Finding yourself in front of a case of sweets at an Indian restaurant or cafe can be intimidating if you're a first-timer. What are those honey-colored orbs? Those bars that look like fudge? How do you pronounce that word? And that one?
Never fear; Houstonia is here with a crash course on three of our favorite Indian sweets, with one to suit three different types of sweet teeth. We purchased the items seen above at Raja Sweets, though you'll find similar desserts at Bombay Sweets and other cafes in the Little India district.
Burfi is also often seen on menus as barfi or burfee, though they're all pronounced roughly the same way: burr-fee. At its simplest, burfi is just sugar and condensed milk that's cooked until it forms solid bars. The slightly crumbly bars are similar to Middle Eastern halwa. The chocolate version at Raja Sweets tastes a lot like fudge, though it's grainier and lighter in both feel and flavor. Other popular burfi flavors include pistachio, cashew, and coconut. Like fudge, you generally purchase burfi by the pound.
Though it looks like a donut hole, the secret to gulab jamun is that it's made from milk solids that are cooked down, kneaded into dough, deep fried, and then soaked in simple syrup flavored with rose water, cardamom, and occasionally saffron. That's not to say gulab jamun—prounounced "goo-lob jah-moon"—is necessarily gluten-free; the dough is sometimes mixed with a bit of flour to get it to hold, so fair warning. The resulting dessert is chewy, soft, and sugary-sweet.
Raja Sweets claims to have first invented this sweet, which is now very popular in Houston, though chhena as a dessert is quite common back in India. Chhena is a common ingredient in Bengali cuisine, similar to paneer (both are curd cheeses), made from buffalo milk. Chiena Julie has the texture and flavor of sweetened ricotta cheese, topped with a tiny piece of maraschino cherry for a cute finishing flare. Unlike gulab jamun, this is a far less sweet treat and ideal for those who think a cheese course is the ideal dessert.
What are your favorite Indian sweets?