It’s sweet, popular and has inspired many a variant, each cloyingly addictive. But how did the unassuming boondi ka ladoo come to be associated with Republic Day?
A few years ago, when Chef Vikas Seth, Culinary Director, HopsHaus, designed the Motichur-Kala Jamun Tart as an ode to the spirit of new India for a Republic Day special brunch, the idea wasn’t to replicate the tricolour-styled food that is the norm during the day, but to create a sweet bite that defines India in taste. The tart, which turned out to be one of the fastest-selling desserts of the day, was admired not just for its cleverness in bringing together some popular creations in one snackable bite, but also for the nostalgia it evoked. For most diners, recalls Chef Seth, “it reminded them of the days when one of the high points of Republic Day was boondi ke ladoo. A treat that seemed to take on a new meaning and taste. Such was the commonness of the ladoo that soon boondi ladoo — and in many places motichur ladoo — became the obvious association with the day.”
Since then, the tart has been a constant for every Republic Day celebration, even for Chef Seth, who would recall having the ladoo “not so much as part of the after-march past treat but during the day as most sweetmeat makers in their lane would make a fresh batch of ladoo in ghee.”
Incidentally, the culinary evangelist is not the only one who grew up associating boondi ke ladoo with Republic Day. Ministry of Beer owner Sandeep Singh too finds the relation rather balmy. “Why boondi ke ladoo became the ultimate connection with Republic Day is hard to fathom. Was it the reward for waking up early in the morning, just a tradition that dates to many moons ago or the economics? I think the truth is the taste. Of all the days, it was somehow on Republic Day that the ladoo would not only taste good, but also had this amazing satiating quality that could cheer you up in an instant — and make all the hard work and rising unusually early worth the trouble.”
It is perhaps nostalgia at work that it is tradition for Singh to begin his Republic Day celebration with boondi ke ladoo, boxes of which are given to his staff. The treat is also part of the special menu presented to guests for “old time’s sake.” Curiously, it is a ritual that many including Chef Pradeep Tejwani — who finds the tradition a “sweet carry forward” — have followed without overthinking it.
But was tradition at work when hotelier Haji Zahooruddin distributed sweets bought from the shop of Haji Kallan, which were supposed to be the most delicious? Or when the halwais of Ghantewala, the now closed 225-year-old sweet shop of Old Delhi, celebrated the day by distributing special desi ghee wale boondi ke ladoo to passers-by and patrons alike?
While the choice of the ladoo by both Haji Kallan and Ghantewala, a trendsetter back in the day, seemed obvious given its popularity across the board to rejoice the advent of such an iconic day in 1950; the real reason as to why it was only boondi ke ladoo among the paraphernalia of other sweets — there are mentions of halwa and alu-puri being distributed in gurudwaras and other places — has its answer in history.
Throughout food history, says Chef Tejwani, “sweets have played a crucial role, not only as an integral part of a balanced meal but also as the finest way to translate emotion, especially that of happiness and festive food. And leading that pack have been ladoos which took over the mantle of being the perfect bite that could do much more than make one happy.”
Even before halwa became the preferred antidote for the medieval period, much of that responsibility for well-being was shouldered by ladoos (and kheer) that were not only clever compositions but could be portioned for effective healing as well. Adds Chef Seth, “ladoos till date remain one of the finest examples of not just our culinary ingenuity but also our expertise in wellness. Indian medicine’s famous surgeon Susruta the Elder used ladoos, then a delicious mix of sesame seeds, honey and medicinal herbs, as an antibiotic pill to cure surgical patients. Take, for instance, the size of ladoos. Each of the ladoo variations aside from being seasonal in nature had a size that had proven to be beneficial in that quantity. It is the reason why til ladoos are smaller, while rajgira ke ladoo given their lightness are bigger globes of deliciousness.”
Often administered to royalty and commoners alike, the ladoo’s transformation from antidote to celebratory treat as per Abhilashitartha Chintamani was during Chola rule when Narayl Nakru (coconut ladoos) were given to soldiers as a symbol of good luck before they went to war. In fact, given that most wars were fought during the cold, says Chef Akshraj Jodha, Executive Chef, ITC Grand Bharat, “special power-packed ladoos were created for warriors and soldiers that could keep them warm and energetic.” It was a process that was followed by the Mughals as well where ladoos were loaded with figs, dates, seeds like magaz, and dried fruits like cashews and almonds and were equivalent to a complete meal in terms of the sheer quantum of energy that they could supply.”
Fascinatingly, the debut of boondi ka ladoo, which later inspired creations like motichur and mihidana in Bengal, given its combination of satiating gram flour, sugar and dry fruits, was as a celebratory treat. As per mythology, boondi ke ladoo were part of the sweets distributed in Ayodhya on Lord Ram’s return after 14 years of exile. However, in reality, the sweet’s existence as a treat can be traced back to the early years of the Delhi Sultanate, given that thanks to their balmy taste and ability to take on sweetness the ladoos were a part of feasts and wedding rituals.
Given that besan was not that expensive an ingredient back in the day, and ghee, for a pastoral community, was available in abundance, boondi ke ladoo was not only an inexpensive treat but one that could be made in bulk with visibly less effort. In fact, in every wedding in the North of India, fist-sized boondi ladoos were part of the gifts that a bride would bring from home — and were often the ‘meetha’ that was offered to guests coming to meet the newly-weds.
Boondi’s filling nature, says nutritional therapist Shveta Bhassin, is one of the primary reasons this varietal gained so much popularity, especially among children. Rightly fortified with dry fruits or even seeds, this round-the-year treat proved to be exactly the dose of goodness that did more than just take care of sweet cravings.
In addition to that, Bhassin continues, “the likeability for the ladoo also stems from the fact that it is easy on the palate, can adapt easily to newer additions — the reason that one finds the simple as well as gourmet version of the ladoo that is stuffed to the tip with interesting ingredients and flavours — and is made through the year unlike its peer, the besan ka ladoo that worked well only in a certain season.”
Understandably then, boondi ke ladoo not only became a pan-India phenomena but also the sweet treat to turn to when it came to celebrations. However, its association with Republic Day, says Chef Tejwani, “has more to do with a later timeline that begins post the first war of Independence.”
Using sweets as a mode to communicate was a tactic that was very old and was used effectively by many kings including Maharaj Shivaji, but its real impact was felt by the British between 1900 and 1930, when revolutionaries used these sweet globes of deliciousness not just as their power meals but also to send encrypted messages to one another. Ladoos, especially boondi ladoos, were nicknamed bombs and often used to send coded messages, especially regarding the delivery of ammunition, laying out of traps, asking for money, stating the position in a map and more. When not playing coders, ladoos were also used to propagate the cause of nationalism and a free country. Thaggu ke Ladoo were created by Ram Avtar Pandey as a protest to the British mills for scamming people. The halwais of Varanasi created a series of sweets including the Jawahar Ladoo, a large bonbon speckled with colourful bits of dried fruits and nuts, to popularise the leaders and their common dream of having a free, unified country. The sweets used were often high on popularity and could be afforded with ease, and that’s when, says Chef Tejwani, “boondi ka ladoo rose as a common favourite.”
And given that, say the chefs, “every region had its own version of the popular ladoo, prepared fascinatingly the same way with a local addition of a few ingredients, boondi ka ladoo became the symbol of a popular choice of unified India — or a sweet personification of the Republic.”