Born of the Humble Besan, the Desi Mysore Pak is an Ode to Sugar
The war zones are laid out, and the camps are split into the crumbly hard side to the right, and the soft melt-in-the-mouth side to the left. Welcome, to the great MYSORE PAK Dessert Battle!
What's A Mysore Pak?
For those unfamiliar with South Indian sweets, the Mysore Pak is a confection, a dessert that's made of gram flour, ghee and sugar. It has two variants.
The traditional method results in a cake, slab or square piece that is porous and hard. Clasp it too tightly in your fingers and it breaks apart. It is fragrant, thanks to the ghee, and the roasted gram flour. Take a bite, and you will feel it crumbling into tiny pieces and melting away. The texture is truly beautiful.
The more recent method results in a soft cake that is half golden and half brown. The moment you sink your teeth in, it melts onto the tongue and into the mouth. If made properly, it leaves hardly any residue in the mouth, allowing you to go for another slice. Wash it down with some coffee, after a bite of some savoury snack, and you're good to go!
India, the Sugar Daddy of the World!
India has a long, and rather wonderful history of sweets. In fact, India is the sugar daddy of the world. Erm...I mean, it was here that sugar was first processed and turned into an industry. The English and Persian words for sugar; candy and kand are derivatives of the Sanskrit word ‘Khanda’.
BUT, my assumption that the Mysore Pak was an ancient Indian sweet crumbled just like the warm, freshly made sweet itself. A little digging reveals that it is a recent invention; as recent as the early 20th century. Here's the universally accepted story of how the Mysore Pak came to be.
The Story of the 'Mysuru Paka'
The year is 1930. George V is the emperor of India. But so far as the state of Mysore is concerned, Krishnaraja Wodeyar is the Maharaja. While Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi embarks on a march in protest of the salt tax, there is feasting in the dining hall of the Maharaja.
The royal chef, Kakasura Mandappa realises in the middle of the feast, as the Maharaja tastes the rice and tamarind gravy, that the dessert section of the Thali is missing.
He rushes to the kitchens to concoct a novel confection.
Using sugar, water, and gram flour fried in clarified butter, the chef experiments, and pours out the thick, golden, viscous concoction onto a flat mould.
Once cooled, he brings a slice of the dessert to the king. The Maharaja immediately accosted the chef, and asked him the name of this novel delicacy. For want of a name, Mandappa said ‘Mysuru Paka!’
But Why 'Mysuru', and Why 'Paka'?
Well, paka means confection in chaste Kannada. In sanskrit, the word means cooking or syrup. 'Khandapaaka' to be exact.
Sugar syrup in Tamil is called 'paagu' and 'paakamu' in Telugu. Since the Mysore Pak is basically thickened sugar syrup mixed with gram flour roasted in ghee, and was born in the Mysore palace, that’s how it got its name, Mysuru Paka!
Now that's a pakka reduction!
India's tryst with sugar is legendary. Ikshu is the common word for sugar, and it finds mention in the Rig Veda from over four thousand years ago.
By the time of the Buddhist Sutras, 2,000 years ago, gudha (jaggery/sugar) had lost its exotic nature and was the sweetener of choice in kitchens at home and also in rituals. It is from gudha or gud in Hindi, that sharkara was derived. Chanakya mentions Matsyandikaa – sugar candy. By 7th century AD, in the Harsha Charitra, there is mention of over 12 varieties of sugarcane, and how to produce sugar from it industrially. The industry had fully developed and all products of sugarcane, right from unrefined brown sugar to pure white sugar crystals, were in use!