Making mithai cool again
Luxury mithai brands and a new generation of confectioners are reimagining traditional Indian sweets to appeal to urban consumers. But did mithai really need saving?
In the early 2000s, Cadbury India Ltd (now Mondelez India Foods Ltd) started an advertising campaign for its leading brand, Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Chocolate. With actor Amitabh Bachchan as brand ambassador, the television spots, laced with earthy Indian humour, always ended with the memorable line “Kuchh meetha ho jaye"—let’s have something sweet. The company released print ads and television commercials on this theme in quick succession, featuring the brand in uniquely Indian situations and traditions, from Raksha Bandhan to Diwali to a wedding. The messaging was strong and clear: When the occasion calls for sweets, choose our chocolate brand instead of the traditional meetha for muh meetha.
The campaign was so successful that it is still studied in Indian management schools as a marketing case study, and it left its clearly indicated competitor far, far behind in the coolness stakes: Indian mithai didn’t stand a chance in the face of this assault from Cadbury, with its shiny purple packaging, its young and vibrant TVCs and its foreign-but-Indian appeal in a newly liberalized market. Mithai was fuddy-duddy—what your grandmother stuffed into your mouth during festivals—while chocolate was what you gifted friends on special occasions. And now, even dadi was nodding along when Amitabh Bachchan offered a box of Cadburys and said “Kuchh meetha ho jaye?"
To be clear, this was more an image issue than a sales issue. Mithai continues to be sold in vast and enormous quantities in India. Sales of mithai and namkeen (snacks) have never dipped—the industry has grown at healthy double digits each year this century, and the turnover for the organized mithai and namkeen industry crossed the milestone of ₹1 trillion in 2019-20, according to figures from the Federation of Sweets & Namkeen Manufacturers (FSNM), an industry body that represents the branded mithai and namkeen industry in India and has been organizing the annual World Mithai & Namkeen Convention for the past three years. FSNM, which has some of the biggest branded mithai companies in the country like Haldiram’s, Bikanervala and Adyar Ananda Bhavan as members, claims that the industry employs more than 10 million people directly and is the biggest buyer of raw materials such as flour, besan (gram flour), sugar, ghee, oils and spices.
Even with substantial losses during festivals like Rakshabandhan and Ganesh Chaturthi this year, and despite a depressed wedding market, the industry is looking at a revenue of ₹65,000 crore in the financial year ending 2021.
And yet, despite upgraded packaging and increased shelf life, the product offerings have largely remained stagnant. The last great mithai to come out of a halwai shop was probably the kaju katli—it’s difficult to trace its provenance, but by some accounts the universally loved cashew-ghee-sugar mix emerged in Rajasthan sometime in the 1950s and has remained a steady seller in mithai shops in markets as different as West Bengal and Karnataka. But where’s the new kaju katli? Traditional mithai shops have only come up with variations of it—the pista barfi, the almond barfi—but no original hit in at least the past 70 years or so, barring a few “fusion" creations like chocolate barfi and laddoos offered as a concession to modern tastes.
Enter the non-traditional mithai shop. Over the past few years, a slow revolution started brewing as culinary experts and pastry chefs became first-time mithaiwalas and an older generation of mithai brands started reinventing themselves. Some of these transformations are more focused on packaging and the purity of ingredients—both important aspects of the mithai-making and selling process which have, unfortunately, been given short shrift in the mass market—while some are experimenting with traditional recipes, mixing them up with Western pastry techniques and crafting new flavour bombs. Some are doing both, and in the process rejuvenating a tradition.
However, we must ask: Did mithai need rescuing? After all, we still can’t seem to get enough of ghevar and doda barfi from Chandni Chowk’s small family-run mithai shops, Mysore Pak from Chennai’s Sri Krishna Sweets and rabri from hole-in-the-wall outlets in Varanasi. Why would India need “luxury mithai"?
INDIAN GUMMY BEARS, ANYONE?
When this story was being planned back in early March, we were supposed to visit the then newly opened Bombay Sweet Shop in Byculla, Mumbai. On its social media feed, the new-age mithai shop with an open kitchen and limited seating (the way mithai shops have always been, except this one had rather more powder blue and baby pink in its decor) was being touted as an Indian version of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory—a place where you could see your favourite desserts take shape and then taste them fresh out of the oven (or the kadhai, as the case may be). Even its tagline, “bringing back the magic of mithai", was intended to conjure up a sense of love and fascination for mithai and all its associations with celebrations, family and nostalgia—but with a forward-looking plan. Then the covid-19 lockdown started, and the Bombay Sweet Shop had to down shutters temporarily soon after opening.
When we connect next with founders Yash Bhanage and Sameer Seth, two of the founding team of Hunger Inc., the F&B company which also runs Bombay Canteen and O Pedro in Mumbai, it’s over a Zoom call in August and the sweet shop has been open for around 40 days, though it’s only doing deliveries in Mumbai as of now. It is the last few days of Ganesh Chaturthi and the kitchen is busy making a variety of modaks and laddoos—some traditional, and some with a fresh twist, like the Lonavala Chocolate Fudge Modak and Kaapi Pak, a coffee-infused take on the Mysore Pak topped with toasted sesame seeds.
Their journey towards reimagining mithai started with a bottle of French mustard that Bhanage picked up at the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. The artisanal, beautifully packaged bottle made them wonder why Indian food, despite its breadth and depth, had not really been packaged to travel or branded as something you could buy as a gift when you were travelling from the country. The two had similar thoughts about Turkish Delight. The other brand that had a big influence on them was tennis player Maria Sharapova’s candy brand, Sugarpova—especially the way it spun a story around the athlete’s personality and her experience as a young girl travelling from communist Russia to the US.
“We realized that Indian mithai and the Indian mithai store hadn’t changed and evolved. We looked at photos of candy stores in the US from the 1990s and compared them to what they look like now, and they were unrecognizable. They had kept in step with modern design ideas in both the product and the setting. The modern mithai store, however, certainly looks more upmarket, with marble flooring and better lighting, but the change doesn’t go deeper than that," says Bhanage. They didn’t, however, want to reject tradition, so when they set out to shape the Bombay Sweet Shop as an experiential place, they deconstructed the traditional mithai shop, keeping elements such as the glass-fronted, curved-edged chilled displays intact while also retaining Mumbai’s art-deco feel in the design and lettering.
It wasn’t just about getting the aesthetics right. Two years before they opened, their “chief mithaiwala", Girish Nayak, began visiting cities and towns known for their mithai traditions to pick up the nuances of mithai-making—travelling from Kolkata to Sri Madhopur in Rajasthan to Coimbatore and Katapady near Udupi in coastal Karnataka, where he is originally from. “I have been a professional pastry chef but learning how to make mithai meant a lot of unlearning as well. There are no written recipes for these mithais, so everything had to involve learning by doing. Perhaps the most difficult task was learning to string soan papdi and patissa (a creamier version of soan papdi) by hand from the Gupta Bros in Kolkata, and sutarfeni (a similar rice-flour sweet with a texture like candy floss) in Sri Madhopur—getting that thin, flaky texture right felt impossible," says Nayak. The tricks he learnt went into one of the Bombay Sweet Shop’s signature products: the melt-in-the-mouth patissa bars, made of coconut fluff and covered in chocolate and pepper caramel.
The Bombay Sweet Shop is not the only brand making Indian sweets hip and artisanal. There are new brands emerging in almost every state that has a thriving mithai tradition: In Jaipur, there’s Kesar Sweets, a traditional mithai shop that has in recent years started offering delectable versions of mithai incorporating flavours from around the world, such as rose petal laddoos, Ferrero Rocher laddoos, kaju katli bateel (a date-based sweet), blueberry laddoos, baklavas and various kinds of flavoured ghevar, the traditional rich, crisp and crumbly Rajasthani mithai made with flour, ghee and sugar. Bengaluru’s Anand Sweets is, meanwhile, experimenting with a large variety of snacks, such as the badamika, their version of the Italian biscotti, and meetaz, bite-sized, cashew-based sweets made with a stringy sugar extract and packaged like luxury chocolates.
While they carry the “luxury" tag, which may conjure up images of gold leaf and edible diamonds (if there were any such thing), and while there are a few brands doing this—Gur Chini in Delhi supplied sweets, costing ₹21,000 a kilogram and made with edible gold dust, for the wedding of industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s son Akash—such ostentation is not the norm in this micro-industry. Many of the artisanal sweet-makers are more focused on innovation and the craft of mithai-making than ensuring their products become unaffordable for most Indians. Though priced higher than sweets from local mithai stores, they still only cost as much per box (the preferred unit of retail) as a good bar of chocolate or an assorted box of cupcakes or macarons.
It’s worth noting that Kolkata, with its huge repertoire of sweets and centuries of tradition, is perhaps the only major city that hasn’t seen the emergence of a new-age mithai brand. But there is good reason for this: Bengali mishti is delicate, easily spoilt and best consumed fresh, and its flavours depend so much upon the freshness and quality of the milk and the expertise of the sweet-maker that it doesn’t leave much scope for experimentation. Moreover, it doesn’t really lend itself to fancy packaging—nor does it travel well (except for kora paak perhaps). It also has an extremely price-conscious, loyal clientele that would probably be up in arms if their favourite nolen gur rosogolla was tweaked to include new flavourings or their mishti doi from the corner sweet shop acquired a blueberry kick.
Or maybe it’s just a matter of time. “We were a bit scared to take on Bengali sweets at the moment, honestly," says Nayak, who does dream of reintroducing the Bengali sorbhaja to the national market some day.
The sweet brand that truly kicked off this trend of luxury, gourmet mithai is four-year-old Delhi-based Khoya, a brand of handcrafted mithai with two stores at The Chanakya mall and Oberoi Hotel. Although its products are traditional in the best sense, its store, which opened up at The Chanakya in October 2018, looks like a modern French café, with its grey checkered tile floor and hot pink accents, with vintage wooden display shelves for the mithai. As a brand of luxury mithai, Khoya is right up there when it comes to name-dropping: Its products have been part of the hamper given to participants on the TV show Koffee With Karan and ordered for Isha Ambani’s wedding in Udaipur; the brand has also crafted bespoke orders for luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Cartier and BMW. “We want to be the Ladurée of mithai," says Khoya founder Sid Mathur, who is also a partner and director at Impresario Entertainment & Hospitality, the company behind restaurants like Social and Smoke House Deli.
Unlike most of the other brands in the gourmet mithai space, however, Khoya prides itself on making traditional mithai without massive flavour interventions and changes, though Mathur is quick to point out that he has nothing against that, and it is even necessary to make mithai something that People Like Us find cool and desirable. “What happened with mithai was, we stopped taking it to people’s houses when we went for dinner. We may take chocolates or wine or cookies—but when was the last time you bought mithai for a friend?" asks Mathur over a call from Delhi. “A couple of years ago, we got a call from someone in Nagpur asking for 1,000 boxes of ‘mango cheesecake barfi’. Obviously, cheesecake was the operative word here—they wanted something ‘modern’. We convinced them to try our mango barfi made using the traditional recipe and they were blown away," says Mathur.
Before launching, Khoya researched traditional mithai-making techniques over several months. Its strategy was to make everything from scratch, going back to the oldest recipes and breaking them down, step by step, putting in time and effort into recreating them, and using only the best ingredients. The quality of the ingredients, be it besan, maida, sugar, ghee or the flavouring agents you use, makes a huge difference, says Mathur. “For us, it was all about upgrading the entire process of making traditional mithai but the purest version of it. And ingredients are a huge part of that process: For instance, most halwai shops have two kinds of ghee, one which they use in sweets like besan laddoo, in which you can actually taste the ghee, and another, cheaper version in sweets where the flavour of ghee is masked. We just stopped cutting corners like that," he adds.
To begin with, Mathur thought the trick to adding a layer of luxury and quality to Indian mithai would be as simple as getting a halwai and a pastry chef together—get them jamming, in a sense, to see what they would come up with. A few weeks later, he tasted the results. “It was awful," he says. “Then I started learning each and every step myself, and breaking down the steps and doing the best version of it. Then it finally started coming together."
This is an important part of the process of creating or recreating mithai from scratch: Nayak recalls how challenging it was to make something as common as the motichoor laddoo, which can be found at any corner sweet shop. When he tried making the BBS Bounty-ful Boondi laddoo, which has chocolate-covered boondis (tiny globules of besan deep-fried that are rolled together to form the laddoo), he had to experiment for days to figure out the best time to add the dark cocoa powder that goes into it—mix it with the besan before it is fried or add it to the sugar syrup, into which the boondies are dipped? Similarly with the Coffee Pak—when does one add the espresso, when the besan is being mixed with ghee or later, when the sugar is added?
They realized that you can only achieve perfection when you get the process right, and for all their fuddy-duddiness, Indian mithais have perfected the process over centuries.
DISRUPTION, GENTRIFICATION OR SOMETHING MORE?
“I never felt that Indian mithai needed reinventing, rather I always saw mithai as something indispensable to Indian food. There is so much that one can do with it, and it is such an underrated confection. There is a big difference between reinventing and elevating," says Rachel Goenka, a trained patisserie chef and founder of The Chocolate Spoon Company, which runs several restaurants and patisseries across Mumbai and Pune. Goenka feels she has done the latter with her book Adventures With Mithai: Indian Sweets Get A Modern Makeover, which contains recipes for inventive variations and adaptations of Indian desserts, from Mohan Bhog Cream Eclairs to Anjeer Barfi Treacle Tart and Masala Chai Crème Brûlée. “The idea is to create a balance and not take away from the mithai (aspect). That needs to sing and be the hero of the dessert," Goenka says, on marrying mithai with non-Indian ingredients, flavours and techniques.
“I decided I wanted to apply the same sassiness to traditional Indian desserts as well," writes Goenka in the introduction to her book, talking about her process of experimentation. “That’s when this mithai craze of mine really took off. I would sit for hours and just taste different types of mithais, and make notes on what flavour combinations I thought would work and then experiment. I also loved combining different Indian flavours. One of my proudest moments was a sweet khandvi, a thin layer of sweet saffron pasta with pistachio cream and rabri. To represent the mustard seeds on top, I used balsamic caviar. I did another dessert called 7 Textures of Mithai... a combination of khoya barfi, masala chai ganache, Mahim halwa, pista sponge, saffron mousse, white chocolate discs and cardamom basundi sauce. Every Diwali I experimented with traditional flavours and I loved doing it so much that I started developing different confections for different festivals."
“It’s not traditional sweets that needed disrupting, actually, but the mass market and commercial process by which they are made. Mithai has become a commodity, sold by the kilo for weddings and functions, without much thought or appreciation for how it’s crafted and created," says Mathur. According to him, the much-needed disruption is actually a reverse process of going back to the undiluted basics of traditional mithai-making and rejecting the short cuts and—let’s be frank—often unhygienic practices of mithai shops.
But isn’t it a bit disingenuous to claim to be reinventing something that continues to be a thriving, living tradition on every street corner of every city, town and village in India?
The Bombay Sweet Shop’s Sameer Seth says he has a “non-PC take on this": “Actually the real gentrification of mithai happened when the Diwali hamper changed and started containing jars of olives and imported European dips. We have never thought we are going to go about dethroning mithai—rather, we want to spend time understanding the tradition, and then bring back the nostalgia and magic associated with mithai. We are simply giving it its due in the limelight.