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On the menu: The sweet side of history

September 15, 2013

Mithai stands for celebration and at least in the subcontinent, modern confectionery cannot replace the significance of mithai. It is a synonym for joy and happiness. A child’s birth, nuptial ceremony and any other achievement in life is fêted with mithai.

“The modern form of mithai can be traced back to the 1500s during the reign of the Mughals. It was kept exclusively for the consumption of the royalty for about 300 years and mithai makers were not permitted to share it with common people till around 1835. After Partition, Nirala brought the mithai of the subcontinent under one roof, sharing it with the elite and the common alike. The recipes gathered are as rich in quality and taste as those made in their native towns,” said Faisal Farooq, CEO Nirala Sweets

Old Mrs Morris, who once lived down Fleming Road in ‘andrun shehr’ Lahore, recalls her childhood days and Ustaad Taj Din, creator and owner of Nirala Sweets. “It was a treat living near his shop. In the evening, all the children gathered to feast on the free mithai he distributed whether it was Friday after juma or the Sabbath or even an ordinary day. He was more than enthusiastic to share the joy of the newly independent Pakistan,” she recalls fondly. Ustaad Taj Din migrated from Amritsar, India to Lahore. In 1948, he set up a breakfast shop in Mewa Mandi that later moved on to Fleming Road and transformed into Nirala.

Mithai marks all festive events and holy days. On Eid, people indulge in fat, glistening gulab jamans, thick blocks of white barfi and candy-pink chum chums. For Diwali a box full of bite-size sweets, with motichoor ladoo being a prime favourite, are ideal for gifts and though a few confectioners have modified mithai into a marzipan-look-alike for Christmas, gojay or gojiya remain popular among Urdu speaking Christians.

Some indigenous mithai of Pakistan is believed to date back to the Indus Valley Civilisation while other forms have been modified using recipes from Bangladesh and across Persia. There is the sohan halwa from Multan, which is softer in texture as compared to that from Karachi. Locals of Chiniot believe that their version of sohan halwa is of Persian origin, linked with the Iranian sweet Sohan.

Andrasey, not to be confused with amresey of Peshawar, are a speciality of Kasur. Zaffer Iqbal, an expert in local food culture and senior professor at National College of Arts says, “I remember cycling to Peshawar Qissa Khawani Bazaar to get amresey for tea time. They are comparatively smaller and crispier than andrasey. They are cooked fresh in the afternoon and make a perfect after-lunch dessert.” Barfi, literally snowy, is originally from Persia, gulab jaman, a speciality of Sherekpur (Sheikhupura) and chum chum, a Bengali recipe are some of the most popular mithais while the magnificent ladoo remains the king of mithai with variations introduced by India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. The jalebi of the subcontinent is very different from that of the Middle East.

Over the years, mithai has become an international symbol of celebration. Packed in customised boxes, friends and family parcel mithai across the border to share joy and good news. Nirala has carried on Ustad Taj Din’s tradition over the years and kept it alive and relevant by introducing contemporary mithai recipes to each generation. A picture of Ustaad Taj Din hanging in their outlet takes one back to the days when national and religious festivities were marked by peace, harmony and a sharing of joy across all communities.

As Dr Munawar Chand, an advocate of religious and cultural harmony says, “mithai brings people together to share love at different festivities. It has always been an important part of inter-religious and peace dialogue events. Sharing mithai means we respect each other’s beliefs and are willing to take a step towards eliminating our differences for the peace and prosperity of our society. ”