Weekend Project: How to Make Indian Mithais for Diwali

Mithai is to India what mochi is to Japan. Here are three recipes to get you started.

mithai Boondi ladoo
Boondi ladoo | Photo by Heena Punwani
Boondi ladoo | Photo by Heena Punwani

Mithai is to India what mochi is to Japan. Sweet, soaking in history, steeped in tradition, and not at all easy to make. In the tropical parts of the country as the October’s heat calms down to make way for a cooling November, I have a Pavlovian reaction—my mind begins craving sweet-smelling barks, spheres, and bars.

For the Indian subcontinent, our obsession with mithais is not a recent one. India’s first mithai apupa: barley flour cakes dipped in honey find mention in Rig Veda, an early Sanskrit text, while sugarcane finds mention in another ancient scripture called the Atharva Veda. Centuries later, Indians learned the knack of turning cane into sugar, thereby making the subcontinent a pioneer in sugar production too. Add to that invasions by Arabs and Persians who brought in Middle Eastern sweet-making techniques and ingredients, and we have ourselves platters full of sticky, syrup-soaked, dry fruit or edible silver-dusted mithais that mark every auspicious occasion celebrated in the country.

With a presence that extends over 2500 years, you can’t truly talk about Indian cuisine without referencing its mithais and their evolution. They stand out especially during Diwali, when even families who would otherwise rip-open a store-bought box, don’t mind toiling over homemade mithais.

Today, as traditional Indian confectioners (halwais) move on to contemporary techniques and ingredients to include miso, sea salt, blueberries, flax seeds and quinoa to make sweets, each part of the country still has a peculiar mithai that shines bright during this festival of lights. Take for instance besan ladoo: a chickpea flour-based sweet, sev barfi made out of vermicelli, badam rotla, or almond bark reign supreme in different parts, there are three constants—boondi ladoo, kaju katli, and gujiya that show up in every part of the country in different forms.

I spoke to chef Girish Nayak from Bombay Sweet Shop in Mumbai to learn how to make these classics from scratch.

Boondi ladoo

The word ‘boondi’ stands for that which resembles tiny water droplets. Marigold-colored bliss balls are a coming together of hundreds of sweetened fried chickpea flour pearls into a quick-to-collapse mithai. This sweet can be cream, amber, saffron or beetroot red depending on which ingredient is used to paint the batter. In the southern end of the country, it becomes a temple treat, in the East (Kolkata) it is known as dorbesh and is mixed with milk solids for best results while in the West (Rajasthan), instead of sugar, thickened reduced milk called rabdi is ladled on top.

To make boondi ladoo, you’ll need 500 grams of besan, chickpea flour that is available in smooth or coarse texture. From an Indian store, pick ‘mota besan’. To this, add 750 ml of water and make a thick pancake-like batter.

In a deep-bottomed pan, heat 2 litres of ghee until it reaches 320 F. Using a perforated spatula, pour the batter through the tiny holes, one ladle at a time. If the batter is too thin, it will fall into the ghee like a smooth trickle, this should not be the case. It should fall slowly like water droplets.

Allow the boondis to fry for 30 seconds and once they reach an almond-brown color, scoop them out and place them on paper towels. Finish the rest of the batter in the same way until you have accumulated about 2 pounds of boondis. These fried pearls will stay fresh in an air-tight container for three months so you can also pre-prep and keep them ready a day before making the ladoos.

While that cools, make a sugar syrup by bringing 850 ml of water to a boil. Add 2 pounds of sugar and allow the sugar to dissolve completely. As the water comes to a boil, the sugar syrup is ready to be used in your mithais. Plonk the boondis in it and simmer for five minutes at the lowest flame. Turn off the stove and allow the boondis to rest in this pool of sweet water for 5 minutes. Scoop out and allow it to cool once again until you are able to bring spoonfuls together and roll it into a bliss ball. You should be able to roll 20 ladoos out of this mixture. Finish with chopped pieces of nuts and enjoy leftover crumbs with yogurt or vanilla ice cream.

Gujiya | Photo by Heena Punwani


If steamed Chinese gyoza came to India and became a fried sweet meat, this is what they would look like. Depending on which part of India you look at it from, gujiyas becomes nevri, karanji and pedakiya and come stuffed with fillings like plain khoya (milk solids) or coconut-jaggery-cardamom in the traditional sense, to chocolate brownie and salted caramel in a contemporary avatar. 

To make gujiyas, start off with the filling. In a pan, heat a spoonful of ghee and allow it to melt. Add 200 grams of milk solids (in Indian food stores, this is labeled as khoya). Stir the ingredient into your pool of ghee for about a minute and add 15 ml milk once the solids have dissolved thoroughly. Continue stirring for two more minutes. Add 100 grams of caster sugar and mix for three minutes, when the sugar is fully dissolved. Add any “seasoning” of your choice. You can pick from 3-4 spoonfuls of grated fresh coconut, a pinch of cardamom, a dash of nutmeg, finely chopped nuts, or a few raisins. Mix and take the filling off the flame and allow it to cool down.

To make the pastry cover, mix 250 grams of all-purpose flour with 50 grams of molten ghee. As if making a shortcrust pastry dough, mix it all up with your fingertips until it begins to resemble sand. Add 100-120 ml water and knead it into a tight dough. Let it rest for an hour. Once the dough is ready, roll it out into a thin sheet, about 1 cm and cut 20 circles with a 6-inch cookie cutter.

Spoon the filling on one end of this circle as if making an empanada, shut and seal the ends. You can pinch these into any design you like. Novices can stick to pressing a fork like while making pocket pies, but if you are a veteran, go for gyoza-like neat twists. Whatever you choose, ensure it is tightly packed. Deep fry the parcels in hot ghee and once the gujiya begins to float on top, the temperature should have reached 300 F. Take the golden-brown pockets out and make four small incisions using a toothpick in each gujiya. Float them in the same sugar syrup recipe mentioned above. Soak for two minutes and then take them out. Dust it with dried rose petals or chopped nuts while still warm and allow it cool before you eat them.

Kaju Katli
Kaju Katli | Photo by Heena Punwani

Kaju Katli

Glistening edible silver-coated diamonds, kaju katli is the Indian equivalent of marzipan in taste, but it shines like a disco ball. It literally translates to cashew bars, and in different parts of India, it can be grainy or smooth and flavored with saffron or nuts. The same recipe can be used with powdered pistachios or almonds. 
Start by soaking 1000 grams of cashew nuts in 2 liters of water. Broken cashews work better than whole pieces for this recipe but swapping with cashew flour is a big no-no. You’ll notice how the nuts swell as they absorb moisture. After two hours, drain and blend into a smooth paste. You may not need to add any water while blending because the cashews will release their own fat and absorbed water. Once the paste is ready, add 800 grams of sugar and keep it aside for 30 minutes. This allows the sugar to dissolve into the cashew paste thoroughly. Stir once and transfer into a deep-bottomed pan. 
Over low heat, keep stirring this paste, as if making a choux pastry. Cook it for about 20-25 minutes until the mass begins leaving the sides of the pan. If you take a spoonful out of the pan, you should be able to roll it into a ball since the mixture is homogenized. Now using a manual spatula or a standing mixer (paddle attachment) continue stirring it down to 122 F. This should take about five minutes. Transfer the paste into a sheet pan and spread it thinly (approximately 1cm thick). Sprinkle with cardamom powder to garnish and finish with edible silver or gold sheets. Cut it into diamond squares. The bars can be stored at room temperature for 15 days.

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Sonal Ved is a Thrillist contributor.