It's a blur of activity in the kitchen of Al-Karam Sweets in Scarborough, where mithai makers are working up to 14-hour days simmering milk, roasting almonds and clarifying butter. These ingredients – as well as dozens more, such as carrots, dates, coconut, chickpea flour and, of course, sugar – are mixed and matched and combined in a myriad of ways to prepare traditional South Asian sweets that are in high demand this last week of Ramadan.
The days leading up to Eid al-Fitr, the celebration that marks the end of the month of fasting next week, are among the busiest of the year for South Asian sweet makers across the country. Mithais are given as gifts and served for dessert at celebrations by both religious and non-observant Muslims. And because food plays a central role in the festivities, demand for the treats is high.
In a typical week, Al-Karam sells about two dozen different mithais from the shop's glass display counter, using 400 litres of milk to prepare them. This week, however, they expect to turn a whopping 2,000 litres of milk into the delicacies. They will use it to make the popular hubshi halwa, a toffee-like confection studded with almonds, and carrot halwa, gulab jaman and its scrumptious cousin, the dil bahar, which is a gulab jaman stuffed with cream. They'll also make burfis, smooth, creamy morsels flavoured by mango or nuts or simply served plain, showing off the natural sweetness of the star ingredient.
"We have people lining up on the sidewalk and waiting on the curb," said Anum Butt, whose family owns Al-Karam Sweets and whose father is a third-generation mithai maker from Pakistan. "It's such an exciting feel."
Around Eid, they sell 10 times their normal inventory, with some customers walking away with as much as four to five kilograms of treats.
It's the same story across the country. Surrey's Baba Sweets, which is also busy during Hindu festivals, experiences a 30-per-cent rise in business at this time of year, says manager Parminder Kaur. And the Indian Express Food and Sweets in Ottawa is now stocked with two tonnes of mithais in preparation for Eid. "We are selling like crazy," says owner Rakesh Walia, whose client list includes the Prime Minister's Office. "We work day and night for Ramadan."
Mithai making is all about the fine art of reducing milk. If you simmer it, adding sugar and butter, and stirring for hours, the mix can become soft and chewy like a caramel or turn into a thick pudding-like substance. Add the sugar and butter at another point in the cooking process and you can have an entirely different texture: smooth but firm like a dense brownie or fudge. These basic ingredients are flavoured with nuts, spices like cardamom, dried fruit, rose water, pineapple and mango, and then often set in a pan and cut into squares. It's an amazing, not to mention delicious, transformation.
But in Canada, it has been hard to find top-quality sweets, leaving aficionados with too-sweet, greasy and granular simulacra to choose from. Many people either have had to make them at home or rely on family overseas to send a box from England or India; at some South Asian grocers, you can buy imported sweets made by Indian manufacturer Haldiram. While they do keep well enough if wrapped properly, there is nothing as delectable as a fresh mithai.
Over the last decade or so, however, a domestic sweet industry has grown up here, with more and more people producing a better quality product that can even rival their overseas competition. That said, finding a good mithai maker can be tough – a quest that is often embarked upon with uncommon zeal. Once the right sweet shop is found, loyalties can last a long time. Al-Karam has weekly customers who have been coming since it opened in 1998.
What makes a good mithai, versus a bad one, depends on who makes it and what ingredients they use, says Mr. Walia. At the Indian Express in Ottawa, and at Al-Karam, they make their own khoya – also known as mawa – which is a milk product used as a base for many recipes and made by cooking milk until the water evaporates and the milk becomes a thick mass.
This, as well as homemade ghee – clarified butter – is what Mr. Walia says distinguishes his sweets from those of others who take short cuts, and use oil and powdered milk instead of butter and milk. "Oil is not good for sweets," he says. "[But]ghee costs more money."
At his shop, he and his wife use their old family recipes and stir the pots of milk by hand for as long as three hours. At Al-Karam, they have invested in steam-injected kettles, large industrial pots that are typically used in the food industry to make soups. Rather than muscle power and a spoon, these pots have a mechanical arm that stirs the mixture continually as it cooks. The machinery allows them to keep up with demand and produce a consistent product, says Ms. Butt's father, Muhammad Butt.
This week, they will rely on this equipment to produce rainbow burfi to serve along with special items such as the kiran pairey, a sweet ball, or ladoo, made with a wheat puff coloured a festive red and green and rolled in coconut, that people will start to line up for, wearing their fancy clothes on their way to parties and gatherings, before the store even opens on Eid morning.
"It's a crazy atmosphere," said Ms. Butt. "But it's fun!"
Special to the Globe and Mail
Sarah Elton is the author of Locavore and a CBC Radio food columnist.