Entering Pooja’s was like arriving at a South Asian Willy Wonka factory. The counters were lined with mithai, baklawa, samosas, dried lentils, peas, and other snacks.
I recognized the usual suspects from my community in the growing queue of customers — “aunties” in headscarves and elderly “uncles” with walking sticks. More unusually, I overheard two young women say they wanted mithai for a movie they’re working on with Dev Patel in London that’s set in India.
Eventually, I spoke to Imran Salim, who told me his family opened this flagship store in 1986. Since then, they have opened stores in Kingsbury in London, Cardiff, Wales, and most recently East Ham, London.
Prices range from £3-£5, or around $4-$7 for a small box. It’s £5-£7, or around $7-$10 for a medium box, and the large option is priced at £10-£12, or roughly $13-$16.
I was stuck for choice because I usually play it safe and opt for the same three sweets — gulab jamun, Lebanese baklawa, and jalebi — but Imran came to the rescue.
While trying to make my selections, which I’ll outline later, I told Imran in no uncertain terms that I definitely wanted gulab jamun and jalebi, and asked him what the other most popular sweets were.
“It totally depends where you’re coming from because the Indians usually prefer burfi, the Pakistanis usually like gulab jamuns or ladoos,” he told me. “But English people who have never tasted anything before just choose the most colorful ones,” he joked.
He added that once people have tried mithai for the first time, they become more adventurous with their choices and appreciate the taste as well as their appearance.
I chose an assorted box for £12, or around $16, based on Imran’s recommendations. Thankfully I have no food allergies because it’s hard to dodge nuts, wheat, or milk with mithai.
First, I wanted to know how the desserts came to be. According to Deepi Ahluwalia, a columnist at food magazine Life and Thyme, the history of the sweet links back to the Indian subcontinent’s 2,500-year-old relationship with sugar production.
Ahluwalia wrote that it was around 8,000 B.C. when “curious natives of the Indian sub-continent discovered what lay within the husk of the sugarcane reed: a succulent (and chewable) fibrous interior that was tooth-achingly sweet.” Their descendants “boiled the liquid down until it became concentrated, allowed it to cool and solidify, and voila! Molasses-coated sugar crystals were born.”
The raw sugar, “gur or jaggery,” was mixed with the ingredients mentioned above to form the desserts we know and love.
The first sweet I tried was Pooja’s jalebi — a bright orange, deep-fried batter soaked in syrup, making it crispy and juicy at the same time.
Jalebi, not unlike a pretzel in shape, can be enjoyed while fresh and warm, or after it has cooled down. It’s made from fried batter, which is soaked in syrup.
According to Indian TV chef and author Sanjeev Kapoor’s website, the crunchy orange sweet is written about in the cookbook “Kitab-al-Tabeekh” by Muhammad bin Hasan al-Baghdadi, who notes that the dish originates from Persia, where it was called “Zalabia.”
Pooja’s sells a more luxurious option but I kept it simple so I could compare it to the other ones I’ve had, and it held its own. Jalebis are reliably good and can be a great gateway to more adventurous South Asian sweets.
To me, gulab jamuns are the undisputed Beyoncé of the mithai world. They’re a soft spongey cake soaked in syrup and worth every calorie.
The cakey pillows are made from milk solids and deep-fried in butter to achieve its golden or dark-brown hue. Finally, and most importantly, they are drenched in rose water syrup. They can be covered in coconut but mine, a malai jamun, had a creamy filling that was hard to forget.
Chef Sanjeev Kapoor also noted on his website that gulab jamuns have Persian roots. “The dish was inspired from the Arabic dessert- Luqmat al-qaadhi that means ‘The Judge’s Bite’. It came to India through the Mughals, who named it Gulab Jamun in Persian meaning- gul (flower), ab (water), and jamun as in the fruit Black Plum,” he wrote.
You’d be forgiven for not knowing that all these sweets belong to the same mithai family. The variety of burfi — a smooth, milky sweet — knows no bounds but my favorite was the special buffalo milk burfi.
Pooja’s selection of burfi was nothing short of spectacular. My box contained premium burfi, which is entirely white and made from pure milk rather than milk powder, and topped with nuts, Imran told me.
There was chocolate burfi, which had a thin layer of chocolate on top of regular burfi, and there were pistachio and coconut variations, which still have smooth textures, but crunchy nuts and coconut flakes interrupted this.
I had never tried buffalo milk burfi before but I was drawn to its toffee color and, while I’m loyal to gulab jamuns, I had to admit to myself that Pooja’s special buffalo milk burfi stole the show.
I was struck by the beauty of kalakand burfi, which was decorated with edible silver, petals, and nuts. It had a layer of chocolate or rose sandwiched between chunks of burfi, which has a subtle sweetness and buttery texture.
Kalakand burfi consists of two slabs of premium burfi, made from fresh milk rather than milk powder, and its texture is gritty but buttery and melts in your mouth.
The sweetness was more subtle and gave way to the filling in the center. I preferred the rose filling to the chocolate one but they’re both so visually appealing that they would enhance a mithai spread.
Patisa is a particularly unique choice due to its crumbly, crispy texture that resembles pastry. It has a syrup infusion with nutty tones and has an added stamp of approval because it’s my Pakistani mother’s favorite.
Unlike anything else I tried, patisa, my mom’s favorite mithai, is a stretched and flaky roll that Imran described as a gram flour biscuit. Due to its crispy texture, I’d liken it to a pastry with all the sweetness of baklava.
While tucking in, I video called my mom to tell her I had patisa in my possession and she got upset with me for not saving her some.
I had never tried milk cake as a form of mithai before but it did not disappoint. It was soft and crumbly with flavors of milk and honey.
Pooja’s milk cake ended up being my third-favorite snack of the haul. I didn’t get a chance to ask Imran about the light brown treat because it was hidden at the bottom of my box but according to Anupama Paliwal’s October 14 post on the Indian food blog, “My Ginger Garlic Kitchen,” it’s called Alwar Ka Mawa in India.
The blog post adds that it’s made from reduced milk, and cooked with an acid such as lemon juice, sugar, and ghee — a clarified butter popular in South Asian recipes.
By the time I had sampled the milk cake, I was visibly shaking from sugar overload. While all the mithai proved to be a great afternoon treat with my cup of tea, the gift of hindsight has led me to believe that trying all of them in one sitting was not the best idea, and I’m sure my dentist would agree.