What does it take to make til chikki exciting again?

Could we make it slim as a wafer, one or two millimetres thick instead of the usual six to eight? Could we dip white miso-spiked squares of it halfway in dark chocolate? Could we package it like mint chocolate thins, individually wrapped portions stacked up, each one a crunchy, fun, single bite?

At Bombay Sweet Shop, they did all three. And while they were at it, they put together a smoked almond chikki with rose petals, orange zest, saffron and melon seeds, as well as a five-seed chikki with melon, poppy, pumpkin, flax and sunflower seeds.

“Our chikki encapsulates what we’re trying to do here: getting inspired by what is traditional and then reimagining it completely, but with relatability,” said Sameer Seth, co-founder Hunger Inc., which is the parent company behind the feted restaurant brands The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro. They launched Bombay Sweet Shop in March, in a high-ceilinged, well-lit space inspired by the concession stands of Mumbai’s single-screen cinema theatres of the 1940s and ’50s. Rose pink encaustic mosaic tiles on the floor feature bees hovering around flowers petalled with kaju katli diamonds. The treats themselves were showcased like jewels and souvenirs, in spotlit glass cases.

Weeks after its formal launch, however, the country went into lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus and, like all hospitality businesses, Bombay Sweet Shop too was boarded up. For months, its glass cases stood empty and there was no halwai turning out treats at an astonishing pace behind a glass-walled hot kitchen. When lockdown restrictions were finally eased, it reopened for delivery, albeit with a considerably curtailed menu. Gone were the til chikki and five-seed chikki, at least for now.

Even in its abridged form, though, the menu of this mithai store and restaurant in Byculla features traditional sweets as they have been eaten for generations, riffs on the familiar, and offers new iterations on classic flavours. Expect seeded jujube-sized Karachi halwa gummies dusted with pucker-inducing citric acid, truffle-sized old school motichoor laddoos, ferrero rocker besan laddoos with a hazelnut crust, aam papad lollipops, among other sweet treats.

For customers, everything about Bombay Sweet Shop, and its giddy celebration of mithai, seems new and unusual. India’ s ubiquitous barfis and pedhas, katlis and kulfis get scant enthusiasm, especially when compared to cupcakes and cheesecakes, truffles and tarts. But our perception of Indian confection might be on the cusp, if modern-day mithaiwalas can help it.

In recent years, a small but significant set of young chefs and F&B professionals around the country have chosen to become halwais (traditional sweet makers of Northern India). With their ventures, they’re trying to change mithai’s reputation. Instead of seeing Indian sweets as dated, excessively greasy, syrupy, artificially flavoured and coloured confections, only meant for ceremonies, they want customers to view mithai as a contemporary, conscientiously made, relevant, a fun daily indulgence. This, while continuing to celebrate all that is nostalgic and traditional about mithai. To this end, they are infusing traditional sweets with flavours that find favour in modern Western confectionery: dulce de leche, salted caramel, chocolate, coffee, hazelnuts, to name a few. They are also playing with texture and temperature – as with Bombay Sweet Shop’s aam papad hard candy lollipops.

Sweet Success

At Delhi’s one-year-old Arq Mithai, chefs Neha Lakhani and Ashay Dhopatkar use their training in pastry and culinary arts respectively to upgrade traditionally made classics. Among their biggest hits: besan laddoo truffle, pie-inspired apple cinnamon gujiya, and orange-almond barfi. “Nobody was trying to create a Ladurée or La Maison du Chocolat for mithai,” said Lakhani. “Most mithai businesses are run by businessmen who are focused on sales, which makes them risk averse. Sometimes the market is not aware about what good things can happen, sometimes you have to educate customers.”

Mithai, for the main part, is viewed in India as something that accompanies festivals and religious ceremonies, or as “mooh meetha” for family celebrations such as weddings, and big purchases and beginnings (a new car, a factory opening). Even our pantheon is particular – Maa Kaali is said to like her kheer as much as Lord Shiva likes his thandai. The Rigveda mentions a sweet preparation called apupa, a barley flour cake that is fried (or boiled) and dipped in honey, said to be a predecessor of the malpua. The Manasolassa, written in 1130 AD by King Someswara III, describes a doughnut called golamu, a sugar syrup-soaked cheese and flour fritter called channa, and gharikas, which is udad dal batter fried and soaked in sugar.

Indeed, these sound exactly like the mithai we eat today – rich, fried, sweet enough to make teeth hurt. We do have our delicate, delicious and not-too-decadent sweets – sandesh and singori, karanji and kozhukattai, among many – but our pervasive impression of mithai is saccharine. It’s this impression that contemporary confectioners are working to dispel.

Thirty-two-year-old family-run Bangalore-based mithai brand Anand Sweets launched a retail offering early this year that’s exclusively for airport sales. Anand and Sakkare (which means sugar in Kannada) offer Mysore pak made from a specific aged ghee that lends the classic local sweet a smoky, nutty, earthy flavour. The pak’s wrapping at Sakkare looks like a gold bar, evoking the state’s love for the precious metal. Each ingredient in their kitchens comes from a single origin – sesame seeds come from Meerut, for example – known for its superior quality. The sugar in their sweets is pharma-grade and sulphurless.

In many ways, modern-day mithaiwalas are also introducing transparency to what has so far been an opaque industry, dominated by halwais who were loathe to share ingredients, recipes and techniques. “The art and the science of mithai got lost, and the industry got a bad name,” said Ankush Dadu, the director of marketing and growth at Anand and Sakkare. “Some of it had to do with health – India is the diabetic capital of the world. There was also rampant adulteration, in milk, artificial colours, and the use of excessive sugar. For a long time, people thought of mithai as dirty. So how do we remove the bad name, and make it relevant? If you make people perceive mithai like they do wine, then they’ll begin to understand it. Mithai should never be aspirational or luxurious. It should be gift-able, but accessible, a premium product.”

A few heritage brands are trying to upgrade their offerings for today’s cupcake-consuming but health-conscious customers as well. At the 104-year-old, 18-outlet Ghasitaram’s, there is a shift towards more naturally sweetened, nutrient-dense mithais featuring dried fruits and nuts. “The industry is now at a pupal stage waiting to become a butterfly,” said Kunal Bajaj, director at Ghasitaram’s. “We’ve had to give new flourishes to old recipes. At weddings and other catered events, clients ask for mithai cakes, and sandesh in tiramisu and avocado flavours.” The company’s in-house R&D lab has recently developed stevia-sweetened, sugar-free rasgulla and gulab jamun.

“We have Indian flavours like thandai and paan in Western desserts, but so far, Indian mithai, we can’t touch,” said Neelam Saini, chef at Mulund-based Ornamental Mithai. She has developed sweetmeats like wasabi-filled motichoor laddoos, as well as lavender coconut laddoos, and Ayurveda-inspired ashwagandha laddoos. Earlier this year, she was working on beetroot tofu halwa and avocado shrikhand.

The Tastemakers

The idea for Bombay Sweet Shop came to Hunger Inc.’s co-founder and COO Yash Bhanage three years ago, when he was passing through Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. He saw hordes of travellers lining up to buy local sweets like baklava and Turkish sesame-based halva, and wondered why Indian mithai did not receive as much excitement or appreciation. “People are not enjoying mithai as much because they don’t know how much technique or history there is in a piece of mithai,” said Bhanage. “We observe croissants being made, but we don’t know about what it takes to make soan papdi.”

In 2017, the company brought their pastry chef, now their “chief mithaiwala”, Girish Nayak on board. Since then, Nayak has travelled around the country – Jaipur, Lucknow, Kanpur, Delhi, Sri Madhopur (Rajasthan), Bombay, Pune, Lonavala, Indore, Chennai, Udupi, Coimbatore, Bangalore, Mysore, Kolkata and other mithai hubs – researching the vast repertoire of Indian sweets and visiting halvais to train under them. At first, he was met with a lot of suspicion. “A soan papdi halwai in Kolkata insisted I stand outside his main workshop room and watch the process through the window for over two hours,” said Nayak. “Once he realised that I was not just some curious patisserie chef but someone who was genuinely interested in understanding and learning their craft, they allowed me into the main room and over the next week helped me understand the craft and science behind the process.”

Nayak struggled with the lack of documentation, recipes, guides and grades to ingredients used for various preparations. He had to educate himself in things that are barely known outside of the halwai trade – for example, few of us know that the tray used to set Mysore pak is vastly different from what you would use for, say, a kaju katli.

In an industry that’s run by skilled workers who eyeball quantities, and figure out doneness “andaaze se”, modern-day mithaiwalas are bringing the sort of precision, science, documentation, hygiene, lucidity, innovation and creativity that has been thus far reserved for European pastry. In her book Adventures with Mithai, pastry chef Rachel Goenka details recipes for shahi tukda cinnamon rolls, and mohan bhog cream eclairs. Jaipur’s Kesar Sweets has made bespoke mithai Easter eggs, and blueberry barfi. Delhi’s Gur-Chini uses at least four types of jaggery, each employed for its particular qualities.

While testing recipes at Bombay Sweet Shop, the team took deep dives into milk and besan. For a rose kalakand, they did a blind tasting of milk, said Bhanage. “We asked questions like, ‘why does the besan laddoo taste different today?’ And we realised it had to do with the particle size of the besan laddoo versus the motichoor laddoo. There is no Larousse Gastronomique of mithai.” Not yet, it would seem, not yet.