Neha Mujumdar seeks out Dharwad’s original alchemists of milk and sugar.

For the metro dweller, Dharwad in North Karnataka might seem small, especially because it’s easily reached by the many State-run buses available. But the city — and the district — is far from the clichéd “sleepy little hamlet”: it’s a beehive of activity, especially musical and literary. (I got a little taste of this when, on a local bus journey, a co-passenger invited me to debate the relative literary merits of the writers Kuvempu and D.R. Bendre. “Bendre is ours,” she said, for her part).

This aside, one of the major attractions of the city — for this writer, at least — is culinary.

“Don’t go to all those Mishra pedha shops,” my father had said, on hearing of the trip to Dharwad. “Go to that one shop in Line Bazaar. That’s the only place you get real Dharwad pedha.”

As my earliest point person for the sweet treat, he would know. Besides, he’d studied in Dharwad as a boy (while attempting to prepare for exams, he would be frustrated by the non-stop Hindustani singing in a neighbour’s house — one Basavaraj Rajguru, he says).

I stopped at the first of many outlets in the city marked with the large red “Mishra Pedha” banner, and sought out a single sweet, for Rs. 7. The Mishra pedha, in a faintly hexagonal shape, brings a comforting hit of sweetness; it highlights the simplicity of the Dharwad pedha, made with nothing but milk and sugar.

Sweet taste of milk

In the Dharwad pedha, milk is cooked down and sweetened appropriately, to take on a luxuriant taste well-distanced from the much-abhorred compulsory glasses of milk of childhood. The thickened mass is then rolled in powdered sugar.

The Mishra pedha is sandy, rolled as it is in almost-coarse grains of sugar, lending the slightest crunch. Unlike the mysterious “Thakur” variety, this brand wasn’t unfamiliar: franchises have spread to other cities, such as Pune, Gadag and Davangere.

But to eat the Thakur pedha, I discovered, is the sort of experience one doesn’t come by easily. It will ruin all other knockoffs, however respectable they might be. Impossibly tender, deeply caramelised and just-about-sweet, the Thakur pedha also carries a hint of salt, and is rolled in finely-powdered sugar. Unlike other varieties of milk sweets, the pedha doesn’t feel overly milky; the khova only lurks in the background, adding richness.

Finding the shop was easy; one only has to be roughly in the vicinity. Residents are perhaps used to visitors searching for “the Line Bazaar pedha shop”, and they guide you enthusiastically to the store, located on a quiet stretch on the market street.

The shop isn’t as glamorous as the shiny Mishra outlets spread back-to-back on several roads across the city. Here, on a counter are piled several quarter- and half-kg boxes of pedha (marked “Dharwad’s Original And Famous Line Bazar’s Babusingh Thakur Pedha”), and a few large plastic bags lined with savouries. And that’s it.

The stream of customers, however, is steady, in keeping with the Thakur pedha’s history and cult following (Shabana Azmi, Girish Karnad and Smita Patil have all been known to enjoy the sweets). The store is run by descendants of Ram Ratan Singh Thakur, who migrated to Dharwad from Uttar Pradesh in the 19 century. It was grandson Babusingh Thakur who popularised the pedha in the town by producing small quantities of the sweet; today, run by the sixth generation of the family, between 100-150 kg are made and sold daily.

The Thakur family’s day begins at 5 a.m. Babusingh Thakur (junior — he’s named after his grandfather) heads to the nearby factory, and is soon followed by sons Umesh and Deepak. The trio sets things in motion. After the initial process of stirring khova and sugar (see recipe), the 20-odd regular staff come in, with some daily-wage workers, Umesh said.

The laborious initial process of stirring the khova-and-sugar mix isn’t outsourced, 25-year-old Umesh explained, because of concerns over the secret process being leaked. “The knowledge of the temperature and the technique are our family secrets,” he said.

Perhaps best of all, the Thakur pedha doesn’t perish quickly, despite its dairy constituents. It keeps well at room temperature for up to a week; one sleeve of the box pleads, “Please do not keep in refrigerator.”

Years ago, when only about 10 kg would be produced daily, long queues formed at the Line Bazaar shop at 5 a.m., anticipating the store’s opening four hours later. “By 10 o’clock, it would all be sold out,” said Thakur. Today, too, exam result days see similar queues, a local informed me fondly.

HOW IT’S MADE

It isn’t easy to come by a precise recipe for the sweet — the Thakurs are fiercely protective of their techniques and proportions — but the process was described.

The Thakur family makes its Dharwad pedha by cooking khova (made from fresh milk) with a small amount of sugar till it browns.

This is the most important part, and takes one-and-a-half hours of constant stirring.

They next add the majority of the sugar to the mass, and mix to dissolve; this is then cooled and cut. The final step is rolling the sweets in powdered sugar.

(A fortnightly feature on food and the places that made them famous.)

RELATED NEWS

In search of Bikaneri BhujiaSeptember 29, 2012

In search of Kakinada KhajaNovember 10, 2012

In search of Thoothukudi macaroonDecember 8, 2012