Indian Sweets by Shooz
One of the best things about living in a city as diverse as Vancouver is the availability of great food from all over the world. You don't have to go far to find something delicious, whether it's Mongolian barbecue, Thai curry, or Ethiopian wat. Among this diversity, there's nothing quite like getting a box full of Indian sweets to take home or share with some friends. Many shops in Vancouver offer these tasty treats — rich and flavourful — and the boxes to go with them.
The Punjabi Market
Living in Vancouver, most folk are familiar with Indian food. We've had our share of dal and paneer, and we know whether we prefer plain naan to garlic naan. But when it comes to the sweets, some of us can't tell our kheer from our jalebi! Whether you're a newcomer to the land of Indian desserts or you've been eating them all your life, there's no better place in Vancouver to find them than the Punjabi Market.
Also called Little India, the Punjabi Market centres around Main and 49th, and is a hub of Indo-Canadian culture and business. Here you'll find many shops and grocers offering the fashions and foods of the Indian subcontinent. If you love sweets and pastries, the shops along Main and Fraser aren't to be missed. There are many sweet shops in this neighbourhood, all offering variations on a few common desserts. Each one is different and worth exploring. For some of the best selections in town, there are three places in particular that are worth checking out.
Main Street Sweets
Right by Main and 49th are two full-service restaurants with seriously impressive displays of sweets. One is All India Sweets, which is one of the first things you'll see upon approaching the intersection. It's difficult to find any shop with a selection of Punjabi pastries that rivals the selection available at All India. Practically next door is Himalaya Restaurant Ltd., which boasts an almost equally impressive self-service dessert bar.
All India Sweets
If you're looking for the complete dining experience, All India offers both a buffet and a menu. You can follow your dinner with an order of fresh gulab jamun. The deep-fried, milk-based pastries will arrive warm and bathed in a delicious honey syrup, and they're great for sharing. Many people come just for the sweets. If you're one of them, you can skip dinner and head right for the dessert display at the front of the restaurant. Here you'll find rows upon rows of glistening, colourful delights of different shapes and sizes, all competing for your attention. You pay for your haul by weight, and we recommend you try a bit of everything.The options here are almost overwhelming. There are several varieties of the familiar gulab jamun, ranging from light to dark, some with coconut and some without. The darker shade is caused by the caramelization of sugar added to the batter before frying, and this variety is sometimes called kala jam. When I bring my loaded box to the till to pay, I ask the clerk what his favourite sweet is. Smiling, he leads me back to the display and selects two rather drab looking beige bars. These, he explains, are milk cakes, and while perhaps lacking the visual appeal of moist gulab jamun, their rich taste secures their place in my box from now on.
These milk cakes, called barfi, are made with condensed milk and sugar and come in many varieties. Almonds or pistachios are often added, though they're also delicious plain. Barfi comes in many shapes and colours, often flavoured with saffron, rosewater, cardamom, or fruit. They're also often decorated with what appears to be tin foil. Fear not, though, as this foil is only a sugary decoration and it's wholly edible.
Most Indian sweets are, like barfi, dairy-based. A notable exception is jalebi — a shimmering orange treat created by soaking a deep-fried wheat-flour pretzel in sugar syrup and rosewater. This sticky treat melts in your mouth, and the flavour and texture are unique. It's both crunchy and juicy, and it's truly sweet vegan-friendly dessert.
While All India has an unparalleled selection, there's still much to explore in the Punjabi Market. Just down the road at 50th and Main, Himilaya Restaurant Ltd. offers its own self-serve collection of sweets. When it comes to the sheer quantity of sweets, this place gives All India a run for its money. Either restaurant is worth visiting if only to enjoy the sight of literal piles of desserts.
One sweet offered here that's not found at All India is imarti. Imarti looks almost exactly like jalebi but is formed into a woven disk shape rather than a pretzel, and is prepared using lentil flour rather than wheat. Imarti is usually sweeter even than its cousin jalebi and sometimes comes adorned with almond flakes. These treats are both beautiful and delicious, and will satisfy even the most ravenous sweet tooth. While the selection at All India can't be beat, Himalaya Restaurant is worth visiting just for its jalebi and imarti.
When it comes to selection, All India and Himalaya Restaurant on Main are definitely the heavy-hitters. But just down the road, on Fraser street, there are shops that may be smaller in size but no less serious about serving scrumptious sweets.
Sweets on Fraser Street
A short walk away from Main, 49th and Fraser is another hotspot for Indian sweets. Scattered between 41st and 51st, most of the shops here are quite a bit smaller than All India or Himilaya, but they specialize in sweets and have their own unique selections. One of those shops is the Dhaliwal Sweet Shop, which is just south of 49th. Here you'll find not only some of the tastiest Indian treats around, but some conventional cakes for birthdays and parties.
Dhaliwal Sweet Shop
Walking through the door, the first thing you'll see on the counter are the cakes. But just beyond the cakes, the counter is loaded with some of the most enticing concoctions you're ever likely to see. The dessert bar here is not self-service, so you can either direct the attendant to your desired sweets, or you can relinquish control, embrace the unpredictable, and order an assorted box. It's hard to go wrong in this sea of deep-fried sugar and cardamom. Why not try everything?
What sets Dhaliwal Sweet Shop apart is its laddu. Laddu, which is pictured above, might look like dried out gulab jamun, but it's actually a different type of sweet. Often made from semolina or chickpea flour, laddu has a coarser texture than gulab jamun, but is just as flavourful and rich. Not unlike Western baking, much of the diversity of Indian sweets is achieved through slight variations on common ingredients: flour, milk, sugar, and spices.
Dhaliwal Sweet Shop is also famous for its delicious and cheap samosas. But make sure you leave room for dessert!
By no means does this selection exhaust the Indian sweets available in Vancouver. The Punjabi Market is home to many more shops and restaurants ready to fill you with unique desserts, and there are sweet shops outside this famous district. In India, these sweets are often kept around the house and brought out when company arrives. If you're expecting some guests, the challenge in Vancouver won't be finding the sweets, it'll be holding on to them long enough to share!
If you've tired of ice cream and apple pie, then take a stroll down Fraser or Main and see what new textures and flavours waiting to be found behind the counters of some of the city's great sweet shops.