Why the sugary sweetness of mithai is a social currency in India

The World
A box of Mithai, the sweets that are an ever-present staple of social life in India.
A box of Mithai, the sweets that are an ever-present staple of social life in India.

Deepak Singh

Over the summer, I met a man in India who was sending a box of mithai — Indian sweets — to his son in Dallas. I asked him why he was going to the trouble; his son could easily buy Indian sweets in Texas. “It’s an emotional thing," he told me.

I just got back to the US after spending two months in India visiting family, and I’ve gained a few pounds from eating mithai. 

They're made of sugar and a vast range of ingredients — milk, vegetables, seeds, fruit and many different kinds of flour. Some mithai are cooked, some are baked and some are fried. You can find them everywhere, just like donuts in America. They can be just as sugary, but a thousand times more extravagant in appearance.

But mithai are not just a dessert or a snack. They're a social currency. In India, at any given time, you're probably only six feet away from a box full of sweets. Whether it’s a religious or non-religious occasion, big or small, mithai are essential. Whether it's a friend visiting your home or a plumber fixing your faucet, both of them get a glass of water with a piece of mithai — no questions asked. 

Growing up in India, I’ve offered mithai in Hindu temples to please my favorite gods, hoping to win divine favor for better grades. I have fed street kids mithai for good karma, and I have given government officials mithai to speed delivery of my passport.

This summer in India, I ate what felt like a year’s worth of mithai. So when I boarded my flight in New Delhi to come back to America, I thought I was saying goodbye to mithai for a while. But a few hours after takeoff, the flight attendant served the dinner, and there it was again — a piece of rasgulla soaked in a sugary syrup.

I ate it with mixed emotions.