With Diwali festivities lighting up Aotea Square this weekend, we caught up with one of the festival's organisers, Albert-Eden-Roskill board member (and Bollywood dance teacher) Ella Kumar, to taste a selection of traditional Indian sweets and snacks at one of the city's longest-serving purveyors, and to talk about the significance of sweets at Diwali.
The upkeep isn't easy, but the owners of Mithai's newest branch (256 Karangahape Rd) are proud of the work they put in to maintain this heritage building: an old theatre, the tiled floor, relief work and stunning stained glass panels in an unusual curved ceiling lend the place an old-world elegance.
Which is fitting as they do things the time-honoured way in the kitchen here, with all the food made from scratch including the impressively large selection of Indian sweets, a time-consuming and highly-skilled job.
At Diwali, sweets and other snacks are significant in several ways, which is, broadly speaking, a celebration of the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil. Among numerous other rituals during the five days and nights of Diwali, sweets, made at home or bought from mithaiwallas like Mithai, are used as offerings to the gods - especially Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth - and are also given as gifts.
"Sweets, made with expensive ingredients like ghee and nuts, have long been a sign of wealth" explains Kumar. On the night of Amavasya (the new moon), Lakshmi visits every house - hence the cleaning of homes, decorating them with finery, lighting of candles to banish the darkness, leaving open the doors and windows so Lakshmi can enter and receive the offering of sweets.
Diwali is the perfect time to get into the spirit and sample some of the amazing variety of sweets on offer. If you're not sure what to choose, just ask - you may be offered tastings, too. Here are a few sweets from Mithai you might like to start with:
"This is probably the most popular sweet throughout all of India," says Kumar. "It's really tricky to make and when done right you get this beautiful delicate shell and runny liquid inside; if you find it fresh and still hot it will taste even better." A lovely treat as the thin shell cracks and melts on the tongue and the sweet filling trickles out.
These are made from besan flour, which is roasted in ghee so it forms little spheres before being shaped into one bigger sphere. The sweetness of sugar syrup is balanced by the gentle flavour of spices.
"The silver foil is applied to give it visual impact," explains Kumar, "Otherwise it would be quite bland to look at!" Expect a rich, nutty and sweet flavour of cashews mixed with milk, with a smooth, soft texture. GULAB JAMUN Like the other sweets, these are milk based but the overall effect is something like mini donuts soaked in a sweet, spiced syrup. Each bite into the wonderfully soft, moist inside offers up evocative flavours of cardamom and rosewater.
One of Mithai's most popular sweets, they like to describe this as tasting like "a Milky Bar" and I'd agree: there's the caramelised flavour of consensed milk that most of us are familiar with from classic Kiwi home baking. A nice slightly chewy texture; Alison Holst would approve.
FRUIT AND NUT SLICE
Generously packed with dried figs and pistachios, this Mithai original is sweetened naturally with the dried fruit, a healthier option if you're avoiding the white stuff.
Sweets may be vitally important at Diwali, but during the festivities at Aotea Square the focus is on delicious savouries. There's nothing better than snacking on something spicy and salty while watching the sky light up in colour, and here are two of the best:
Samosas - deliciously crisp and soft ghee-enriched pastry encasing a mix of spiced vegetables and cashew nuts - are sliced and served on a plate with different accompaniments, depending on the cook. Mithai's samosa chaat features a chickpea curry, tamarind and yoghurt sauces, crisp bits and fresh chopped coriander.
Pani are deep-fried hollow shells, filled with a little spiced potato, tamarind sauce, crisp bits and fresh herbs. The puri is the thin sauce served on the side and spiked with upwards of five different, warming and invigorating spices and herbs. You spoon this liquid into the shells and devour each filled pani in one expert chomp, releasing a festival of flavours as you go.
How to eat: Malaysian: The author acknowldges inspiration by food writer and blogger William Chen (@wchen) on this topic.