Life Is Sweet

A handful of chefs and F&B professionals is trying to make sweetmeats, or mithai, fashionable.

Illustration by Anirban Ghosh Illustration by Anirban Ghosh

Quick, how do you make mithai exciting? How about infusing a dash of champagne in your laddoo, or coating your patissa with coconut and caramel, or encasing dark Belgian chocolate truffle in a grandma-style traditional besan laddoo? A small but significant number of food and beverage (F&B) professionals are doing this and a lot more to make mithai fashionable.

“We wanted to take what is traditional and then reimagine it,” says Sameer Seth, Co-founder of Hunger Inc, the company behind Mumbai-based restaurants, The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro. Seth and fellow Cofounder Yash Bhanage set up Bombay Sweet Shop in March last year. “We imagined it as Willy Wonka’s mithai factory,” says Seth. So, the store has flooring with bees hovering around flowers with kaju katli-shaped petals, and spot-lit glass cases with mithai displayed. The mithai itself uses a lot of chocolate. Take, for example, the best-selling kaju marzipan which gives a chocolatey twist to the classic kaju katli. It sandwiches two layers of kaju katli with a thick layer of decadent chocolate ganache. Each square is then dipped in chocolate and then sprayed with a chocolate spray. A box of nine pieces costs Rs 600.

Chef Girish Nayak, who is referred to as Chief Mithaiwala, loves to reinterpret traditional mithai in his own way. So, you have the lal peda but filled with dulce de leche caramel and chunks of peanut honeycomb, or the besan laddoo coated in sugar syrup and toasted hazelnuts.

Up north, Delhi-based motherdaughter duo Subha and Arshya Aggarwal — who belong to a family of malt manufacturers — decided to experiment with liquor in mithai. “The mithai market was stagnant, no one was really experimenting. If you could have liquor chocolates, then why not liquor mithai?” says Arshya of Nihira. The brand was set up by the duo in 2018 with a few traditional mithais, but they soon realised that experimentation was the way forward. Today, Nihira has almost 80 different varieties and plans to have nearly a 100 by Diwali. The most popular ones include the whisky laddoo, the red wine laddoo, the Old Monk halwa, and the gin & cranberry laddoo. Nihira also has a range of non-alcoholic mithai but with a twist in taste. So, you have barfis in colours that pop, where the khoya is combined with rich flavours like blueberry, tiramisu, and cheesecake.

The idea behind Nihira was to reintroduce mithai to the younger generation. “Mithai was considered boring and we wanted to change that,” says Arshya. Nihira , however, has been welcomed by all age groups. “We recently supplied [mithais] for someone’s 75th birthday and they wanted liquor ones.” Nihira’s most expensive offering is a big gold laddoo cake made of Iranian pistachio and sandalwood extract. The one-kg laddoo costs Rs 25,000 a piece and is available on order. As of now, Nihira doesn’t have a physical store; it is available only online with maximum orders coming through its Instagram page.

Fusion and Classics

Neha Lakhani and Ashay Dhopatkar of Arq Mithai — another Delhi-based mithai brand with a store at the luxury mall DLF Emporio — are professional chefs with degrees from Le Cordon Bleu, Ottawa, and University of Wales, respectively.

“We wanted to create a product that is international quality yet is Indian. We decided to pair Indian classic mithais with an international flavour,” says Lakhani. So, you get a kaju barfi with a raspberry compote, or a besan laddoo with a chocolate ganache or their bestseller: espresso gulab jamun with vanilla khoya. Everything is made using real ingredients, she says.

Lakhani says it’s the younger generation that goes for the fusion mithai while the older generation prefers the classics. Arq has around 25 flavours on its menu, of which 60 per cent are classics, such as rose-flavoured badam barfi. The wedding market continues to be an important revenue source, with Arq supplying a large number of mithai boxes for wedding announcements. Lakhani says although they have expansion plans, for the time being everything has been put on hold.

The brand is just around three years old, of which 18 months have been during the pandemic.

Not everyone feels that mithai needs to be reinterpreted. Delhibased Khoya Mithai prides itself on making classic mithais without any flavour experiments, the focus being on quality ingredients and packaging. “Mithai is such an integral part of Indian culture and heritage, but when we started off, several people were embarrassed to gift it. Mithai was commoditised and considered overtly sweet, syrupy, artificially flavoured and badly packed. We wanted to bring back real mithai and give it the importance it deserved,” says Sid Mathur, Founder, Khoya Mithai. The brand, which was set up in 2016, has a counter at The Oberoi patisserie and a store at Delhi’s upmarket mall, The Chanakya.

Khoya has supplied mithai to the who’s who in the corporate world, and also celebrities. In late 2018, Abhishek Bachchan won the rapidfire round against his sister Shweta Bachchan Nanda at the celebrity TV talk show Koffee with Karan and went home with the coveted gift hamper. The hamper contained a box of Khoya Mithai, which was much appreciated by the Bachchan family. Abhishek’s mother Jaya sent some to Nita Ambani to try and before he knew it, Mathur was on a call with the Antilla executive chef who in turn connected him to chef Ritu Dalmia who was handling the catering for Isha Ambani’s wedding functions in Udaipur. “We sent almost 50 kg of mithai to Udaipur in boxes of 36 mithais each,” says Mathur. Each box contained their top-selling mithais such as coconut laddoo, badam longe, pista longe, and milk cake.

Mathur, who is also a partner and director at Impresario Entertainment & Hospitality — the company behind restaurants like Social and Smoke House Deli — researched mithai-making techniques over several months.

“We realised that traditionally mithai was made very differently from what we were getting to eat today. What our parents ate was different. It was lighter, had less sugar, and you could really taste the quality of the key ingredients.” Initially, Mathur thought that the best way to improve on the traditional mithai was to put a halwai and pastry chef together: while the halwai explained the technique, the pastry chef could refine it. “But it was a disaster. They just couldn’t harmonise. Then I got rid of the pastry chef and sat with the halwai and broke down the entire process to figure out how we could improve on the flavour, texture, method and treatment of ingredients.”

Packaging Matters

Khoya focusses a lot on its packaging with only food-grade boxes in nice bright colours. An assorted box of 16 mithais (their biggest seller) costs Rs 1,800. On an average, Khoya makes 100 kg of mithai a day. It posted a 40 per cent growth in sales in 2019 (year-on-year) and in July 2020 their sales were double that of July 2019. Last year, they launched luxury hampers which, besides mithai, also had savouries and the average spend per customer went up from Rs 1,600 to Rs 2,400.

Khoya is raising funds to hire more staff and increase kitchen space as it currently loses out on almost 20 per cent orders during key times such as Diwali. It is launching a platform called Khoya Access where it is going to tie up with three-four key hotels in the city and become the one-stop shop for all their mithai needs.

Gur Chini, another Delhi-based brand, supplied mithai for Akash Ambani and Shloka Mehta’s wedding. Its Swarnamishtha laddoo, made with Italian pistachio and 24-carat gold foil, costs almost Rs 1,000 a piece.

With their ventures, these brands are trying to change mithai’s reputation from being dated and ‘boring’ to something that is considered contemporary and fun. “We are bringing back the magic of mithai,” says Seth. But to be clear, this is not a sales issue as the mithai market in the country continues to prosper, thanks to our love for sweets and the concept of “mooh meetha”. Sales for mithai and namkeen (snacks) have never dipped. Currently, the mithai and namkeen industry in India is worth Rs 1 lakh crore and is growing at 12-15 per cent annually, according to the Federation of Sweets and Namkeen Manufacturers, an industry body that represents the branded mithai and namkeen industry in India. The industry has more than 100,000 manufacturers across the country doing business, even though a majority of them are not counted in the total turnover of the organised business category.

While the first-time mithaiwalas’ contribution to the overall mithai industry may be limited, their influence on our taste profiles is significant.