I’ve had too much cake, says nobody ever.
I look up the term ‘cake’ in the dictionary. It showed two meanings for the noun form of the word.
1. An item of soft sweet food made from a mixture of flour, fat, eggs, sugar, and other ingredients, baked and sometimes iced or decorated
2. An item of savory food formed into a flat, round shape, typically baked or fried
Well, from what I know and have experienced, today, we have expanded this definition so, so much that the four basic ingredients may or may not be there at all. The all purpose flour, or what we generally call as maida (and what a lot of countries mostly call as – flour) is replaced with various types of other flours like whole wheat flour, ragi flour, almond flour, etc. There are so many different types of fat used. Cakes are increasingly becoming eggless, vegan, gluten-free and so on. And sugar is sometimes replaced by honey, by jaggery, by agave syrups, maple syrups, etc. But in essence, the basic recipe still remains the same. I think. I am a better expert at polishing cakes off their plates than I am at making them. The former gives me a lot more joy, you see. Cake is bae.
But before the West gave us those pretty to look at creamy cakes in different flavors and it carved out a place for itself by gradually replacing traditional Indian mithai at Raksha bandhans, sangeets, birthdays, god bharais, weddings, and even Ganpati Pandals and Janmashtami parnas, there were desi Indian cakes that everyone loved. Still loves, I would like to think so. They are close to my heart, for sure. I love cakes, all cakes, Indian or not. I am impartial that ways, you see.
India is a country of diversity, and the cuisine here changes every 50 km, maybe even less. Every corner of India has its own delicious, gooey, airy, cheesy, boozy variants of cakes. All you need is to look around. They could be teamed, they could be baked in clay ovens, they could be made with seasonal produce, and a lot of families have their own heirloom recipes for them.
Here are some of them I could think of –
Mawa cakes are a Parsi specialty. They are milky and rich. Made using khoya – or reduced full-fat milk, mawa cakes are perfect tea-time accompaniment. For me, they are an all-time-of-the-day cake. The best ones are got from Irani cafes and Parsi bakeries in Mumbai and at Kayani Bakery in Pune.
A visit to Goa is incomplete without sipping the King’s beer, a slice of the traditional Bolo Sans Rival cake, and a big slice of Bebinca topped with a generous scoop of vanilla. And drizzle a generous amount of chocolate syrup on it too, please. A lot of Goan confectionary is actually Portuguese legacy going back to the colonial times. Bebinca is one such legacy cake made with coconut oil, ghee rice flour sooji, jaggery, and coconut milk, replacing the traditional Portuguese staples like milk, butter, and flour. Bebinca is a multi-layered cake, and it is baked one layer at a time. It is traditionally baked in clay ovens, which gives it a very distinct flavor. If you haven’t tried it yet, trust me you are missing out on a lot.
Bolo Sans Rival
Another Portuguese legacy recipe from Goa, and its all Indian in heart and soul. Made using flour, sugar, eggs, the original Portuguese recipe called for use of a lot of almonds. However, the recipe has become fully desi now, and the almonds have been replaced with cashew which grow abundantly in the region. For a tribute or maybe nostalgia or just to indicate the history of the cake, almonds are placed on top of the cake as a garnish, while rest is all cashew. Making this cake is an art, and it is a dying art now. If you haven’t savored a delicious Bolo Sans Rival yet, please do, before the recipe becomes endangered. Gives you a reason to make that long due Goa trip after all, doesn’t it?
My mouth is already watering just thinking about Chenna Poda. That’s how delicious it is. It is basically fresh paneer mixed with semolina, sugar and some cardamom, then wrapped in Sal leaves and baked for hours. At the end of the baking, you get a dense, moist cake with a beautiful caramelized crust. That, my friends, is Chenna Poda. The literal meaning of the term ‘Chenna Poda’ is burnt cheese. But beware, you’ll find a lot of fake chenna podas in the market too. How to identify a fake, you ask? Well, a real chenna poda will have lines on it that are formed because of wrapping and baking in the sal leaves. A fake chenna poda will not have that.
A friend of mine once told me, you can identify a true Mangalorean by asking him about Mandas his mom used to make. If he goes all nostalgic and emotional, that’s a true Mangalorean. I feel that’s quite a stereotype. I’ve never asked anyone this question to identify how truly they associate with their roots either. Its rude. But yes, people do have special relationships with Mandas, the ‘hamesha, hamesha, hamesha’ wala relationship. At least until the doctor decides to play the khadoos babuji making these two lovers – people and mandas, break up. Manda is one of most Mangalore’s most traditional dishes, typically coming from the Saraswat community. Each family has its own special recipe of mandas, recipes that get passed down the generations from mother to daughter. People add different fruits to it as per their preference, but the most commonly added ingredient is cucumber. Its a cake, but it has the consistency of a pudding. It is dense since it does not use a leavening agent. It is not meant to be fluffy, so please don’t add yeast. Made with rice flour, cucumber (or another fruit of your, grated coconut, and ghee. It is cooked on slow fire, and makes for a great tea-time snack.
Kochi Sooji Cake
Kochi has a fast-diminishing Jewish community. This community has its own amazing cuisine full of delicious food. A lot of it has been influenced by local produce and local cuisines, creating a flavorful blend of tastes. The Kochi Sooji cake is one such magical Jewish Indian delicacy. No celebration of Rosh Hosannah or the Jewish New Year is complete without this awesome cake. Made using sooji, sugar, ghee, eggs, cashews, raisins cinnamons, cloves, and nutmeg, the Kochi Sooji Cake is definitely worth a try if you haven’t had it before. And while you’re there, maybe visit the synagogue too to know more about this community.
Visit the Malabar region, and you’ll find cakes baked in covered pans a huge favorite among the locals. Be it the Thari Pola (a Malabari semolina cake), Kadalakka Pola (Chickpea dal cake), Mutta Pola (cardamom-rich eggy cake with a hint of turmeric), or Kai Pola (Malabari banana bread/cake), Polas are a delight to have. Pick up any of these Polas with a glass of hot coffee, and you got yourself a hearty snack right there!
This is a classic layered crepe-like cake. Simply put, it is a layer of chapati after chapati, each one immersed in egg-milk-cardamom batter. It has nuts, raisins, and the typical ingredient – roasted poppy seeds on top. You have the chattipathiri once, and you won’t look at crepe cakes or chapatis the same way ever again.
This one is definitely close to my heart. It is a world-renowned Gujarati tea-time cake, after all! And the best handvos are made on open chulhas, with the pan containing the batter placed on the open chulha fire, and a mud-plate (called Kaladi locally in Gujarat) of sand placed on top of the pan as a lid. However, not every one has, or knows to operate, or has the patience of working a chulha. Due to this handvo cookers are available in the market, which look like ring-shaped cake molds. Made using lentils flour, rice flour, and vegetables of choice – mostly fenugreek leaves, onions, carrots, or bottle guard, sometimes even corn, Handvo has a typical dark crust on all sides, and the side and bottom crusts are my favorite portions of a Handvo. The top crust is thicker, has contains black and white sesame seeds from the tempering that was poured on top the batter.
No this is not that spongy milky sweet cake you get in bakeries. This is a mithai you get from your halwai. Milk cake is a traditional Indian dairy-based cake. The best milk cakes come from Alwar in Rajasthan. It is a popular Indian cake had especially on festivals like Teej and Diwali. It is grainy and caramelized, which gives it a unique flavor and texture. It is low on moisture, and is chewy and sticky. The unique flavor comes from the way it is cooked. To make a milk cake, you need to curdle the milk, and then cook the curd in its whey, which gives it a distinct flavor.
There are many more such Indian cakes from different regions of India. The above list is barely 1% of it. Do you know of any such Indian cakes that are close to your heart? Tell me more about it in the comments.