Varanasi's 'malaiyo' is a heavenly, cloud-like confection fit for the gods. It is also known as nimish, malai makhan and daulat-ki-chaat in places such as Kanpur, Lucknow and Delhi, where it is also made and sold. Those who have savoured the sweet describe it as "eating a cloud".
ABOUT A FORTNIGHT after Diwali, the ghats of Varanasi play host to the festival known as Dev Deepawali. Priests perform the famed Ganga Aarti on the banks of the river, and the tiny flames of hundreds of diyas dot the stairs that lead down to the water. The lore is that Dev Deepawali is celebrated because this is the day the gods descend from the heavens and into the Ganga for a ceremonial bath. Houses in the city are decked with strings of lights; firecrackers expel their coloured plumes high into the night sky.
As much as Dev Deepawali in Varanasi is synonymous with the pomp and splendour of these myriad lights, the festival also signals that it’s time for another of the city’s magical staples: the malaiyo.
The malaiyo is known by other names in parts of North India: nimish, malai makhan, daulat-ki-chaat etc. Under these names, the sweet milk-based confection may have distinctive ingredients like the addition of rose water, silver warq, or in some cases mawa. But in Varanasi, the malaiyo plays by the old school rules, sticking to a century-old tradition.
Firstly, the malaiyo is available only during the winter months; typically from November to February. Secondly, authentic malaiyo can only be had up to 11 am on the day it is made. Any later, and the fragile foam that it is made up of, disintegrates. While some vendors use trans fats and other additives to ensure the malaiyo retains its airiness throughout the day, the true epicure will tell you that this is no way to treat the delicacy.
The process of making malaiyo sounds like something out of a book of spells: the kinds that call for the tears of a unicorn and the wing-dust of a butterfly to come up with some magical potion/charm. No, unicorns and butterflies may be left in peace, but the making of malaiyo does call for the morning dew.
Milk is boiled with saffron and cardamom in an iron wok at night, until it reduces to half its quantity. The container is then set out overnight, so the early morning dewdrops will settle on the milk’s surface and cause it to froth. It is then taken indoors, and whisked until it resembles a cloud of the palest yellow.
Step into Varanasi’s Chaukhamba area, and you’ll find vendors in Thatheri Bazar selling malaiyo in small kulhars. The kulhars are smashed to the ground once the malaiyo is consumed. The vendor also gives you a “chaser” of saffron flavoured milk to drink after you’ve finished your sweet.
Savouring malaiyo also sounds like quite the magical experience: its fans describe it as dissolving on the tongue, lighter than foam, or like “eating a cloud”. Maybe it is to sample this heavenly sweet that the gods too feel compelled to descend to earth.