The secret is out. Tamanna S. Mehdi reveals how gooey goodness gets trapped inside a crispy shell.

As soon as I told my colleagues about my day trip to Kakinda, I was flooded with requests to get them a box of khajas each. This is the sweet that has made the port town famous.

Because of its popularity, I sensed it would be available abundantly there, but my friend K. Harsha, an architect from Kakinada, told me in no uncertain terms that the mithai shop I should seek out was Kotiah Sweets. Armed with this information, I confidently set out in my quest of this sugary delicacy, known as Khajalu in Telugu.

While still contemplating whether to take a bus or train for this 150 km journey from Vizag, my uncle (who has a big sweet tooth) volunteered to drive me there. A serene drive on a clear day with scenery that included distant hills and lush green rice fields soon brought us to our destination.

As we entered the town, we noticed a building with the signage “Kotiah Foods Pvt. Ltd.” Initial happiness at our quick discovery was quickly dispelled when the lanky watchman informed us, “No khaja here. Kotiah sweets are available at Sarpavaram junction, Main Street and Bhanugodi junction.”

Sarpavaram had many sweet stalls, all selling Kakinada khajas, but the Kotiah shop was closed. Enquiry from neighbours revealed that this shop seldom opened and we were directed to the main street. We hoped our third stop would prove lucky. Sure enough, wedged in between garment stores, we noticed Kotiah Sweets — two of them — leaving us with more decisions to make.

We tossed a coin and headed first towards the one called “Kotiah Sweet Stall” for our first dose of khaja. The Gottam khaja/ Kakinada khaja/ Kotiah’s khaja (the name is copyrighted) — a brown, cylindrical maida sweetmeat — looked dry and rather unappetising. It took but one bite to change this impression. My mouth was soon dripping sweet goo. It is no wonder that it is eaten as a snack and served at weddings, and also forms a part of thali meals, as it is a perfect complement to the spicy East Godavari cuisine.

Economically priced, khajas are Rs.240 per kg for the ones prepared from pure ghee and Rs.160 per kg for the ones made with dalda. When it is fresh, the outer casing is crispy and almost like a wafer. For first timers, the first bite surprises with the juicy, sugary syrup inside. I knew I couldn’t stop at just one, but since I am watching my weight, I preferred the one with dalda a tad more, though actually I couldn’t make out much difference in taste between the two.

The brothers — NVS Murthy and Ravi — who own Kotiah’s Sweet Stall gave us a brief history. “Everyone raves about these khajas, but the credit for first making and selling it goes to Ponugupati Kotiah who, along with his son Venkata Apayya, moved to Kakinada from Repalle village in Tenali, Guntur district, in 1900 and started a sweet shop named Kotiah Sweets in the main market.” An erstwhile farmer, he came to this town and literally found his pot of gold — sweet gold. The brothers proudly said they were related to Kotiah and claimed that the recipe had come down the family to them.

Next stop, located a few shops apart was Bhavani’s Kotiah Sweets. When we asked for khajas, a huge steel tray was pulled out from behind the counter. Curious about the similar name, I asked the owner Ram Kumar. He said, “Kotiah was my great-great-grandfather and after him my grandfather and father managed the store, and now it is me.” We decided to let taste be the judge. Priced just a notch lower, at Rs.200 for a kg of pure ghee sweets and Rs.150 for those made with dalda, they tasted every bit as nice as the ones before. However, we felt they were not as crispy.

The other khaja

After a brief stop for spicy seafood lunch, my local friend Sathi Lakshmi Reddy urged me not to miss tasting the madata khaja or Tapesvaram khaja, named after a town. This was completely unlike the Kakinada khaja in both shape and taste. Suruchi Foods is another family-run outlet and Malli Babu is the second generation person in this business. He describes it as a “diamond-shaped ribbon and layered pastry made with maida and ghee. While the Kotiah khaja is dry on the outside and has sugar syrup inside, ours is a little longer and has sugar syrup in each and every layer.” We thought we couldn’t eat anymore, but this was truly yummy and juicy from start to finish.

To satiate our curiosity about the technique of trapping the syrup inside, NVS Murthy agreed to show us around his factory. The cottage industry located on the ground floor of the house produces “600 kg (about 18,000 pieces) daily”. The six cooks, both men and women, start work at 9 in the morning and finish at 6 pm, except on festival days when demand is high and they have to work late. Murthy says that “lack of quality ingredients has forced a cut back in production, so as not to compromise on quality.”

The tobacco-chewing dhoti-clad cook allowed me to cut a batch of dough into small pieces for frying. After the first few uneven cuts, I mastered cutting it into equal sizes. After frying, the piece is immediately dunked into boiling sugar syrup and pressed using a specially designed metal jhara. This simple technique ensures the syrup gets locked in the khaja.

We tried to ask different branches of the extended family what Kotiah’s inspiration was or from where he was able to source this recipe. My research, via the internet shows it could have had two influences — one from the Mughal rulers (Khaja in Persian means “pure”) and the other from the even older Gupta empire, who had a similar dish. Alas, while the family has popularised it and takes pride in it, they are clueless about the history of this delightful snack.

As maida becomes soggy and sugar syrup solidifies, the shelf-life of the gottam khaja is restricted to five days, making it difficult to market it extensively elsewhere. Hence, even in Vizag we do not get to buy the original khaja. Sandeepa Veeraminchi, a photographer, recalls how “in the mid-1990s when we were kids, there would be rickshaws with loudspeakers announcing ‘Kakinada khajalu’ and people would rush out and buy them in heaps. They were absolutely fresh and delightful, soft and squishy.”

While Ram Kumar from Bhavani’s Kotiah Sweets has plans to expand by setting up a kitchen and a store at Vizag, NVS Murthy from Kotiah Sweet Stall plans to mechanise his production, improve packaging and is researching ways to improve upon the “low shelf-life issue”, so he can market it across India. After all, the sweet tooth is universal.

HOW IT’S MADE

(Approximately 40 pieces)

Ingredients

Maida - 500 gm

Besan flour - 25 gm

Ghee (thick) - two tablespoons for rubbing

Soda bi carbonate - 1 pinch

Sugar - 250 gm

Ghee for deep frying

Method

Sieve the maida and then mix it with besan and soda powder thoroughly. Now add ghee to this dry mixture and rub for a while. Knead the dough using water as required to achieve proper consistency. Cover with muslin cloth and set aside for an hour.

Meanwhile, make one-string sugar syrup.

Roll the dough to make one-inch thick logs and cut them into pieces using a sharp knife. Dust a plate lightly with dry maida and put the pieces on it. Heat ghee in a deep-bottomed vessel for frying. Pick each piece, press the centre with your thumb, roll it into a two-inch flat piece using a rolling pin, and immediately fry it.

Once it turns brown, remove in lots of three or four pieces at a time and dunk them in the boiling sugar syrup and immediately push them to the bottom of the pan and press with a perforated jhara. Hold for a minute and let them swim for 10-15 minutes. Remove, set aside to cool and lightly dust with sugar powder before serving.

A few drops of rose water if added to the sugar syrup might give the dish better flavour.