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Is there any reason why so many Indian desserts and sweets are SOOO sweet?

I've enjoyed Indian savory dishes for years. But the desserts and sweets that I've had at Indian restaurants and at friends homes have always been very sweet to cloyingly sweet. Is there a gastronomic reason for this? Is it to counter the heat of the main dishes?

Thanks!

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  1. The only Indian desserts that I have found to be baringly sweet are some versions of kheer and my favorite the carrot pudding with cardomom and pistachios.

    Interested to hear theories on this.

    1. Because of the preservative nature of sugar of course! In a warm tropical climate, if you want cooked food to last even a few days, you need to add ingredients that act as preservatives. Traditional Indian dessert recipes predate refrigeration. A lot of desserts particularly from North, West and East India tend to be milk based and milk is very perishable. Even when sweets are not milk based, sugar often acts as the glue that holds other ingredients together - so in something like a kaju barfi (or cashew fudge), cashew being a relatively shelf stable ingredient, if you don't add enough sugar and cook it to the right temperature, your fudge won't set up correctly. This respect for short shelf-life of cooked food is so ingrained in Indian culture that even in modern times serving food that wasn't all freshly cooked is looked down upon. We all know that most curries improve after a day. When I host an Indian meal for friends and am planning to cook some of it the day before, my mom is guaranteed to try and convince me that I can do all the cooking, the day of. At least that is my theory! : )

      6 Replies
      1. re: sweetTooth

        Among non-Indian desserts, which ones are not very sweet? Of those how many require refrigeration (e.g. egg based custards), or baking (cakes, cookies, pies, pastries). Traditional Indian desserts require neither of those modern conveniences.

        paulj

        1. re: paulj

          Hi Paul,
          I am confused - are you agreeing with me or disagreeing? My point was exactly that since most traditional Indian desserts predate refrigeration, they needed to rely on the preservative qualities of sugar.
          I also pointed out that in desserts where sugar is not needed for preservation - such as kaju barfi or besan laddoo (balls composed of chickpea flour, sugar and ghee) - sugar serves as the glue or matrix that holds other ingredients together. Since it serves a specific structural role beyond just adding sweetness, you cannot arbitrarily reduce the quantity of added sugar. Sorry if I was unclear before. :-)

          1. re: sweetTooth

            Doh! Apologies, Paul! As usual, I was a little too trigger happy :"> I see now that you said *non* Indian desserts. I blithely ignored the *non* part earlier.

            Yes, thank you! I completely agree that so many _non_ Indian desserts are way too sweet as well and many of those that are not, do require refrigeration or baking. Actually, even baked cakes that are on the moister side do not fare very well in India outside of a fridge. My mom makes a delicious orange bundt cake that has a little orange juice and some zest in it. It gets a little sticky by day 3, especially during summer or monsoon.

            1. re: sweetTooth

              Just pointing out why many modern 'western' desserts aren't so sweet - they don't need to be for preservation, or they have a light texture due to baking. So many of these Indian desserts and sweets are better compared to our candies and fudges, as opposed to cakes and cookies.

              As a counter point to the OP observation, most of desserts that our neighbors from south India have shared with us have not been very sweet. Examples are a white grass jello, and a vermicelli pudding.

              paulj

              1. re: paulj

                White grass jello sounds intriguing! Tell me more!

                1. re: sweetTooth

                  I haven't asked how it is made. There is something called grass jelly that is used for drinks and desserts through out SE Asia.
                  paulj

        2. I personally don't like any desserts that are too sweet which I often find is the case with cakes (not a fan of fondant nor buttercream frosting). Had a cake from a Chinese bakery once which I loved (spongy & not too sweet). Also, I never liked plain glazed donuts until Kripy Kreme came along. Even then, I can only eat it fresh before the glaze hardens & becomes sweeeet. If the desserts (imo) are well made, it shouldn't be too sweet. Some of my favorite Indian desserts are slightly sweet but tart & crisp jalebis, gulab jamun with a light coating of syrup served warm, rasamalai, and moist cashew burphy.

          jalebis - Laxmi Bazaar, San Jose CA
          gulab jamun - my friend's
          rasamalai - my friend's & Lovely Sweets, Sunnyvale CA
          cashew burphy - still searching

          And my absolute favorite Indian dessert is Kulfi, in particular my friend's (who also makes jamun) as well as Zee Foods' malai kulfi pop which is available at local Indian Grocers.

          1. When in India we were given a lovely but small box of indian sweets for a rather large group of us, which we didn't understand until we realised that it was so very sweet that you could only eat a little bit at a time. The little that we ate was really good - a type of white fudge - and just enough to satisfy any sweet cravings. But speaking of Indian sweets, there was a dessert that i really enjoyed that we had with a home cooked meal that they translated simply for us as "yellow rice." It was not too sweet at all and i believe was sticky and had raisins and perhaps other things in it. Would anyone happen to know what the actual name of this dish is? Thanks in advance!

            2 Replies
            1. re: fudisgud

              OMG! That is called "Keshari Bhaat" in Marathi - literally Saffron/Yellow Rice. There are variants of this called "sakhar bhaat" (sugar rice) or Narali Bhaat (coconut rice). It is delicious! I can get you a recipe from my Marathi cookbook this weekend. I haven't yet made it on my own - it is supposed to be a slightly finicky dish. Best eaten warm. I am glad you reminded me - it is Diwali, the biggest Hindu festival tomorrow. I might make some! I am pretty sure of some ingredients you will need - fragrant white rice, saffron, cardamom, whole cloves, sugar, golden raisins and possibly some nuts like pistachios, almonds or cashews. My mom's version also used fresh scraped coconut (i.e. it was Narali Bhaat). Sigh.

              1. re: sweetTooth

                thanks for the info - i would love a recipe! this rice has "haunted" me for the last 8 or so years since i've been to India, simply because i didn't know the actual name and searches for yellow rice didn't leave me with much to work with. thanks again!

            2. I've definitely had and enjoyed versions rasmalai (cottage cheese balls in syrup) that weren't very sweet, so I think it depends on where you go. In fact, I have to say it may be my all time favorite dessert.

              2 Replies
              1. re: Steve

                Rasmalai is actually cottage cheese balls in milk or thickened milk and yes it is not a cloyingly sweet dessert. One of my favorites too! However, cottage cheese balls in *syrup* is called rasgulla or rosogulla and is pretty darn sweet. I think you can find exceptions to any observation, but I have to agree with the OP's observation that *so many* Indian desserts are very sweet.

                1. re: sweetTooth

                  Thank you for clarifying this for me. Yeah, I really dig the rasmalai and NOT the rasgulla. The rasmalai usually has some subtle pistachio flavor going on. My only problem with this dessert is that I normally want about four portions of it. When it is served very chilled, it is sublime.