These new crop of mithai stores are re-inventing local treats for the 21st century
Caution: Major sugar rush ahead
As the country has moved to rediscover its local traditions, it’s no surprise that after regional Indian food, its mithai that has been given a makeover by young brands in the country’s big urban centres. While some, like the recently opened Bombay Sweet Shop, have been launched by those with experience in other culinary endeavours, others like New Delhi-based Khoya, Berfila and Arq are driven by entrepreneurs and chefs.
Sid Mathur, the current head of food and drink at Impresario and founder of Khoya says about the idea, “It was actually just like we stumbled upon a gap. We realised that mithai had lost its place in our culture and people were almost embarrassed to give mithai now for weddings and they were always resorting to chocolates or cupcakes or you know, whatever it was, and it didn’t sort of make sense to us.” That’s a similar thought that crossed the mind of a lot of the other owners and chefs interviewed. The idea behind Mithai by Roseate, from the Roseate Hotel group as per Dr Ankur Bhatia, Executive Director, Roseate Hotels and Resorts was born out of customer inquiries. “Just before Diwali last year, there was a lot of demand from corporates coming by, saying that, you know, ‘can you do something different and special?”
At Bombay Sweet Shop, it was travelling through Istanbul that made the team realise that as Sameer Seth co-founder and CEO explains, “There were so many little baklava and Turkish delight shops that people would flock into. If someone were to come to India and want to take a gift back, what would they take?” From this starting point, there’s been recipe testing and more to get the final product out in the world. Says chef Ashay Dhopatkar, who co-founded Arq Mithai with fellow pastry chef Neha Lakhani, “As chefs, it was a bit of a challenge for us, because we’d never done Indian food before.” He elaborates, “We went to a lot of mithaiwallas and when you see the back end, the hygiene standards are not up to the mark firstly, and secondly, you know they use a lot of preservatives.” As a result, they have been working to maintain flavours and the memories associated with the mithai we’ve grown up with. They are also modernising recipes and using better quality ingredients while also sometimes trying to lower sweetness levels in today’s health-conscious times. Of the founders interviewed, only Neha Niwas of Berfila, hired traditional halwais and had them work with a consultant chef to innovate recipes like wild rose kalakand, pistachio and walnut cinnamon gujiya.
Says Mathur about the experience at Khoya, which serves treats like date and nut bar , kesar motichoor ladoo and walnut peda, “We went to Chandni Chowk, we spoke to different people over there, different sweet shops in Calcutta. We then understood what is it that makes a difference and what has changed. Then it came down to ingredients and basically the quality.” Mathur has an anecdote about how the chefs he was working with were averse to using high-end ingredients, saying, “I got them a Mother Dairy ghee. It was just off the shelf, but it was expensive. It was like three or four hundred rupees per litre, and they actually refused to use it. They were like, ‘No you can’t use such expensive ghee for mithai.’ I’m like, ‘What are you talking about, try it, what’s going to happen? What’s the worst that could happen?” This change in mindset led to a change in taste of the finished product and that’s when Mathur knew he was on to something. At Arq, their best-selling besan truf e is made with Valrhona chocolate, because as Dhopatkar says, “we don’t compromise on ingredients.”
There are other similarities that discussions with today’s modern-day mithaiwallas bring out. The first was the importance of the right packaging. Arq prides itself on its plastic-free, fully recyclable packaging. Bombay Sweet Shop has worked with its long-time design agency, Please See, to have their identity reflect the brand’s nostalgic draw and its appeal to the memories of customers in the city. At Khoya, there was a desire to have the packaging reflect the quality of the mithai inside by conveying the attention given to taste and presentation. This focus has paid off, as the packaging has now become a key way to bring the brand’s experience to customers, with physical stores being off-limits for some of this past year.
Another factor that was emphasised was the desire to use less sugar, as chefs and owners recognise the trend towards healthier eating. Dr Bhatia explains, “We created healthy versions, with reduced fat content, that aren’t extremely sweet.” They used the French macaron as a model – bite-sized but self-contained as a treat. This is echoed by Mathur and Seth who independently cite how people break off a piece of a traditional mithai because its sometimes too cloyingly sweet to have in one bite. Modernising mithai then is not just about moving to premium ingredients but instead about thinking through the entire experience, with everything from the product to the packaging and the stores working to reacquaint a new generation to mithai.
This year has been a tough one for anyone in the hospitality industry, and unsurprisingly sales have been subdued even as each of the brands mentioned has moved to delivery first models. Says Seth, “We were open [to customers] for all of 10-odd days,” and the pandemic necessitated a pivot almost immediately. Mathur goes on to say that sales in July and August have also been better than they were in the same period last year, and he’s hoping that Diwali will pick up as well. In fact, at Arq, Dhopatkar’s partner Neha Lakhani says, “the number of rokas and family celebrations have gone up, but the order quantity has fallen,” which means more small orders instead of large catering events.
However, everyone interviewed sees this year as a tipping point for what customers expect out of their mithais. The focus on premium ingredients, the familiarity of nostalgic flavour combination and a new transparency when it comes to quality and ingredients that it brings to the sector means that those with a sweet tooth need not worry about adulteration, lots of sweeteners and sticking with only traditional flavours. Instead, expect more of a regional focus as travel is allowed and the steady expansion of the market, even with the speedbumps that 2020 has thrown up. Mathur sees the market expanding over time and is excited to keep pushing to discover new recipes from across the country, while Seth sums it up best, “2020 is definitely, in my mind, becoming the year of mithai in India.”