Unknown to many travellers, South Asia has a whole genre – a large one – of food known as mithai, which literally translates as 'sweets'. Some of them have roots in ancient palace kitchens, or travelled long ago across vast distances in the pouches of princes or armies. Many are the favourites of deities, and sweets are often offered to gods before being distributed during festivals or weddings. But you can also just eat them.

Kolkata's favourite sweets by Dipanker Dutta. Creative Commons Attribution licence

Most sweets have a base of milk, cream or condensed milk, which is combined with various combinations of clarified butter (ghee); sugar or unrefined cane sugar; chickpea flour or semolina wheat; almond, cashew or pistachio; coconut; cardamon; saffron; or any number of other scrumptious things. And because sweets are classy, many are draped with a delicate layer of sterling silver known as varkha.

Every region has its specialties, from Bengal’s fluffy, milky treats to Maharashtra’s mellow jaggery-based ones. But just as people from all over India find their way to Mumbai, so do the sweets, and the city is one of the best places to sample mithai from around the country. Kailash Parbat in Colaba is a traveller’s favourite and is strong in northern-style mithai, while the Tamil Nadu–based chain Sri Krishna Sweets (www.srikrishnasweets.net), with several locations in Mumbai, including at Mathunga’s King’s Circle, is best for southern delicacies. It’s hard to mess up a sweet, but shops tend to excel in their regional specialties so ask what they do best.

You can decipher most sweets by their names, so see our sweets glossary. Below are some of our favourites to get you started:

Rasmalai and rasgulla: sweets from West Bengal and Orissa are known for their sweet milkiness, and these two may be the sweetest and milkiest. The Bengali rasmalai (literally 'juicy cream') consists of round or flat patties of a mild, crumbly farmer’s cheese (chhena) that have been soaked in syrup, then served in cardamom-spiced cream. In rasgulla, the chenna is mixed with semolina and cooked in syrup until spongey.

Laddoo: communities across South Asia do versions of the ball-shaped laddoo. Less over-the-top-sweet than other mithai, they’re generally made from a base of rava or besan, along with ghee and sugar. The best one might be the Tirupathi laddoo, which is a prasad (a deity-blessed food offering) at Andhra Pradesh’s famous Tirumala temple. Its recipe is a strictly guarded secret and you won’t get the real deal in Mumbai, but it contains cashews and raisins in a cardamom-flavoured besan base. The motichoor ka laddoo, originally from Bihar, is made with tiny balls of besan, milk, cardamom, and almonds or pistachio; it’s bright orange and eaten a lot around the Ganesh Chaturthi festival. Besan laddoos are mild and nutty, while coconut laddoos, from the South, are as delish as they sound.

Soan papdi by Abigail Batchelder. Creative Commons Attribution licence

Halva: India’s many regional versions of halva are different from the sesame-based ones of the Middle East. The ones you’ll most often see around Mumbai are made by cooking wheat, sugar and ghee until they become a gelatinous, usually green, chewy substance that’s cut in squares; almonds and cashews are added. Variations, like badam halwa and 'ice-cream halwa', abound.

Jalebi: the supersweet jalebi – crunchy coils of deep-fried flour soaked in syrup – is an ancient sweet with roots in the north. You’ll find it in sweet shops, but it’s also a popular street food in the evening, when it’s served alongside sweet, milky tea. Because, uh, lots of sugar goes well with lots of sugar.

Barfi: OK, the name is awful, but the sweet is great. There are a million variations of it, but the foundation is cream (malai barfi) or condensed milk (mawa barfi) and sugar. Pista barfi is made with pistachio and kaju katli is a barfi made with cashew; they’re usually diamond-shaped and lined with silver (because they may be called barfi but they’re still classy).

Peda: a doughy kind of barfi sometimes referred to as 'Indian fudge'. Although it’s cooked, it has a soft, melt-in-your-mouth texture. Malai peda is simple goodness – a doughball of sweet cream, usually with a pinch of saffron (kesar) or cardamom – while 'special' peda may be filled with almonds and cashews. Dharwad peda is a specialty of Karnataka, and Maharashtra’s special is satari peda, made with semolina and jaggery.

Sweets by Daniel Catt. Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike licence

Mysore pak: legend has it that this extremely simple southern sweet (it’s just besan, ghee and sugar) came from the royal kitchens of Karnataka’s Mysore Palace. In any case, it’s a no-frills way to get a sweet ghee fix after dinner.

Soan papdi: it has the texture of dried grass, melts in your mouth like cotton candy, and is all about the aftertaste – a swirl of pistachio, almond, and cardamon, mellowed with ghee and besan. It’s often eaten during Diwali, but the fact that it’s also sold in packages makes it the most portable of sweets. Bring some home and amaze your friends.

Sweets glossary

  • milk – doodh
  • cream – malai
  • condensed milk – khoya or mawa
  • unrefined cane sugar – jaggery
  • chickpea flour – besan
  • semolina wheat – rava
  • almond – badam
  • cashew – kaju
  • pistachio – pista
  • saffron – kesar
  • silver foil – varkha

We've got much more than sweet treats to get your pulse racing. The 30th anniversary edition of Lonely Planet's India guide book is packed to the brim with festivals, landscapes and architectural wonders.

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