So you thought a sweet-maker is a lucky guy who gets to gorge on the mouth-watering things he prepares? Unfortunately not. As ‘halwai’ Ram Nivas from Rajasthan says, “Banane wala kabhi khaata nahi…” (The one who makes never eats.)
Most sweet makers start out as helpers or assistants in a kitchen and apprentice under a master chef before they pick up enough skills to go it alone.
A sweet maker’s typical day begins early in the morning, boiling milk in a huge thick-bottomed pan for hours to condense it. “It is the first lesson a sweet maker learns,” says Nivas, who takes up contracts for different sweet shops in the city, including Sweet Corner on Anna Salai.
In the sweet-making business for over 10 years now, he says that if an aspiring halwai cannot get the basics of boiling milk perfectly to make ‘khoya’ right, he cannot graduate to sophisticated dishes like halwa. The job requires long hours of standing in a hot kitchen and continuous stirring. Also, most master chefs are fastidious taskmasters, he adds.
A sweet-dealer at Bombay Halwa House on Anna Salai says most people in the business are into it for generations. “The recipe of the traditional sweets we make have been perfected over the years and passed on generation after generation,” he says.
Not all sweet makers share a fondness for food. For some, it is just another job. “Ours is a community of agricultural labourers. We got into sweet-making for survival,” says Nivas.
Also, the job is one that requires plenty of patience, and perfection is a result of practice alone. “Even sugar syrup that appears easy to make should have the right consistency. If you put a khoya ball into watery syrup, it will crack up and you won’t get the juicy rasagulla,” he says.
Chef Jacob Sahaya Kumar, recalling his first experience of making halwa at ten, says: “I tried making wheat halwa and it became coarse like ‘rava’ because I overheated it.”
Today, the master chef makes dishes such as cotton seed halwa and ‘elaneer payasam’ which are popular in ‘Diwali thalis’ at their restaurant ‘Rasam’ in Purasawalkam. But even for a catering school graduate like him, the experience of initial learning has been no different from that of a halwai toiling away at a shop kitchen.
“It was an old lady in a village near Coimbatore who taught me the recipe for halwa. It took much coaxing and cajoling to get her secrets out,” he says. Yes, the most popular sweet makers also jealously guard their inventions.
No surprises then that efforts to reach the master chef who makes the popular mysurpa at Sri Krishna Sweets proved futile. “They are all busy working on the Deepavali orders” is the stock reply, not only from this shop but also in every popular sweet outlet in the city.