If you weren’t already aware, Indians love their sweets. Each mithai’s serving is almost always followed by the request for “Ek aur!” (one more). One can always complain against the overloaded calories and carbs or whine about the sugar syrup acting as a mild adhesive between their fingertips, but we all know that the warmth we feel after the first bite is unbeatable.
Each dessert, with its unique taste, appearance and preparation, fights for the position of India’s favourite sweet. Some would vouch for the wholesome Gulab Jamun, some might argue that nothing better than Rossogulla exists, and there will always be a group that will question what can beat a fresh, hot Jalebi. While that may remain a long and hard battle, there is one clear winner for the country’s oldest and the longest-known dessert — the Malpua.
Whoever thought that for a dessert to be rather delicious, it requires layers and layers of complex ingredients and cooking methods never tried the down-to-earth Malpua. This simple pancake soaked in sugar syrup is capable of forcing you to take more cheat days, all while giving you the taste of India. But the next time you chomp down on a Malpua, remember the rich history it holds.
We know of Rig Veda as a collection of Sanskrit hymns, but a more exciting aspect of it is that it is the first text ever to carry the mention of the glorious Malpua. ‘Apupa’ as it was called then, was described as a flat cake made of barley flour, deep-fried in ghee and finally dipped in honey — not far from its current form of an all-purpose flour (maida) pancake, deep-fried in ghee or clarified butter and soaked in sugar syrup. The Rig Veda also says that through food comes the end of ignorance and bondage - around 3500 years later, and nothing has changed.
Popular all over South Asia, mainly in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, Malpua was tweaked here and there over time as new ingredients came to be known, mainly depending on what was available in a particular region. In the 2nd Century BC, Malpua was made with wheat flour, milk and sugar, and also got adventurous with spices like cardamom, ginger and even pepper! Soon in the same century, with a realisation to invert the sweetness, Apupa was stuffed with jaggery instead. These pockets of sugariness came to be known as Pupalike (singular: Pupalika) and are made even today.
Cultural influences have a major role to play when it comes to food. Much of the flavours, stories and emotions behind each dish are dictated by years of history and evolution — Malpua is no different. KT Achaya, a renowned food historian in his book ‘A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food’ mentions that Buddhists used broken rice, and called it ‘kanapuvam’. In Islamic courts, egg and mawa (khoya) were added to the original dish, and today, is simply called ‘Malpua with egg and mawa’. Bangladesh takes it one step further and introduces fruit in the dessert — the batter itself contains mashed bananas. The most interesting combination, much like what fried chicken and waffles are to the West, is Malpua with chicken or mutton curry in Bihar during Holi.
India redefines the meaning of ‘indulgence’ and clearly, began doing so with the Malpua. It’s all things good (for the soul, not so much for your body, but we will make peace with it) — deep-fried, sweet and rich. It may not be what it was thousands of years ago but remains a favourite even now. A widely found and relished dessert that still holds its ground in our food culture and makes its way into festivals in its many forms, the Malpua is a compact yet completely satiating reminder of the India that was.
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