Sunday, December 21, 2008

soan papdi / patisa

The formal education system of the Western world, the United States in particular, unjustly neglects to pay much attention to the rich culture and history of India besides giving a cursory nod to Gandhi and the Indian Independence movement and that's only because a movie was made about the period. Now that I mention it, almost everything I "learned" about the history of other countries throughout my time in the American primary education system had some sort of movie tie in. There was "Gandhi" for India, "The Last Emperor" for China, "Nicholas and Alexandra" for Russia, and "Excalibur" because the fictional account of British history is somehow more relevant than the actual history (of which we learned naught). If I remember correctly, think we might have even watched "Braveheart" because everyone knows that it's an accurate portrayal of Scottish history.

soan papdi box

Anyway, back to India, the seventh largest country in terms of land mass yet the second most populous country in the world with over one billion people. A smattering of Indian cuisine has been assimilated by the Western world with curry crossing culinary borders into all sorts of foods, Mulligatawny soup appearing on both menus and sitcoms, and naan bread gracing the shelves of the local supermarket. But, in a place with over a billion people and more than a thousand languages (29 of which have at least a million native speakers each), there's bound to be more that we're missing out on.

One class of foods that haven't quite made the mass exodus are sweets and confections. Now, I love curries and could easily eat traditional Indian meals daily but I'm not a fan of desserts hailing from any of the world's many nations. However, given that I've enjoyed all of my Indian food experiences, I gladly accepted my friend and colleague's offer to try some of his cherished sweet: patisa (aka soan papdi, sohan papdi, or sohan halva).

soan papdi close

The ingredients in this confection are sugar, gram flour, sugar, flour, sugar, ghee, sugar, milk, sugar, and cardamom. First a quick explanation of some of the ingredients foreign to the Western world: Gram flour is a flour made from chickpeas/garbanzo beans. Think dehydrated hummus without the tahini (sesame seed paste). Ghee is a clarified butter and is a very important ingredient in Indian cultures. It is used for culinary, medicinal, spiritual, and even cosmetic purposes. Rather than attempt, and subsequently fail, at piecing together a proper explanation of this substance, here's a quote from Wikipedia:

"Ghee is made by simmering unsalted butter in a large pot until all water has boiled off and protein has settled to the bottom. The cooked and clarified butter is then spooned off to avoid disturbing the milk solids on the bottom of the pan. Unlike butter, ghee can be stored for extended periods without refrigeration, provided it is kept in an airtight container to prevent oxidation and remains moisture-free."

The resultant dish is a giant block of dry, flaky, meringue-like confection. It's fairly difficult to pick a segment up when the slightest pressure causes it to crumble. If you are able to manage getting a piece in your mouth you will find this strange substance instantaneously melts upon reaching its destination. Despite the apparent dryness during handling, the fats and oils from the ghee come to the forefront when mixed with your saliva producing a creamy texture and flavor. The initial experience is very pleasant and stimulates that cream-loving beast locked within each of us. However, the situation quickly falls apart for me when the second wave hits.

Sugar. There's so much of it in this dish that I could almost feel my pancreas convulsing uncontrollably and screaming "don't glaze me, bro." Being somewhat sensitive to things high in sugar, I was afraid that I had gone too far given myself insta-diabetes, like the tragic teenage drug-addict who either gets hooked or overdoses during their first curious self-experiment. And like the young addict, I found myself intensely craving the stuff a mere five minutes later. "Just one more try," said the trembling inner voice, "one more little bite won't hurt." Temporarily weakened by the thought of the lovely creamy taste and sensation, I picked a small piece up and popped it into my waiting mouth. Oh creamy bliss, but again there was the second onslaught of sugar and I had to resolve never to eat the stuff again out of fear for my health.

soan papdi top

I also sampled another dish similar to the patisa / soan papdi but this was more milky and needed refrigeration. It inhabited a realm somewhere between ice cream and cottage cheese in appearance and consistency. It also had a very nice flavor but was, again, loaded with an incredible amount of sugar.

For health reasons I'm going to have to stay away from these tasty treats but anyone with a sweet tooth is sure to enjoy them. I will, however, visit one of the many local Indian grocers in the near future and stock up on some other interesting foods so that I can further offend an entire nation by calling their food weird.

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