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Guide to Indian Desserts and Sweets

People in India love desserts, or mithai as they are called in Hindi. While desserts might not be the first thing you think of when you picture Indian food, for most Indians, desserts are an integral part of their cuisine and are eaten daily. Desserts are also often used during religious celebrations and festivals.

Most Indian desserts are very different from western desserts and although they can look a bit strange, Indian desserts are delicious and great to try at least a few times during your trip. Many Indian sweets are made from milk products like yogurt, cream, and butter. Most are sweetened with sugar or syrup and many include nuts.

While Indian sweets may not be healthy, the sheer variety of desserts in the country means that there is something for everyone. Learn more about Indian desserts and the top ones to try below.

Indian desserts and sweets, rasmalai

What are Indian Desserts and Sweets?

Indian sweets are often made from butter, yogurt, and cream and are richer and sweeter than most desserts in the West. Even though Indian sweets are quite different from western sweets, they are just as delicious and there are just as many varieties to choose from.

Traditionally, Indian desserts are made to be shared with family and friends when they come to visit and are often given as gifts. It is common for major holidays like Diwali or Holi to include the sharing or giving of sweets as part of the festival traditions.

But there doesn't need to be a festival going on for everyone to enjoy dessert. Many Indians love to eat dessert after every meal, whether it is breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

If you have a sweet tooth, traditional Indian desserts are guilty pleasures worth discovering. Many are sold in sweet shops or at street food vendors across the country. You'll also find desserts listed on menus at almost all Indian restaurants.

Flavors of Indian Desserts and Sweets

Most Indian desserts taste sweet because they are made from a mixture of dairy and sugar. Some dishes can also be sour in nature because of the presence of tropical fruits such as mangoes and lemons, while others may be savory due to the usage of spices like saffron and cardamom.

Indian desserts come in many textures. Kheer, for example, is very creamy and is a yogurt-based dessert whereas gulab jamun is spongy and sticky as it is made of cake-like bread soaked in syrup. 

Indian Dessert Common Ingredients

Many Indian sweets are made with a combination of flour, sugar, nuts, legumes, and dairy or khoya which is a semi-solid dairy product made by slowly boiling milk until it thickens. Many sweets also include classic Indian spices such as cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon, rose water, or saffron.

Most are either dry or semi-hard and soaked in either milk or sugar syrup. Many desserts are flavored with almonds, pistachios, cashews, and walnuts. Some are also decorated with silver vark.

Ingredients used in sweets vary drastically by region. Some sweets are most popular in the regions where they were invented such as Mysore pak in South India, Kheer in North India, Rasgulla in the east, and modak in the west. 

When you visit an Indian sweet shop, you may find that the desserts look so different from western desserts and that there are so many to choose from that you don't know where to start. 

If that's the case, here are 12 of the most popular Indian sweets to get you started. This list includes desserts from different regions with different textures and flavor profiles to make sure that there is something for everyone. 

1. Gulab Jamun

gulab jamun
 

Possibly the most popular dessert in India, gulab jamuns are soft spongy balls that are made from a flour and milk dough that is fried and then soaked in syrup. This dessert is sometimes called the Indian donut for its spongy and sweet qualities. 

Gulab jamuns taste sweet and sugary and have a creamy texture. They are often served hot and can be topped with vanilla or strawberry ice cream.

The syrup that the gulab jamun is soaked in is deliciously flavored with saffron, rose water, and cardamom. The inclusion of rose water hints at the dish's Persian origins. Today these treats are also popular in Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Nepal. 

2. Kulfi

kulfi
 

Kulfi is a popular cold dessert that is made with reduced milk that is frozen into a popsicle-like shape. Kulfis are often referred to as Indian ice cream and have a rich sweet flavor, perfect for hot sunny days.

These cold treats are topped with saffron, cardamom, pistachios, and almonds and can be found at street food stalls in the summer. The cream used to make the kulfi comes in many flavors including mango, apple, avocado, orange, and strawberry. 

If you love ice cream, you'll no doubt like this tasty treat which is just like its western counterpart except richer and creamier.

3. Jalebi

jalebi
 

Jalebis are deep-fried, spiraled, funnel-cake like treats that are made from either wheat or lentil flour. Once fried they are soaked in a warm syrup that is usually flavored with cardamom and saffron.

Jalebis are popular all across India and are served at street food stalls. They can be served hot or cold and often have a chewy and sticky texture. These are probably the unhealthiest and tastiest of Indian sweets which makes them definitely worth trying.

The combination of textures at play make jalebis an irresistibly balanced dessert.

4. Rasmalai

rasmalai
 

Rasmalai is a juicy and creamy dessert that is often compared to cheesecake without the crust. This dish is particularly famous in West Bengal and consists of creamy dough balls that are made from paneer and condensed milk. The dough balls are then flavored with a syrup, yogurt, saffron, pistachios, and cardamom mixture.

The texture of this dish is creamy and spongy and the light yogurt and dairy flavors make it truly enjoyable. 

5. Halwa

carrot halwa
 

Halwa is a classic Indian dessert, the most popular version of which is gajar ka halwa or carrot halwa. Gajar ka halwa is made by creating a delicious pudding from grated carrot, milk, and sugar. Because it includes carrots that are already naturally sweet, this is one of the healthiest Indian desserts on the list. 

Halwa is often garnished with pistachios, almonds, cashews, and raisins. The melt in your mouth quality of halwa makes it one of the most sought after dishes during major holidays like Diwali and Eid al-Fitr. 

6. Rasgulla

rasgulla
 

Rasgullas are ball-shaped dumplings that are slightly spongy and are made from chhena which is a type of Indian cottage cheese. These spongy balls are often soaked in sugary rose water and burst sweet liquid with every bite.

Rasgullas are from the city of Kolkata and are a much-loved symbol of local identity. You'll find these tasty treats being served at weddings and major religious ceremonies and they are so common that the local airport has a sign that reads "Liquids above 100 ml including rasgulla are not allowed".

A nicely made rasgulla will melt in your mouth and leave you wanting more.

7. Phirni

phrini kheer
 

Phirni or Kheer is a sweet pudding that is common in North India. It is commonly served as a dessert after lunch or dinner and is very popular to eat during Diwali and other major festivals. 

Kheer is made with yogurt that is mixed with ground rice and served chilled. This is a sweet and creamy dessert that is often garnished with nuts, raisins, saffron, or rose petals.

8. Kaju Barfi

kaju barfi
 

Barfi is a renowned Indian sweet that has a fudge-like consistency and gets its name from the Persian word for "snow". This sweet is made from a milk and cashew dough that is mixed with clarified butter and sugar then pressed into diamond shapes. 

Barfi often has a nutty and sweet flavor and is one of the more expensive traditional sweets sold in India. They are often decorated with silver vark and come in many flavors besides the popular "kaju" or cashew version. 

9. Laddoo

laddoo
 

Laddoos are a sphere-shaped sweet that are often eaten during festivals and used as religious offerings. 

These treats are prepared from chickpea flour, ground coconut, or semolina. Milk, sugar, ghee, and dried fruits are some other ingredients used in cooking this dish.

Once the laddoo balls are formed they are sprinkled with pistachios or almonds and spiced with cardamom. The texture varies from soft and moist to or firm and crumbly depending on what they are made of.

10. Peda

peda
 

Peda is a round semi-soft dessert that is made from condensed milk or milk powder. Pedas are often associated with the holy cities of Varanasi and Mathura and are commonly distributed in temples as a religious offering of food.

The most commonly available flavors of pedas are saffron and pistachio. They often vary in color from white to orange depending on their ingredients. These treats are sweet, crumby, and creamy. 

11. Mysore Pak

mysore pak
 

Mysore pak is South India’s most iconic sweet. This soft and delicious treat is thought to have been first created in the Mysore palace sometime in the 19th century. Made only with clarified butter, chickpea flour, and sugar, this dish has a rich and buttery caramel taste.

Because of the use of butter and flour, Mysore pak has a fudge-like consistency. These treats are served in South India during auspicious events like weddings, festivals, or the birth of a child. 

12. Puran Poli

puran poli
 

Puran poli is probably the most ancient dessert on this list with the earliest recipes found in a cookbook dating back to the 14th century. This dessert is famous in Maharastra and is commonly served during the Ganesh festival and other religious events. 

Puran poli is a flatbread that is stuffed with gram flour, sugar, cardamom, nutmeg powder, and lots of clarified butter. This treat is both savory and sweet and makes for a wholesome and rich meal. 

Vegan Dessert Options

Although there are many options for Indian vegan dishes, most Indian desserts and sweets are not vegan because they include dairy products like milk, yogurt, and ghee or clarified butter. Even so, there are a few Indian dessert options out there for vegan travelers.

The first vegan Indian dessert is petha which is made by cooking winter melon in a sugary syrup. This dish is sometimes topped with pistachios, coconut, mango, or saffron.

Another good option is ela ada which is a popular snack in Kerala. This dish is made from grated coconut and jaggery inside a flour dough that is then steamed while wrapped in banana leaves. 

Some other good vegan dessert options include chikki and suzhiyan.

There are also many vegan versions of recipes for typical Indian desserts online if you are looking to make them yourself.

Indian Festival Sweets

No celebration in India is complete without sweets. Sweets are often a centerpiece of religious celebrations in the country and are typically exchanged between friends and family during the celebrations. 

Holi is the most popular Indian festival for visitors because of its beautiful displays of color. While the color fight is the major draw of the festival, the sweets eaten during the holiday make it even better. 

When talking about sweets and Indian holidays, it's impossible not to bring up Diwali. Diwali is the biggest holiday of the year for most Hindus and during this Festival of Lights family and friends exchange sweets on the main day of celebrations. This is one of the times during the year that it is popular for families to handmake their sweets with traditional recipes.

Tips for Trying Indian Sweets

Just like in the West, in India, sweets are usually eaten as the last course of a meal. However, during certain festivals, it is common to only start eating a meal after having had a bite of dessert as a symbol of celebration.

Indian sweets are relatively cheap and there are a lot of items you can choose from. For vegans and people who are lactose intolerant, it is important to remember that most Indian sweets are made with ghee which is a dairy product.

Many desserts are often made with nuts which, an ingredient that can’t always be seen just by looking at the surface. If you are allergic to any nuts, please choose carefully and ask many questions before buying Indian desserts.

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