The sweet origins of your favourite mithai (2023)

By Tiasa Bhowal: If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, the way to his soul is through sweets. You can neither keep sweets away from an Indian nor can you take away their sweetness.

We all have those sweet cravings (and there's nothing to be guilty about them). A look at the F&B market in India will reveal the plethora of desserts on offer for those with a sweet tooth. From cheesecake to waffles to pain au chocolat, the list goes on.


However, our heart keeps going back to the kaju katli, gulab jamun, rosogolla and malpua. These traditional Indian sweets are also special because we have so many memories associated with them.

And while digging into those hot syrupy gulab jamuns or biting into those intricately curved imartis, did you roll your eyes heavenwards and think where did they drop from?

Sweets are manna, but they didn't drop from heaven.

Every sweet dish has a history, and it is as interesting, if not more, than the sweets themselves.

If the Mysore Pak was invented by a genius chef in the spur of the moment, the ledikeni of Bengal was planned to perfection for a royal event. Then there is the malpua, which has been traced to the time of the Rig Veda.

Mysore Pak

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The sweet dish traces its origins to the palace kitchen of Mysore King Krishnaraja Wadiyar (1902-1940).

Kakasura Madappa, the cook at the palace, had once forgotten to prepare a dessert for the king and Mysore Pak was an invention that happened in the spur of the moment.

Its name, too, was thought in a jiffy. When the king liked the dessert, he called the cook and asked what it was called. Mysore pak, he blurted out. The root word for art of cooking in India is Pak kala.

Food critic, blogger and writer Shabnam from Chennai recalls her earliest memories of this sweet treat. She says that as a child she remembers Mysore Pak being made without ghee. Adding clarified butter to the sweet was a later concept, according to Shabnam.

“Initially, Mysore pak used to be so thick that we used to joke at school that we will hit each other with it. Later, it was Shri Krishna Sweets that came up with ghee Mysore pak. It was melt-in-the-mouth sweet and became a game-changer,” she tells

Our foods don't remain static, and similarly, our sweets have undergone changes too. It is an interesting study of how our sweets have undergone, and are still undergoing, a change because of trade and cultural ties, colonialism, migration and technological advances.


“When you talk about any traditional sweet, it keeps evolving with time; it keeps evolving with public demand. Whoever thought about making gulab jamun cheesecake? From north to south, every state has their own version of the gulab jamun. We may talk about history and authenticity but somewhere we always need new things to talk about, to celebrate,” adds Shabnam.

Bengal's Ledikeni

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If Mysore pak was an unplanned miracle, Bengal's Ledikeni was created specially for Lady Canning.

One of Bengal's ace confectioners, Bhim Chandra Nag, prepared the sweet for Lady Canning who was arriving in India with her husband Charles Canning, who served as the Governor-General of India from 1856 to 1862.

It is said that Lady Canning grew very fond of the sweet and used to order it regularly. Over time the sweet became popular across Bengal.

People associated the sweet with Lady Canning and, in the case of pronunciation variation, started referring to it as ledikeni.


Ledikeni continues to be an iconic sweet in Kolkata's confectionery landscape and is a favorite among locals and visitors alike.

Imarti, Jangiri And Jalebi

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What the north drools over as imarti is popular as Jangiri in south India. “Imarti is called Jangiri here. We in south have our version and people in north have their own,” says Chennai-based food expert Shabnam.

Imarti or Jangiri originated in the Mughal kitchens and it is said it was made in honour of Prince Salim aka Jehengir. Hence, the name Jangiri. However, there are many versions to this story.

If you have a sweet tooth and love trying delicacies from across the country, you will notice that several states have similar sweets which have different names but the compositions and ingredients are the same. In these cases, it becomes really difficult to track down their origin. For example, imarti is known as amriti in West Bengal and jalebi is called jilipi.

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But jalebi, which has fans across India, didn't originate here. Its origin can be traced back to West Asia where it is known as zalabiya. While the appearance of the two delicacies is different, the ingredients are somewhat similar. Over time, the recipe was adapted to local tastes and preferences. The shape and texture of jalebi also evolved, with the spiraled shape and crispy texture becoming popular in India.

Jilipi can be of multiple varieties. There are these two products here - jilipi and jalebi. But a thicker batter (with a different recipe) and more complex method is used for making amriti," writes famous food blogger and writer from Kolkata Indrajit Lahiri.

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"If someone uses chhena base as the batter, it’s named as chhenar jilipi. Let me tell you, chhenar jilipi fried in ghee is a delicacy, but we rarely get it in Kolkata shops. In a place called Narajol in Midnapore, they make jilipi with moong dal or split green gram and it is named as moong jilipi or papri,” says Indrajit Lahiri, lovingly called Foodka by his fans.

Gulab Jamun and Pantua

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Food expert and YouTuber Indrajit Lahiri says it is always difficult to determine the origin of sweets in the country because documentation has never been India’s strongest point.

“There could have been two ways in which this dish came to India. Either it landed in the country when invaders entered India by conquering from the North West. Or, it could have been during the spice trade. Now, it is up to you to choose which one do you think is the most plausible way,” Lahiri leaves the answer open-ended.

Lahiri also talks about pantua, a dish very similar to the gulab jamun. While pantua is native to West Bengal, gulab jamun is massively popular in rest of India.

One theory is that gulab jamun was first prepared in medieval India and was derived from a fritter that Central Asian Turkic invaders brought to India. Another theory claims that it was accidentally prepared by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan's personal chef.

Like in several other cases, the exact origin of gulab jamun is debatable.

Sweet Secrets: Alle Belle and Kardant

Then there are sweet surprises too. In the hunt for the origins of sweets, we also come to know of sweets that have been secret treasures of a particular state or region.

Famous Indian food writer and television personality Karen Anand talks about a Goan sweet dish alle belle that she used to have while growing up. She did not grow up in India but that has never stopped her from being close to her Goan roots.

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Alle belle is a coconut and palm jaggery-stuffed pancake.

“The only sweet dish that my mother used to make from Goa is alle belle, which is like a pancake where you stuff coconut, raisins and jaggery. But that was once in a while. So, along the coast, it is jaggery that is eaten more than white sugar. I think mithai is something very special to India and it is something that other people don’t take too well,” the author said.

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Alle belle is also known as Mannkio and it is a traditional Goan pancake. It is normally made by Catholic families on Pancake Tuesday. These pancakes are not as commercialised as the other popular Indian dishes. So, chances are you may have never even heard of it. This is Goa’s own version of the French crepes.

Another Indian dessert, perhaps, not many are aware of is the karadant. The delicacy is unique to the state of Karnataka.

Karadant was first invented by Vijaya Karadant in Karnataka in 1907.

Chef Raji Gupta shares with her fond childhood memories associated with kardant and how it is made.

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“Karadant, known as ‘fried-edible gum’ in Kannada, holds a special place in my heart due to its association with my childhood and the beautiful city of Belgaum. Every school vacation, my family and I would embark on a journey to Belgaum-Gokak, and upon our return, we would be accompanied by these delectable desserts. Our bags would be brimming with the renowned Sadanand Sweets Karadant from Gokak,” says Raji Gupta.

“The use of jaggery, dry fruits, gram flour and edible gum makes it a nutritious delight,” she adds.

Ancient And The Modern

Malpua, found across the Indian subcontinent, has been savoured during festivals for centuries.

Malpua is typically made by combining a batter of flour (usually wheat or rice) with milk, sugar, and flavourings like cardamom or saffron. The batter is then deep-fried in ghee or oil until it becomes crispy and golden brown. The fried malpua is often soaked in sugar syrup or served with a drizzle of syrup, and it can be garnished with nuts or served with rabri on top.

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Researchers have said that malpua has been referred to as apupa in the Rig Veda. During the Vedic times, it was prepared using barley flour, as barley was the predominant grain of that era. The usage of rice and wheat flour in malpua emerged at a later stage.

The barley-based mixture was shaped into flat cakes, which were then either fried in ghee or boiled in water. Finally, the cooked apupas were dipped in honey before being served.

Like apupa became malpua and rosogolla now has flavours from mango to chocolate, sweets have adapted to us and our tastes. Sweets have and will change with time.

But the next time we close our eyes as the Mysore pak melts in our mouth, we can be grateful to the royal chef who forgot to prepare a dessert for the king and whipped up magic instantly.

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ALSO READ | Rubbing Mysore Pak into the wound | OPINION

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