The gujiya isn’t merely a Holi treat but a year-round affair within the charming medieval town of Orchha-known for its fort, cenotaphs and temple, all built by the Chandela Rajputs, who ruled this area within the 16th century.
In the small bazaar that has sprung up around the famous Ram Raja temple here, the gujiya occupies pride of place alongside other milky delights like kalakand, malai laddoo and thick layers of porridge, cooling in trays and sprinkled with almond seed widely used, however, the gujiya ordinary dumpling.
Four kinds contend our attention: in syrup, without syrup, and two, which, within the parlance of the fashionable foodie, we can dub gluten-free”.
These are pure khoya dumplings, fashioned perfectly their crescent but without the wheat cover that gujiyas, you’ll include. Of the delights, one is khoya (milk solids) browned and thus remains soft and milky white. The second has more complex caramelised notes that come from the slow “burning” of milk solids and sugar.
These four gujiyas are, by far, the foremost interesting culinary discovery I make within the settlement that hosted Namaste Orchha, an arts festival in early March and is now set to become a better-known tourism destination.
However, because the remainder of India discovers the sights, smells and tastes of Orchha together with its unique gujiyas, what we must remember is that such culinary diversity remains hidden in every town, village and nook and corner of India.
Fusion sweets like fruit-filled or shudder-worthy chocolate gujiyas are also experiments chefs and foodies are making within the big cities nowadays, but most inventiveness going back centuries lies undiscovered within the heart of India that it’d be foolish to not discover it before we make our half baked experiments.
The gujiya, of course, is one of those sweets that tackle different flavours and even different forms as we go from region to region. Orchha’s unique four kinds aside-and the regular (or bhang laced) ones may be consumed on Holi, there is the ‘Pedakiya’ in Bihar, coconut karanji in Maharashtra and Goa’s variant which is full of khus, almonds, coconut and scented with cardamom. This is often the sweet made-in home on Ganesh Chaturthi and Diwali by the Konkani Saraswat community.
Then, in Rajasthan, you’ve got the Chandra Kala, a sweet not easily available now, where the half-moon of the standard gujiya becomes a full round, encased familiarly in maida, sides knotted, and filled with all the familiar gujiya stuffing-browned khoya, sugar, raisins and seeds like almond and cardamom. The Chandra Kala, similarly to regular gujiyas, are a part of the ‘Chappan-Bhog’ tradition in Vrindavan too, pointing to their medieval origins. In Vrindavan, the Radha Raman temple dates back to 1542 thus making it, one of the oldest in the entire country. Incredibly, the fireplace of the fireplace in its kitchen has never been extinguished and also the daily menu is cooked as an offering to the god.
Krishna and his devotees have virtually remained unchanged for pretty much five centuries.
Dishes and ingredients that were around within the 16th century are still in circulation here. Thus it’s possible to check the cuisine before the Columbian exchange brought in potatoes, tomatoes and chillies to India and adjusted our food.
It is scented with essence, dusted with granulated sugar and cooked as a part of the Navroz (New Year) festivities. Did this influence our gujiya? we will only conjecture.
It is also interesting to notice that another crescent-shaped creation, the Viennese Kipfer, full of nuts, which is thought to be the predecessor of the croissant, may bear a kinship to the sweet. One of the most influential and often repeated stories about the Kipfer is that the crescent shape was created to mark the defeat of the Ottomans by the Europeans during the crusades.
On the sting
As a sweet that possibly originated in Bundelkhand or the Braj region in its present avatar, the khoya has inevitably been the filling of choice for the gujiya. After all, the region is the original “milk belt” of the entire nation known for its milk production. As we go down south, we see coconut replace the milk solids because of the local ingredient of choice.