Now synonymous with Holi, the festival of colours, this is the story of how gujiya — the crescent-shaped sweet — warmed into the heart of the celebration, not only in the North but across India, even inspiring several local avatars.
“It is an annual ritual these days,” says Chef Ravi Tokas, co-owner, Parat, as he begins flattening the gooey lentil batter into a disc. A self-confessed gujiya aficionado, especially of the versions that are popular in Uttar Pradesh, the said birthplace of the sweet, Chef Tokas recent work is around the lesser-known Dahi ki Gujiya. Once the mainstay of the festival much like the wheat-based original, this version though laborious has, explains Chef Tokas, “been amongst the most loved and has graced the royal tables as well.” In fact, he continues, “folklore has it that the Awadh Begums were so fond of this softer version of the pastry-based gujiya that often guests, especially visiting aunts were treated with a plateful on arrival, before they could be doused with coloured water.”
A privy of few, what lured Chef Tokas to the variety that bears semblance to the dahi bade at least in the way it is served, is the palate foreplay. “In spite of the fact that the main ingredients in the making are ones that are usually associated with savoury, the way nuts, cardamom and a dash of sweetness are used to create this happy treat is sheer genius,” says Chef Tokas, whose childhood memory about Holi is having these unrestrained supply of a variety of gujiyas — from the Bundelkhandi mawa-jaggery to the more travel-conducive sooji-mawa and chironji one that has been subtly seasoned with cardamom.
Interestingly, Chef Tokas isn’t alone in his admiration for gujiya. Chef Vikas Seth, Culinary Director, Garam Masala, too seems to be rather fond of the crescent-shaped sweet, albeit in his case, it is the Royal House of Patiala popularised Palakari. “It wasn’t just a sweet, but that happy sign that would instantly put you into a celebratory mood. In fact, a week before Holi, sweetmeat shops around Amritsar, especially in the lane I grew up in, would set up this huge kadai where through the day the sweet would be made, bought, and relished.”
Palakari, which Chef Seth insists is the traditional Gujiya, and the making of which he would have watched entranced as a child, is essentially one of the oldest variants popular across Punjab and parts of Haryana. Legend has it that when Mian Dhiyan Singh under Maharaja Ranjit Singh was given the responsibility of looking after the European — primarily British — guests for the Holi celebration, they were welcomed with Palakari, served belly warm. The difference, adds Chef Seth, “between Gujiya or Karanji and Palakari is that the latter is dipped in a simple jaggery (and later sugar) syrup after being deep fried. The halwai would expertly punch a few quick cavities before the palakari was fried and after a few minutes in the fragrant sweet syrup the warm Palakari was served in a leaf bowl to be enjoyed.”
In fact, the tradition of soaking the crescent shape, which takes on the moon shape in parts of Rajasthan, thereby earning the moniker Chandrakala and is part of the Chappan Bhog since medieval times, says Chef Nimish Bhatia of Bespoke Nimisserie, “is a practice that is followed widely across what constituted erstwhile Punjab and Rajasthan primarily because both mawa and wheat are on the sweeter side. Dipping in a warm syrup is all about ensuring that the sweetness is neither too less nor overwhelming. This is the reason why Palakari unlike its Delhi brethren is lighter on the palate and has this unforgettable melt in the mouth quality, which is the benchmark of a good sweet.”
As for the UP or MP versions, continues Chef Bhatia, “those were created to suit not just the arid weather and its feeble produce, especially around the regions of Bundelkhand and Orchha that are credited for creating Gujiya, but also Jainism that dictated much of the eating habits back in the day. In fact, the earlier version of Gujiya, many anthropologists believe, could have been inspired by Anse, which is a deep-fried flat bread with a jaggery filling.”
By the time Holi as we know it today became an annual festival in the temple city of Braj (Vrindavan), especially Ram Raja temple, Gujiya had instated itself as an integral part of the feast thal. In fact, the kitchens of this 16th-century temple even today make four different kinds of Gujiya, the soaked, non-soaked and two more that can be famously touted as gluten free.
Interestingly, when the Delhi Sultanate and later the Mughals adopted Holi as their court festival — on par with Eid — all four made it to their list of sweets. The added bonus in its ready acceptance in the Mughal court can be attributed to its similarity with Qottab, an almond-filled deep-fried Iranian pastry, albeit in this case hailing from the milkman community regions, it was mawa sweetened with jaggery, nuts, seeds and spices.
But is that how Holi’s favourite treat really originated?
There are several accounts to the history of gujiya. While some believe it could be one of the many iterations that the Tajik Sambusa resulted in, others consider Gujiya to be a close kin of baklava given the delicate pastry in either cases and the variety of filling. However, according to Chef Sharad Dewan, co-founder, Gourmet Design Company, “the possibility of Gujiya being a native innovation is plausible.”
Wheat, says Chef Dewan, “was already a familiar ingredient in ancient India. It was widely cultivated and thanks to the migration and trade had travelled to different parts of India, including down South, where given the penchant for fried sweet and savoury dishes it had led to the creation of udumbara, which was a wheat-based envelope filled with a mixture made with wheat powder, ghee, milk, pepper and cardamon, and fried.”
The Parsis’ scrumptious teatime treat, Khajur ni Ghari, he continues, “is said to be inspired by Ghari that is an older iteration of the modern-day Ghughra that in turn was mused by the Bihari Pedakiya, which also has a version that is very similar to the Rajasthani Chandrakala, albeit with the difference of the filling.”
Fascinatingly, it was the simplicity of Gujiya and its ability to take on not only different sweetening styles — eventually the Mughal royal kitchens and later those of the Nawab took to soaking the Gujiyas twice — along with the rising preference to wheat instead of millets, and travel took Gujiya from one place to another inspiring new versions or making it more gourmet with the addition of saffron, varq and a variety of dry fruits.
However, that wasn’t the intent when Holi, which was celebrated in ancient India, around the time of Emperor Harsha, as Holaka. Back then, the festival was more attuned with the changing of the weather and the change in the energies of our body. In the Kushan era, it was believed that the burning of the dung of cows, horses and others not only cleared the atmosphere off negative energy but also removed negative energies that were responsible for turning people lethargic and ill. The second day of colour play was as per the Kama Sutra, a kind of preservation of the being and the balance of the circadian rhythm that enables us to remain happy and active. Known as the Holy of Bonfires back then, the festival of colour then was more of a wellness ritual than a festival organised by the ruling kings. When and how the festival transformed into the colour fest we know today is hard to pin. However, agree the chefs, “their communal aspect developed only after temples made them into a yearly festivity complete with treats.”
Gujiya then, says Chef Seth, “seemed like an obvious choice as it was one of the sweet treats that could be made with ease, or bought too. And since it was pre-portioned much like the ladoos, Gujiya became the perfect parcel to good health as it had the fat, protein, carbs and other nutrients, all necessary to keep one active, happy and fighting fit, especially when the Agni (digestive system) is sluggish.”
That, curiously, adds Chef Dewan, “was only part of Gujiya’s allure. What made it such a favourite and synonymous to Holi was its taste and texture play. The pastry is delicate, almost melt in your mouth, while the filling has just the right amount of palate play and sweetness that allows one to enjoy the crescent-shaped sweet without feeling overwhelmed.”
No wonder that Alam Shah and later Bahadur Shah Zafar too would celebrate Holi by distributing plates of Gujiya, thus associating the crescent-shaped sweet with Holi forever.