Life is Sweet | An Introduction to South Asian Confectionary

Indian and South Asian confectionery has a distinctive taste all of its own. The main ingredients in the confectionery known in Hindu-Urdu as mithai tend to be sugar, milk and condensed milk, making the finished products sweet, creamy and rich. They often include nuts, fruit and spices and are fried. South Asian sweets vary from region to region and are generally sold from both traditional shops and street-vendors, making them readily available and cheap enough for tourists to avoid having to make a large money transfer to India prior to purchase. Here are some popular examples.


Barfi, also known as burfi or burfee comes from the Indian sub-continent. Made mainly of condensed milk, ingredients also include nuts, such as ground cashews or pistachios and fruit, such as mango. The sweets are often semi-coated with a layer of edible metallic leaf. They are served cut into diamond, round or square shapes.


This is a simple sweet made from nuts and jaggery – a form of molasses consumed in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. Several varieties exist containing different ingredients, such as groundnut, peanut, coconut, sesame and puffed rice. In regions of North India, this sweet is also known as Layyiya Patti, and in Brazil it is called pé-de-moleque, or ‘foot of a boy’.

Gulab jamun

This sticky dessert from the Indian/Pakistani regions consists of fried milk balls soaked in syrup. The dough being fried is made from milk solids – or khoya. Once cooked the dough balls are rolled in the syrup that has been flavored with spices, such as cardamom, rosewater and saffron. This confectionary is an especially popular dish at Asian weddings.


This Indian sweet is made from refined wheat flour, sugar and oils. It is belived to be more than 2,000 years old, originally prepared in the southern side of the Gangetic Plains of Bihar. Now, they are popular across India. First, a paste is made using the flour, a form of evaporated milk and oil. It is then deep fried until crisp. After than, the sweet is soaked in a sugary syrup known as ‘pak’ until it absorbs the liquid.


This is a traditional Indian/Pakistani ice cream, served frozen in small metal cans. It has a milky appearance, but extra colors can be added for decorative effect. This is a summertime favorite across India, with particular appeal in the north. Kulfi comes in all kinds of flavors, including mango, kesar or cardamom and can be garnished with dried fruit, nuts etc. Street vendors known as ‘kulfiwalla’ often sell this sweet treat on the roadside, carrying the frozen cans in a large earthenware pot.


Popular in India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh, this is another spherical sweet. Dough balls made form flour or semolina, plus other ingredients are cooked in sugar and formed into balls. Very easy to prepare, this confectionery is popular at weddings, religious festivals and other household celebrations.


Malpoa, or Malapua are sweet Indian pancakes that are deep fried and coated in sugar syrup. Especially popular in Benegal and Orissa, variations of this dish exist across different parts of India and are commonly served as a dessert or snack. Some variations use mashed banana or coconut in the batter alongside flour, water and milk, while other substitute pineapple or mango for the banana.

Paya or Kheer

This creamy dessert is a rich, sweet rice pudding that has been a culturally important dish throughout India’s history. It is often a main dish served at ceremonies, feasts and celebrations. Indeed in some parts of the country, tradition maintains that a marriage is not fully blessed unless payas are served at the feast during family ceremonies, such as weddings, childbirth, a child’s first solid feed (known as annaprasan) and so on.


Rasgulla is a popular cheese-based, syrupy sweet dish originating from South Asia and especially popular in eastern Indian households. It is made from balls of chhena – a kind of Indian cottage cheese and semolina dough. The balls are then boiled in syrup until the sugar enters the dough balls to create a sweet sensation.


Another cheese-based confectionery; sandesh is made from fine cheese kneaded with ground sugar or molasses. Originating from West Bengal and Orissa, its creation requires a delicate process and expertise in sweet-making. Sandesh comes in hard and soft versions – the latter is considered better, although it is rather fragile. The harder version is more robust and easier to transport and store.

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