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The many ‘malpuas’ of regional India

As one traverses India’s culinary landscape, recipes and significance of the humble 'malpua' alter, but its essence remains unchanged

Seema Sethi's 'rabdi malpua'
Seema Sethi's 'rabdi malpua'

In Pushkar, the cow and the halwai are both revered. The former for the milk, and the latter for crafting one of the country’s most indulgent sweets—rabdi malpua.

The sweet-makers of Rajasthan are pros—manning giant woks brimming with desi ghee, pouring ladles of creamy, white batter until they become crisp like latticework and then dunking them in sugar syrup flavoured with cardamom and saffron.

Malpuas are festive treats, and the version made with rabdi is unique to the state, considering milk is surplus,” says Jaipur-based home chef Seema Sethi. While everyday malpuas are made with wholewheat flour and sugar or jaggery, she says rabdi malpuas are associated with major festivals, including Hariyali Teej, which is celebrated during the monsoon.

‘Pua, apupa, malpua’

Food historians trace the origin of malpua to Vedic times. In Food And Drinks Of Ancient India: From Earliest Times To C.1200 A.D. (1961), author Om Prakash notes that in the Rigveda, pua (in Hindi) or apupa were “cakes made of rice or barley meal cooked in clarified butter on slow fire”. He also mentions such cakes from various ancient texts—“prepared with broken pieces of rice”, “stuffed with fried wheat flour”, or “prepared with the addition of milk and juice of sugarcane.”

In Odisha, malpua has a bit of history. According to Odia food chronicler Sweta Biswal, the records of the Jagannath temple offer interesting insight. It is believed to have been introduced during the reign of king Gajapati Prataparudra Deva, who in turn was influenced by the saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. So, in all probability, it became part of the Shrimandira Chappan Bhog in the early 16th century. “Malpua is referred to as amalu in the Jagannath temple terminology. It is part of the sandhya dhoopa or evening rituals where no less than three types of amalu are offered to the deities,” she says, adding that it is also part of rituals on snana purnima, nabanna, pausa purnima and makar sankranti. During Navratri, amalu is offered to goddess Bimala, the wife of Lord Jagannath.

Malpua is not only associated with Hindu festivals, but also Eid. In Mumbai, the Bohris make a mean egg malpua, which is available at Shabbir’s Tawakkal Sweets only during the month of Ramzan. The tradition of preparing malpuas marks a month of festivities and has survived more than 50 years in this Bohri Mohalla institution. Here, the double egg malpua with a crisp crust around the edges is served with malai on the side.

Malpua is not only associated with Hindu festivals, but also Eid. In Mumbai, the Bohris make a mean egg malpua, which is available at Shabbir’s Tawakkal Sweets only during the month of Ramzan.

One sweet, many avatars

In Rajasthan, the batter for rabdi malpua is a combination of rabdi that has been reduced by boiling milk for several hours, and maida (refined flour). In eastern India, there are versions, including maida as well as wholewheat flour, with the addition of semolina, fennel seeds and cardamom for flavour. “My grandmother used to prepare a unique version where the malpuas were not soaked in sugar syrup. She would make a fluffy batter by combining wheat flour, banana, milk, sugar and fennel seeds, and then just shallow-frying them,” says Biswal. In coastal Odisha, coconut is used in place of bananas, and even ripe sugar palm fruit or taala palm. Fruit additions such as these are also common in Bengali homes where ranga aloor malpua (sweet potato) and taaler malpua are made when they are in season.

In Bihar, malpua is traditionally referred to as pua, and is synonymous with Holi feasts. Mumbai-based home chef Alpana Verma, who belongs to the Srivastava Kayastha community, says the batter for the malpuas is made with home-made chhena, or cottage cheese, and refined flour. A dry pua is also prepared with bananas, wholewheat flour, sugar and cardamom powder. In parts of Uttar Pradesh, malpua gets an indulgent makeover with malai poori. Lucknow-based food writer Shirin Mehrotra shares her mother’s recipe, where milk is reduced to kheer-like consistency and mixed with khoya (dried evaporated milk) and maida to make a batter. This is then fried in ghee and dunked in sugar syrup and served with kesar-pista.

In Bihar, malpua is traditionally referred to as pua, and is synonymous with Holi feasts.

In western India, the Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmins boast of malpuri—a fermented, spongy dessert made with equal quantities of flour, semolina and sugar, a pinch of soda bicarb and water, plus saffron and cashew nuts for crunch. “Malpuris from my childhood are associated with Diwali, when my mother would ferment the batter overnight, and deep-fry them the next day. Considering we use flour as the core ingredient, I think it helps in the aeration and mild tang,” says Shanti Petiwala, who runs a food delivery service called Riot of Flavours in Mumbai. She adds that the centre is soft, with the colour ranging from a beautiful golden in the centre to deep golden brown towards the edges.

As someone who is married into the Bohri community, Petiwala also loves the version her mother-in-law prepares with maida, semolina, soda bicarb, sugar, yogurt and plenty of eggs. “What eggs do is that it adds a lacy frill on the edges, and also help in achieving a thin texture,” she adds.

The pièce de résistance perhaps is malpua served with a big dollop of spicy alu kassa (dum aloo-like dish) topped with sev sold on the streets of Bhubaneswar. You got to save the best for last.

Rituparna Roy is a Mumbai-based writer.

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