Guyana-born food writer Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra has won many awards for her cookbooks and essays on gastronomy. Her latest book, Sugar and Spice, which looks at desserts and sweets from around the world, was recently published.
In this exclusive piece for the T&T Guardian, she speaks about her journey as a writer and shares two Divali sweet recipes from Sugar and Spice. Food is not just sustenance for the body. To me, it is a source of delight on all levels: deciding what to cook, shopping for the ingredients, preparing the dish, eating it—preferably in the company of like-minded people, so that we can talk about the food as we eat it.
And that’s not all. I enjoy thinking about the historical and cultural implications of food, too. Then comes the part I love most: writing about it. That’s how I came to write my first book, Windmills in my Oven. Several years later Warm Bread and Honey Cake (2009) followed. The market for baking books was already overcrowded, but to my astonishment, the book went on to win a major literary award in the UK.
It was then that I knew that my instinct had been right all along: people cannot live on cupcakes and fluffy icing alone. They need substance. The substance I offered them was a large range of ethnic products, including the things we take for granted in the Caribbean, like buss-up-shut, aloo roti and salara coconut roll. Along with the recipes, I gave the reader background information to put the food into context.
All of a sudden, readers in Alaska, Australia, the Philippines and Poland were seeing a new side to baking and enjoying the down-home food we modestly decline to share with the rest of the world. That has become my mission: to bring all the delicious but little-known ethnic specialities out from the shadows and allow more people to be able to appreciate what is on offer around the world.
Happy with the success of Warm Bread and Honey Cake, my publisher offered me a new commission: to write a book about sweets, with the same global outlook that I had previously used. At first I was slightly hesitant, because I didn’t
know if I could fill an entire book. But once I got started, the recipes started rolling off my computer and out of my pots and pans. So much so that I ended up having to make choices.
That book—Sugar and Spice—covers a world of sweet bites, from fudges to brittles, brownies and tiny pastries. Even the lovely toolum from my childhood visits to Trinidad has not been forgotten. Blood will always tell, and what I particularly enjoyed doing were the Indian sweets, from laddus to barfi, gulab jamun, kalakand and more. Many of them took me straight back to my Guyanese childhood, especially festive occasions.
Caribbean people use food as love and almost always make enough to share—especially when it's something sweet. At Eid, our Muslim friends would bring over plates and dishes crowned to the brim with succulent sawine (vermicelli cake), rich and creamy barfi and chunky, cake-like “Muslim” mithai.
At Divali we would take over golden-brown globes of gulab jamun, thin and brittle sticks of “Hindu” mithai, milky peras (pedas) and more. Well-fed and contented, my sister and I would help to roll white cotton wicks for the tiny clay deyas and then fill them with pure ghee. Only the best for Mother Lakshmi. Then we would arrange them on the windowsills, on the verandah and on the stairs. As evening fell, they were lit to bring light and joy into many lives. Happy Divali to you all! Light an extra deya this year, for me and all your brothers and sisters in the diaspora.
The gulab jamuns of my Guyanese childhood were made with full cream powdered milk, but now, Indian women in Guyana and across the world seem to have switched unanimously to skim milk powder, on the grounds that it makes a lighter dish.
125 g skimmed (non-fat) milk powder
70 g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/8 - 1/4 tsp ground cardamom (optional)
60 g cold butter, cubed
approx 160 ml milk (more as needed)
375 g sugar
375 ml water
3/4 tsp lemon juice
Optional: rose water for sprinkling
corn, sunflower or peanut oil for frying (purists may use ghee)
For the dumplings
The technique for the dumplings is like making pastry. Mix the dry ingredients together in a bowl.
Rub in the cold butter well with your fingers until the mixture looks like fine breadcrumbs.
Add the milk and mix well with a wooden spoon or plastic scraper. It will look quite wet and gloopy, but that is how it is meant to be at this stage.
Bring it together as neatly as you can into the centre of the bowl and cover with cling film.
Leave to rest for about 15 minutes while you prepare the syrup.
For the syrup
Put the sugar, water and lemon juice in a saucepan and bring slowly to the boil while stirring to dissolve the sugar.
Allow to simmer without stirring for 5 minutes, then remove from the heat and set aside.
Shape the mixture into 18 neat and smooth balls and set aside. Cracks will open up while frying. If you find it impossible to shape the mixture into crack-free balls, you will need to knead in extra milk, a few drops at a time.
Heat enough oil for deep-frying in a deep pan. The oil should not be too hot, or the dumplings will darken very fast, before the centres cook.
Have a roomy dish standing by. (If the dish is too small, the dumplings will bump into each other and lose their roundness.)
Fry the dumplings in small batches until brown and cooked through, giving them a slight nudge so that they flip over to cook on the other side.
The dumplings will expand exponentially as they cook. You can cook one first to get an idea of the cooking time, size and heat. Break it open to see if it is cooked and has no hard core. If necessary, lower the heat and prolong the cooking time for the rest.
Remove with a slotted spoon and put in the dish. When all have been fried, pour the warm syrup over them. Allow them to absorb as much syrup as they can, turning them over after 30 minutes or so.
Drain them and keep them in an airtight container in the fridge.
Serve them at room temperature in small bowls, about 2-3 per portion. Sprinkle with the optional rose water just before serving.
Besan ke Laddu
A pinch of edible silver leaf makes a lovely decoration, but leave the laddus plain if you prefer.
Makes 10-12 small balls.
• 75 g butter
• 125 g gram/chickpea flour (besan)
• 1/4 tsp ground cardamom
• 100 g icing sugar, sifted
Melt the butter, add the gram flour and fry over medium heat for 10 to 12 minutes, stirring constantly. The flour should darken slightly and the raw and sharp smell you start out with will change to a pleasant, nutty aroma. Don’t skimp on this step, or your laddus will have an undercooked taste instead of the intended nuttiness. The texture will change from lumpy and loose to a fairly smooth, stiffish paste.
Transfer the paste to a mixing bowl and stir in the cardamom. Stir gently for a minute or two to reduce the temperature, then add the icing sugar, mixing well until it is free of lumps. It will be loose and grainy.
Dip a generous soup spoonful (the kind of spoon you eat your soup with, not a serving spoon) and deposit it in one palm. Clench your fist tightly several times, shifting the position of the mixture a few times. You need to compress it really well or it will crack when you try to shape it.
Use both palms to press back and forth into a neat crack-free ball; rolling will make it disintegrate.
Arrange on the buttered plate and decorate with small pieces of silver leaf, if using.
When completely cool, transfer to sweet cases.
Serve at room temperature and keep leftovers in a cool place in an airtight container for a few days.