There can be no talk of Agra without its famous petha, the sugary, syrupy, translucent sweet that is made from the very common pumpkin. Unique to Agra, Petha is made by halwais all over India, especially the northern belt where cooks have experimented with various flavours and textures. Any visitor to the city of the Taj Mahal will not come back without a bundle of this vegetable-based sweetmeat that has quite a fan following. In fact, it is now available in most north Indian cities and towns, but none quite as famous as the ones in Agra, from where it originated.
Halwais in Agra tell us the story of the ‘petha’, which goes back to almost 350 years, during the regime of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. It is said to have first been cooked in the royal kitchens when the Taj Mahal was being built. Popular folklore says that the workers at the monument were bored of the daily meal of dal and roti and were not eating properly. That was a matter of concern for the emperor, who confided in the master architect Ustad Isa Effendi, who in turn asked the Pir Naqshbandi Sahib for help. The Pir is said to have gone into a trance during prayers one day and received the recipe for the ‘petha’ from the Almighty. Around 500 cooks were pressed into service to make the petha for the workers. Since then, it has remained Agra’s most famous export.
Today, there are more than 700 cottage units in the Noori Gate area that manufacture pethas. And the most famous and biggest petha supplier is Panchhi Petha, based in Agra, with branches all over the country. There are several other stores too, but Panchhi, started by a 24-year-old entrepreneur called Seth Pancham Lal Goyal, 70 years ago, remains a favourite. Along with the original dry, plain translucent petha, there are now a variety of pethas available in different flavours like chocolate, coconut, kesar angoori, mango, orange, pineapple, paan, almond and cherry, among others. Then there are variants like Petha Gulab Ladoo, Kancha Petha, Sandwich Petha, Doda Petha.
Now, entrepreneurs have also introduced sugar-free varieties. That’s a long journey for a humble sweet made simply from ash gourd, sugar and water, from the emperor’s kitchen to the diabetic thali!
Recipe for Petha
Made of: Raw petha (pumpkin), sugar, and original flavour cordomin.
- 1 kg White pumpkin (firm)
- 2 tsp Kitchen lime (Calcium hydroxide)
- 1/2 tsp Fitkari (Alum powder)
- 3 drops Kewra (Screwpine essence)
- 800 gm Sugar
- 1 tsp Rose water
- 2 cups water
- Dissolve alum powder in 1/2 cup of water. Keep aside.
- Dissolve kitchen lime in 1 litre water, strain with a clean cloth. Keep aside.
- Wash, peel and deseed the pumpkin. Cut into 1" square pieces and prick the pieces all over with a fork.
- Soak the pieces in lime water for 30 minutes.
- Drain the lime water. Wash the pieces under clean running water.
- Pour alum water on the pieces till they get evenly coated.
- Drain the alum water. In a heavy bottomed pan, boil the pumpkin pieces till they become soft and transparent.
- Prepare sugar syrup of two-thread consistency.
- Put pumpkin pieces in the sugar syrup and boil till syrup becomes thick again.
- Turn off the flame and take out the pieces. Keep just the syrup covered with a mesh, overnight.
- Next day, once again boil the syrup and add the pieces.
- Cook it for 3-4 minutes and turn off the flame. Let the pieces cool.
- Sprinkle kewra and rose water over the pieces and allow petha to cool completely before refrigerating.
Image Courtesy: Shutterstock
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