Sweets have proven to be a food of choice across religions, continents and cultures. Every cuisine in the world sports its own assortment of traditional desserts and confectionary. And every country boasts of a host of indigenous sweet gastronomical delights. Even though, modern living and sophisticated dietary patterns may have brought about a general shift of preference towards west-influenced contemporary treats, nostalgia keeps the bond with traditional and retro desserts alive. And nobody does it better than the Lahoris.
Despite the mushrooming of a gazillion coffee shops and bistros in the city, Lahore still keeps its one foot in the past. The miniature architectural masterpieces that the cupcakes have evolved into may seem to be the ‘in’ thing, the sinful chocolate molten lava cake may be the ideal centerpiece in an after-dinner crash at one of the coffee shops, and the black forest gateau may seem to be the just-right present to take to a housewarming party; yet, Lahore has not been able to do away with the conventional mithais and halwas and they continue to reign supreme as the favoured sugary indulgence.
One thing that I have observed regarding Lahore’s romance with sweets is that the shops that have been selling the signature Lahori delights for ages are still renowned for that one creation that originally fetched them immense fame and fortune. For instance, the legendary ‘Lal Khooh ki Barfi’ remains that one sweet that people continue to throng Mochi Gate for, even though Rafiq Sweet House has a whole sweetmeat range to offer. The silky, creamy, melt-in-the-mouth barfi still has no match in taste and texture and is worth every calorie.
Despite having expanded their product range exponentially, and diversified geographically all over Lahore, most confectioners have retained their original shops at the same ‘androon shehr’ locations, common belief being that that particular place holds a certain fortune value which if disposed of might trigger the downfall of the business. Others have alongside opened additional modern branches in other districts of the city, which has created scope for innovation and adaptation to contemporary preferences. Fazal Sweets with its own version of the barfi has remodeled the original outlet and has upscale store-like branches throughout the city which offer an attractive range of tempting mithai and baked products.
On my every visit to Lahore, my most sought after confectionary is of course, the Naan Khatais from Khalifa Bakers near Mochi Gate. The lush velvety taste of almond-studded crusty khatais is yet to be mimicked successfully by any other baker in the country. The cookies do not look very fancy but not everything has to be pretty to sell. Sometimes the taste alone is enough. The tiny Khalifa Bakery sells hundreds of kilograms of naan khatais every day. The pinnacle of my winter visits to the walled city is the profuse availability of hot comforting, but extremely calorific variety of desi-ghee halwas at all the sweets vendors. My favorite source for these ambrosial delights remains Butt Sweets with its array of gajar, daal and paetha (pumpkin) halwas. These halwas with their very heavy content of khoya and nuts are unparalleled in the desi dessert cadre and I am yet to enjoy a more divine winter treat in my life.
Equally exciting are my summer trips to Lahore, when I find myself wallowing in the guilty pleasures of vibrant orange-coloured pista badaam ice cream from Chaman at Beadon Road. Some evenings, I alternate the indulgence with the creamy decadent kulfi faluda from Old Anarkali. While all humans are somewhat hard-wired to fancy sugary treats, folks in Lahore seem to have a strong genetic penchant for sweets. They do not need a special occasion or festivity to appease their sweet tooth and the sweet course is a significant, rejuvenating component of their regular diet. For instance, all that is needed to perk up an otherwise unexciting work day is a generous helping of fresh jalebi or ras malai, and they are good to go. At the same time, researchers have reckoned that a sweet tooth can also be a learned trait. I consider myself a prime example. My few years in Lahore conditioned me to develop a solid, undeniable love for desi confectionary, and there is no denying the fact that the city’s retro desserts have stood the test of time and there has not been an iota of change in the quality or taste of their offerings. Even as the dining scene in Lahore continues to evolve with new eateries popping up every now and then, the classic desserts will remain an object of immense affection for zinda-dilan-e-Lahore.