Bombay sweets are the Bomb! After a spicy meal of rice and curry nothing goes down quite as well (except, of course, a bowl of buffalo milk curd slathered in kittul palm treacle). Especially when you are way too stuffed for a serious dessert, munching on a Bombay sweet or two supplies just the right sugar fix to close out the meal.
Sometimes, however, they can be too sweet, so you have to choose just the right place to cop your supply. In Colombo, where Bombay sweet shops pop up around practically every corner, this could present some real problems. You could either eat you way to diabetes, sampling from the many establishments whose glass cases entice you with trays stacked with all manner of the multi-colored treats, or you could take a recommendation from someone who knows, which is what I did. Though I already have my regular sweet spots, I was up for something new so my cousin Sam and I took a trip to the Bombay Sweet Palace in Maradana, where his Muslim friends go to nourish their cavities.
Clean and bright, the place’s glass counters displayed all the sugary treats that get my mouth salivating. My favorite, of course, is gulab jamun, which resembles a donut hole soaked in syrup (similar to Bengali rasagollas). Though they appears flour-based, gulab jamuns are actually made from full cream cow’s milk that is turned into a thick pulp known as mava (khoya). Shaped into golf-ball sized rounds, they are then deep-fried in ghee (clarified butter) and left to marinate in a rose water flavored sugar syrup. Talk about rich—a couple of these is enough to send your cholesterol levels through the ceiling.
In fact, most Bombay sweets are made from the same basic ingredients: milk, ghee, and sugar. Barfee might not be a very appetizing name, but these brownie-sized squares of various hue (sometimes layered with different colors and laced with cashew nuts, almonds or pistachios) crumble in your mouth when you take a bite releasing that sweet goodness that is lighter than your average cookie, but heavier than a meringue. There are so many kinds you just have to experiment and see which ones suit your tastes. I personally prefer the ones with nuts in them.
Then, of course, you have the category known as halwa, which we call muscat in Sri Lanka. I’m not sure about the origin of the name, but I’m sure it’s got something to do with Muscat being the capital of Oman, which, of course, is in the Middle East, where this dessert originates. Personally, I’m not a big fan of muscat because it’s gooey and sticks to your teeth, and while the other sweets have milk, this one seems to be made of pure sugar and food coloring.
The last of the major Bombay sweets, which I believe is another import from the Middle East is jelabee. These spiral rings filled with honey are made from a fermented wheat flour that is deep fried in ghee (of course) and then soaked in a heavy syrup until they become tentacles that squirt pure sweetness in every bite. I know these are popular in Arab countries as well because I’ve seen them from Iraq to Egypt to Lebanon. They are a little too sweet and messy for my liking, however, so I settled on some gulab jamun and an assortment of barfee.
And the verdict? Bombay Sweet Palace is a winner. In fact, it’s joined my list of regular spots because the sweets are tasty and fresh and most importantly not simply pieces of colored icing sugar.
Postscript: [I didn’t even get to try their faluda, a drink made from milk, vermicelli, tapioca and rose-water, but that deserves a post of its own.]