Counting Desserts


by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

As I put my wildly colicky baby to bed, I would unclench his tiny fists, and hold each finger, one by one, listing names of desserts in Urdu: gulaab jamun, halva, russ malai, jalebi, burfi. Adam was taught names in a garden; I taught my son names that likely came from the Mughal royal kitchens; names of syrupy, milky, cardamom-scented delicacies which suggested an ecstatic mix of cultures (not unlike Urdu itself which I like to think of as a sweet and sometimes sharp concoction of separate sensibilities); for example, “Laddu” has something of the Indic, “Halva” Arabic, “Gulaab Jamun,” Persian, “Zardah,” Turkish; each dessert distinct not only in appearance and taste but the type of occasion it is associated with, and most importantly, in its verbal flavor. Barely audible over my bawling newborn, I gave myself up to the slow, sustained incantation of the dessert menu.

Postnatal sleep-deprivation is a godforsaken place but the fogginess it causes can also bring clarity; the sound of dessert names became a bridge for me to cross over to my own childhood in order to find something to comfort my child. Words offered themselves as the cradle we both needed. As I rocked him and chanted, I conjured every sensory detail I wanted to pass on, each scent and shape. I pictured the delights— rectangular pieces of silvery burfi, halva garnished with blanched almonds, laddu with roasted melon seeds, orange spirals of jalebi.

Everyone has a fantasy kitchen. In mine, I am invisible, sentient, and capable of flight. I do none of the work but I'm deeply involved; hovering over food in all stages of preparation— from the washing of fruits, grating and roasting of nuts, to grinding seeds, working the butter and syrup, kneading, frying, garnishing. I absorb the feast of color, aroma, texture, taste, and the spectacular theatrics of chemistry, of food changing form— raw to paste to crispy or moist, served chilled or piping hot. I note the subtleties, enjoy the life energy of rituals and processes, and of course, write it down.

I imagine Mughal confectioners happily combining indigenous recipes with imported ones, using coconut, semolina, sesame, saffron, rose oil, clarified butter, almonds, pistachios, carrots, gram flour, “khoya” (a ricotta-like substance that instantly elevates flavor) and a hundred other ingredients whose confluence is the stuff of dreams. But food becomes lore because of language, and naming it is an act of historiography. Names belie origins and also spark a sense of mystery. For instance, where does the namepateesa come from? And chum chum?

Urdu became established as a language during the Mughal rule in India— around the same time as the birth of many of the desserts on my list. I am sure these names trace back to a region and a specific culinary tradition. It is not enough to know the taste; a name, a memory must symphonize with it.

Nostalgia is our earliest nourishment. It comes with milk and song. It binds us with ancestors. Did I fall asleep ensconced in my mother's, or grandmother's nostalgia? I am sure I did, and I am sure it stirred up its own rhythm— the same one I recalled when I held my baby and sang him names of sweet things.