Once Used As Medicines, Here’s The Fascinating History of India’s Humble ‘Ladoos’

Depending on which part of the country you belong to, a myriad of images will pop up in your mind as soon as you think of ladoos, and as if on cue, your taste buds will begin to drool.

This sphere-shaped sweet delight is primarily made from flour, fat and sugar and is an integral part of our festivals and celebrations. 

Whether it is an engagement, wedding, the birth of a baby or the beginning of a new business, the unofficial national sweet dish is exchanged on every auspicious occasion as an expression of joy.  

But here’s the thing about ladoo, there is no single definite way to prepare it. The ubiquitous sweet is not just infused with love and blessings. Other elements like geography, weather and diets of communities also play a significant role. 

From the motichur ladoo that is originally said to hail from Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, coconut ladoo from down South, the Assamese til ladoo to the famed Maharashtrian dinkache ladoo — each region-specific ladoo has its distinct identity and is laced with history and nostalgia. 

“Ladoos (pronounced as la-roos in Assamese) instantly brings back memories of celebrating Bihu with my family. My grandmothers would make til (black sesame) ladoos, and narikol (coconut) ladoos, which are a family favourite. These were often made using jaggery and the narikol, with the hint of elaichi, is insanely delicious. We would gulp down the ladoos with some hot tea and snacks,” says Angarika Gogoi, my colleague at The Better India. 

Source: Flickr

While ladoos evoke our favourite memories and continue to be an all-time favourite, did you know that in ancient times they were considered as a medicine due to the healing properties of their ingredients? Or that they were considered to be a symbol of good luck?

History

Source: Flickr

It is believed that Indian physician, Susruta, used ladoos as an antiseptic to treat his surgical patients. In the 4th century BC, he used a concoction of ingredients with nutritional properties like sesame seeds, jaggery and peanuts to make ladoos that we today fondly call til ladoo. 

The seeds were coated with pure honey, which is known for its antibacterial properties, while jaggery and sesame seeds are considered to have multiple health advantages in Ayurveda including maintaining blood pressure, indigestion, curing a cold and so on. Even today new mothers and pregnant women are given ladoos in rural areas as a means to boost their immunity. 

Modak Ladoos

“As per the available records, Susruta included herbs, seeds and medicinal edibles into ladoos with a little bit of honey. Even KT Achaya mentions about Susruta in his book,” says Shubhra Chatterji, a culinary researcher and director of the award-winning show, Chak Le India, to The Better India

The book Shubhra is talking about is A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food, where Achaya traces back the ladoo’s importance in various works of regional literature. 

“A sphere of fine globules (moti=pearls) of fried besan held together with thickened sugar syrup. A ladoo would have coarser granules. It is mentioned in Kannada literature of a few centuries ago (Supa sastra of Mangarsa, written in 1516 AD), and as a food item of Bihar about a century ago. The sculpted or painted figure of Ganesha frequently holds in one hand what appears to be balls of motichur, as in the great Lingaraja temple of Bhubaneswar (as recorded by Ayodhya Prasad Shah in the ‘Life in Medieval Orissa’),” he writes.

Source

As per Eastern folklore, when a vaid’s (a practitioner of Ayurvedic medicine) assistant accidentally dropped ghee in a medicinal concoction, he made small roundels to cover up. This mix was used as a medicine. 

There are other accounts that also mention this sweet dish. For instance, one history record shows that men in the Chola Empire would carry ladoos with them during wars as a symbol of good luck. Of course, their long-shelf-life was an added advantage for warriors who  journeys that lasted for months.

Over the years, people from different communities started experimenting with the condiments and replaced them with whatever was readily available in their region. 

Take, for example, the famous Thaggu Ke Ladoo sweet shop in Kanpur that introduced ladoos of the same name, to educate people about the side-effects of sugar consumption in the British Era. In it, sesame seeds were replaced by khoya, suji and gond

Thaggu ke Ladoo shop in Kanpur. Source

The name of the ladoo and shop, which literally translates to cheat’s ladoo, has a fascinating story. Mattha Pandey, its founder, was a staunch supporter of Gandhi, who had denounced sugar as ‘white poison’.

“But people were still consuming it and paying a lot of money for it. Thus, they were being tricked by the British. This put him in a dilemma because he wanted to avoid using sugar but there was no way to prepare these ladoos without it as sugar was very easily available back then and also cheap. Therefore, he decided to call them ‘Thaggu Ke Ladoo’ to hint that the customers were being tricked and warn them about the side-effects of consuming refined sugar,” shares Adarsh Pandey in an interview with NDTV Food.

The weird name definitely drew a lot of attention and later became a famous go-to spot for foodies. In fact, its catchphrase ‘aisa koi saga nahi….jisko thaga nahi’ (there is no relative who we have not cheated) made it to a song in the movie, Bunty Aur Babli.

Lesser-Known Ladoo Variants 

Til (left) and Gond (right) ladoos

While ladoos such as besan, motichoor, nariyal and boondi are common across India and have received undivided attention, it is time to explore some unknown ones who are making a mark in their own way. 

Bandar or Tokkudu ladoo, famous in the coastal town of Machilipatnam in Andhra Pradesh, are gifts from people who migrated from Bundelkhand during India’s first war for Independence in 1857.  They got their own recipe of ladoos, made from besan and jaggery and the locals later whole-heartedly accepted it. In 2017, Bandar ladoos obtained the Geographical Indication (GI) tag

Bandar ladoos. Source: Foodies in Andhra/Facebook

Gond (gum) ladoo is a variant where food interlocks weather. These ladoos are usually consumed during winters in the northern region. In Maharashtra, they go by the name ‘Dinkache ladoo’ (dink in Marathi is edible gum) 

Gond is a type of natural tasteless resin that is extracted from the Babul tree. It is believed to provide heat in the body, can help fight cold and is usually given to new mothers. 

Chocolate ladoos. Source: Tantrums Throwing Tastebuds/Facebook 

Meanwhile, methi ladoo, made from fenugreek, probably sounds like something you want to avoid considering ladoos are supposed to burst with sugar. A mix of fenugreek, black pepper and cumin might have a bitter taste but it is a reservoir of healthy properties. It provides energy and helps in weight loss. 

“Ladoos made from gond, fenugreek, sesame and flaxseeds are very nutritious and easy to make. It is almost like we are keeping the medicinal aspects of ladoos alive by consciously including dietary supplements,” adds Shubhra. 

Another noteworthy mention is the Shahi Ladoo that has its roots in Persia. During the Persian invasion, items like dates, figs and dry fruits made its entry in India. It is made from khoya, sweet petha, and nuts. 

Here’s a recipe for churma ladoo. 

Recipe: Churma Ladoo by Amita Parmar, a homemaker from Mumbai 

Churma Ladoos

Time: 30 minutes 

Ingredients: 

  • Coarse whole wheat flour: 500 grams
  • Ghee: 250 grams
  • Jaggery 300 grams 
  • Oil: 2 tbsp
  • Cardamom, cashewnuts, almonds and nutmeg 

Steps 

  • Mix ghee with flour and make the thick dough.  Make dumplings with your hand
  • Warm the ghee in a container till it gets brown and add the dumplings
  • Fry them for a minute
  • Let the dumplings dry and then grind them in a mixture. This mixture is called ‘churma’ 
  • In a separate bowl grind cardamom, cashewnuts, almonds and nutmeg. 
  • Heat the ghee in a pan on medium flame and add jaggery.
  • Once the jaggery starts melting add churma and nutmeg mix in the pan
  • In the final step, shape it. 

Things to keep in mind: 

  • Avoid overheating the jaggery to get a smooth texture
  • If your final mixture is too dry, then add 2 tbsp warm water 
  • To enhance the taste, Amita recommends adding 2 tbsp of black chickpea flour

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