactly why I can’t have candy sitting around the house.
Pista (pistachio) burfi and something Rajbhog calls sweet cutlet, though I suspect that’s not its proper name.