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Finding India in a Sweet Corner of Houston!

Originally Published by: NY Times. Reposted

HOUSTON — For one humid week in high summer, Santa’s workshop is a Texas storefront. The holiday is not Christmas; it is Raksha Bandhan, and the gifts in production aren’t toys but a colorful array of sweet mithai, the Indian version of pastries.

 At Raja Sweets here, ornately decorated gift boxes line the shop’s front walls, flown in from India for the occasion, ready to be stuffed with sweets and shipped out again.

Children ponder a delightful choice at Raja Sweets in Houston. CreditMichael Stravato for The New York Times 

In the back, a flour and sugar blend gets squiggled from a pastry bag into hot oil and then dunked in syrup, forming sticky pieces of jalebi; balls of milk called chum chum bathe in a pool of sugar water until saccharine.

Traditionally a Hindu holiday, Raksha Bandhan celebrates the relationship between brothers and sisters, with sisters tying rakhi — small pieces of thread — around their brothers’ wrists and feeding them sweets in exchange for protection. Nowadays, the celebration is more secular, and focused less on the specific roles of brothers and sisters than on honoring the bond between siblings.

Photo

Resham Gahunia, center, works the cash register at Raja Sweets. CreditMichael Stravato for The New York Times 

According to the 2010 census, Houston has one of the largest Indian populations in the United States, and for Raja Sweets, a prominent Indian bakery in town, Raksha Bandhan is among the busiest holidays of the year, just behind Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, and Diwali, the festival of lights.

Raja Sweets makes its treats daily, a practice that sets it apart from most Indian sweet shops. (Fresh mithai has a short shelf life.) Most of the store’s confections start out more or less the same way: by heating up milk, sugar and ghee (clarified butter).

That mixture may then be formed into a ball, fried and soaked in rose water syrup, to create gulab jamun; simmered in a pot with carrots, to make a pudding called gajar ka halwa; or simply laid out to cool into fudgelike candy bars called burfi.

 Joginder Singh Gahunia and his wife, Resham, started the business 30 years ago, after moving their family from Southall, one of London’s main Indian neighborhoods, to the United States in search of a warmer climate.

Hillcroft Avenue in Houston is known as the Mahatma Gandhi District because of its concentration of Indian businesses. CreditMichael Stravato for The New York Times 

“When we started, there were no good Indian sweet shops in Houston,” Ms. Gahunia said. “When we lived in England, there were not only good sweet shops, but also a whole center for Indians.”

Their goal, she said, was to help establish the same kind of nucleus for Indians in Houston, a small group at the time. Mr. Gahunia, who died in 2002, came to be one of the founding fathers of what is known as the Mahatma Gandhi district, the bustling area on Hillcroft Avenue that is home to more than 30 Indian-run businesses, like sari shops, henna salons and jewelers selling gold Ganesh pendants.

Sharan Gahunia, daughter of the owner, preparing a sweets platter at Raja Sweets in Houston.CreditMichael Stravato for The New York Times 

The Gahunias’ daughter, Sharan Gahunia, owns the shop now. Hints of its American setting have sneaked into the sweets themselves: The burfi is topped with a layer of chocolate, a response to younger family members wanting to be fed Godiva truffles on Raksha Bandhan, and there are vegan and gluten-free versions of many traditional treats.

But the rhythmic Bollywood music belting from the speakers, the aunties and uncles gossiping over chai and chum chum and the scent of simmering ghee could almost fool you into thinking that you’re in New Delhi.

“We dedicate 10 hours of each day to making fresh sweets, and each piece is made by hand,” Sharan Gahunia said. “My dad wanted people to eat the same way they would eat in India.”


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