Should that sinful scoop be eaten as a starter, with the meal, or after?
I saw a famous chef on TV, making quick meals: fully balanced in taste, texture and nutrition. They were colourful. For every hot brown meat-type thing, there was may be a cold salad of raw green leaves and red radishes or tomatoes, and some carb: quinoa, couscous, bread, whatever. And he presented every taste. I didn’t see him make any dessert, but the main meal itself had everything to satisfy and pique the palate — salt, a hint of fresh chillies, lime juice. Once he made mince patties for hamburgers and, after he’d fried them light brown, he poured in a generous stream of honey, then sprinkled a fistful of sesame seeds and let them all coat the patties and the sesame to turn golden brown. Imagine the taste. Warm, salty meat set off by the gentle sweetness of honey and the subtle nutty smell of toasted sesame. I was reminded of the joy that unexpected combining of sweet and salt gives.
Some years ago I travelled often to Ahmedabad and whatever meetings, presentations and other stress the days might bring, I managed one lunch at Gopi in Ellisbridge during almost every trip. There I learnt what a delight the much-maligned sweetness in Gujarati food really is. Everything is not sweetened. My limited exposure taught me that either the kadhi is sweet, or the dal, and in any case it’s only so mildly sweet as to set off the dozen other savoury dishes in the thali.
But most of the rest of us eat sweets only at the end of a meal. Apart, of course, from the standard Chinese sweet-and-sour dish, and Bengali chutney, which is eaten towards the end of a meal, but distinct from and before dessert. Many long years ago, I went to Udaipur for a friend’s wedding. So whether it was traditional heavy-duty Rajasthani hospitality or extra special because we were part of the baraat, I don’t know. But I was a bit taken aback when, pressed to jeemo, we sat down to gleaming thalis and discovered that a small golden heap of sweet, juicy boondi had already been served.
To this day I don’t know whether we were to eat it as a starter or, as I suspect, with our meal. Dessert was separate and came later. For me, though, sweet with the meal is unusual, so I couldn’t understand my mother’s taste. When she served crackers or salted Monaco biscuits heaped with grated Amul cheese (and don’t the brands date the anecdote!), I loved the tiny peak of guava jelly or orange marmalade atop the cheese. The sweet enhanced the salt, and was universally popular. But her other tastes… She rarely ate eggs, but when she did, they would have to be fluffy golden omelettes, accompanied with marmalade. She said crisp dry toast, salty, buttery, fluffy egg and bittersweet orange peel together made the perfect dinner.
In Maharashtra, shrikhand, the thick cold sweet of hung yoghurt, is traditionally eaten with poori and I like it with the mixed atta roti we eat in winter in Delhi. The atta is a mix of regular wheat, bajra, pearl barley; makki, cornmeal; and chana, whole chickpea. It makes a coarse, slightly thick and brittle roti, and whatever else the meal comprises, shrikhand’s cool sweetness breaks the tedium of dal-sabzi-roti. In Bengal, sweet chutney is eaten at the end of a meal, not with rice, but, as Anita cruelly says, by itself, with the fingers. I like it with rice and bhaja muger dal, roasted yellow moong dal, so was grateful when her mother came over with a huge jar of freshly made sweet karonda chutni. I make it sometimes with tomatoes.