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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.

              2. Am I the only one who adores the Indian Sweets that are really, really sweet?

                The answer is, that is their preference....they love very sweet sweets.

                It is like asking why Tex-Mex food is so spicy, or why Szechian food is so hot. There may be gastronomic reasons hidden in the mists of time, but the truth is that it is the cultural preference of the people.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Fleur

                  You're not alone. I don't often eat dessert, but when I do, I want it to be very sweet, Indian or otherwise.

                  I'm not sure if it's my tastebuds or where I'm eating, but I don't actually find Indian desserts to be all that sweet. And most SE Asian desserts are entirely too sugar-lacking for me to enjoy them.

                2. Funny this came up, as I just came back from an Indian cooking class. The dessert they prepared was called Mango Yogurt cream. Very light and refreshing. Consisted of Mango puree,lime juice,heavy cream,plain yogurt and cardamorn powder. Not too sweet at all. They said, because of the heat of the food, this is all you need.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: Mother of four

                    Did they say what the Indian name for this dessert was? Did it dessert involve tying up the yogurt in cheese cloth and draining as much liquid as you could from it? If so, then it is inspired by a traditional dessert called Mango Shreekhand (or Amrakhand) and *that* is a very sweet dish.

                    1. re: sweetTooth

                      The name was Mango Yogurt cream. This is the recipe which serves 4-6
                      2 cups mango puree- buy it in a can
                      2 tbsp lime jice or you could use lemon and could also use the zest
                      2/3 cup heavy cream
                      1/3 cup plain yogurt
                      1/4 tsp. cardamom powder

                      Whip the cream just before it becomes stiff. Then fold in the yogurt and cardamon powder.
                      Reserve 4 tablespoons of the mango puree for decoration. Mix the remainder of the puree with the cream/yogurt mixture and then chill for at least a half an hour. You could actually make it a day before.
                      Spoon the mixture into serving bowls or glasses (would look pretty in a stemmed glass . Drizzle a little of the reserved mango puree on top.
                      It wasn't anything out of this world or anything, but it was a nice light finish to the dinner.
                      Actually. after taking the glass and having it served afterwards I decided that I am not really a huge fan of Indian cooking. Too saucy for me, everything was in some kind of sauce and the rice was served in the middle. The Butter Chicken was good and so was the rice, but a salad along with it would have been great for me, but I understand that is not how they do it in India.

                      1. re: Mother of four

                        Okay, I was far off base then. Yeah this is definitely not a modern take on the traditional Mango Shreekhand. This sounds like a very western inspired dessert with Indian flavors from Mango and cardamom. Sounds yummy! Thanks for the recipe!

                        Yeah, as with any ethnic cuisine, Indian cuisine is not represented very well in restaurants here. Growing up in India, these thick saucy dishes were cooked for special occasions. Everyday home cooked Indian food offers so much more variety than the typical Punjabi/Mughlai fare served in restaurants. And then, I suppose cooking classes tend to offer the same recipes that people enjoy at their favorite Indian restaurant. As for salads, it is true that a large green salad is not part of a typical Indian meal, but there is whole class of raw veggie relishes called Kachoomber (in Hindi) or Koshimbir (in Marathi) that show up regularly. I posted a recipe on this thread a while back: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/307179

                  2. I think part of the issue is not just sweetness, but balancing flavors of acidity or bitterness. European and American desserts usually have an element of acidity (often from lemon juice or fruit) or bitterness (from chocolate), which tends to balance the sweetness. When that element is missing, foods seem to taste sweeter. Most of the Indian sweets I have tasted have little or no acidity. I'm sure there are lots of exceptions to this -- India is a large and diverse place -- but that's my guess about why they seem sweeter to someone who is used to a different dessert tradition.

                    1. Just one comment:

                      I'm sure many of you know this but indian sweets dont map to (post prandial)
                      desserts. You might eat them after as the last course after dinner, but you might
                      eat hot jelabis in the morning ... like getting a morning pastry/donut. You might
                      get some as some snacks in addition to tea when you drop in at sombody's
                      house.

                      So I'm not sure a couple of jelabis is much unhealthier in the sugar+oil department
                      than some apple fritters i used to eat.

                      The crazy people are the ones who have the rasagolla eating contests at
                      a wedding feast ... and put away 20-30, with a side of insulin. Of course here
                      there are people who eat vast amounts of ice cream in one sitting.

                      Considering there are sweets based on milk, on nuts, on fruit, cream of wheat,
                      garbanzo powder, molasses, sesame, puffed rice ... there is a pretty wide range of
                      sweetness. But I agree on everage they are pretty sweet, and a lot of the better known
                      desserts ... the jilipi, the rosogolla, the laddu etc ... are at the sweet end.

                      ok tnx.