Bal Mithai - The taste of the Hills

                                


 

"Taste karo! Bal Mithai! This is the pride of Garhwal!" he said pointing to a rectangular dark brown block, dotted with tiny white balls. 

Far from looking like a sweet, it did not even look edible. It looked like a block of Play-Doh rolled in tiny Styrofoam balls.We were at Chhoti Haldwani, also known as Corbett Village, in Uttarakhand. Nature enthusiasts and visitors to Corbett National Park visit this tiny village to see Corbett's house, hold his gun and look at the wall he erected to protect the village from the Man Eaters of Kumaon. 

 A hard core South Indian and not a Chef by any standard, nevertheless, I know my North Indian Cuisine with its Rotis, Dal, Bhurjis and Halwas . However, at Chhoti Haldwani I learnt that Uttarakhand, despite being right up North, has a cuisine that is vastly different. Mustard Oil is the staple oil, sabjis are made from stinging nettles, Daals go way beyond the tuvar and moong and Bhang Chutney is made even when it is not Holi.

 "What is it made of?" I asked the cook.

"Khoya, Sugar and Ghee" he replied with a hint of hurt pride. 

We cut a wee piece of the block and put it in our mouth. The mustard oil and the stinging nettles had certainly not prepared us for this. Firm yet pliant enough to be chewy, gooey  yet crunchy, this scrap was a celebration of taste and texture, reminiscent of another time and another world. It was   delectable and decadent. The human mind tends to slot new experiences to the known. It tasted like Dharwad Peda. Maybe it was an off shoot of Milk Cake with Chocolate. But Bal Mithai defied typifying. Bal Mithai tasted like Bal Mithai.

The cook watched with a vindicated smirk as we demolished block after block.

That evening he took us to the shop in the one lane bazaar of Chhoti Haldwani that seemed to house all the massive cows from whose milk Bal Mithai was made and we bought boxes and boxes of it.

"Will you courier it to Bangalore if we need?" I asked.   

The shop owner gave me that scathing look reserved for city dwellers. " What I make each day is exhausted in an hour. Not possible."

Bal Mithai, I learnt,  is almost ancient. It is believed that Assyrians left 'Kummah' their homeland, on the banks of Euphrates, in the 5th Century and settled in the Northern regions of India somewhere near Nepal. They called their new home Kumaon and are said to have made this sweet as an offering to the Sun God, who they called Baal.  Over the centuries, Kumaon became part of India and Bal Mithai came down the generations to become one of the flagship desserts of Uttarakhand.

However,  Bal Mithai burst into prominence only in the early 1900s, when Lala Joga Sah, a halwai from  Laal Bazaar, Almora decided to sell it. In business since 1865, Lala Joga Sah found the milk from Phalsima, a village close by, to be of excellent quality. He cooked this rich creamy milk in huge vats for hours till it lost its moisture and left behind the grainy residue called Khoya, then added sugar and cooked the two till they coalesced into a rich brown mixture that looked like chocolate. The mixture was spread out and cut into  inch high, seven inch long pieces after it had cooled. But poppy seeds were very expensive. So Lala Joga Sah rolled these in small crunchy white sugar balls, making it a uniquely textured dessert. The Britishers of Almora and the surrounding Cantonment areas were taken up with Lala Joga Sah's Bal Mithai. It reminded them of chocolate. It reminded them of home and boxes of Bal Mithai were exchanged at Christmas, in the Cantonment areas of Uttarakhand and Garhwal.


Back in Bangalore, we searched high and low for Bal Mithai, and drew a blank. It was a good ten years before we could taste it again - this time in Nainital.

"Mamu's Naini Sweets! That is where you will get Bal Mithai. But make sure to reach before four. Else it will be sold out" 

It was to Mamu Ki Mithai that we first went after reaching Nainital. And there it was, sitting in a neat pyramid inside a glass topped wooden box, in a single street bazaar, surrounded by hills filled with Deodhar trees, on an evening, chill and fragrant with mountain air.

 Bal Mithai always makes me yearn for the hills. It evokes the most vivid imagery of strapping cows grazing on the green, lush slopes of the Garhwal hills, of mustachioed milkmen milking them, of hefty, pot bellied halwais stirring the snow white creamy milk patiently in huge iron vats placed over wooden and coal fires, of sacks of sugar and tins of ghee being emptied into it, of huge flat aluminum trays filled with rectangular blocks ready to be rolled in shiny white balls and of those olde world wooden shelves with glass lids under which lie unheard of treats.

Bal Mithai tastes of the Hills. 



Recipe  

Bal Mithai made in sanitized kitchens in non stick kadhais may not taste the same. Still here is the recipe.

Khoya 2 kgs.

Desi Ghee 2 tbsps

Sugar  300 gms x2 

Water  1 litre

1) Heat the Ghee in a heavy bottomed kadhai, add the khoya and keep stirring till it turns brown.

2) Dissolve 300 gms of sugar in water, bring it to a boil and remove it from the heat, once the sugar is dissolved.

3) Add the other 300 gms of sugar to the brown Khoya and stir continuously till the sugar integrates fully. 

4) Now add the sugar water and keep stirring till the mixture reaches the consistency where a dollop of it comes away clean off the surface, when cool.

5) Pour this mixture on to a plate. Let it cool.

6) Cut it into inch high pieces which are six to seven inches in length.

7) Dip two to three pieces at a time , in the sugar syrup and roll in sugar balls

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