Indian treats tend to be intense flavor bombs reserved for special occasions. Gokul pithe, a plump Bengali fritter made for the Hindi festival day of Poush Sankranti (also known as Makar Sankranti) is one of the sweetest.
A Brief History
India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have a long tradition of festival day sweets. Gokul pithe are named for the Indian deity Lord Krishna and are a West Bengali variation on the pithe, a type of dessert made throughout South Asia. They seem to date back to medieval times, according to the legend of Dhanapati and Khullana, a bride who wins over her new groom’s family with a feast crowned with gokul pithe.
Modern Bengalis may remember their grandmothers making gokul pithe, but they are a rare treat. They sometimes make an appearance at Sankranti, a festival held annually in January that celebrates the solar cycle and abundance. It is an ancient festival with many traditions, one of which is sharing sweet treats such as gokul pithe with family and friends.
How to Make Gokul Pithe
Making this traditional sweet from scratch can be very time-consuming, but it may be the only way to taste gokul pithe — they are not commercially available outside the night markets and food stalls of festival celebrations.
As for ingredients, there are a few items that can be found in the Indian cooking section of a large grocery store, or a specialty shop, or even online. Some of these component ingredients can also be made from scratch using more readily found products. For example, khoya (also known as mawa) can be made from milk, powdered milk and butter).
This traditional recipe is fairly straightforward.
- 200g grated coconut
- 450g khoya (a dairy product that can also be made from scratch)/ powdered milk is a plausible substitution – the sticky consistency version is best for gokul pithe
- 2 1/2 cup sugar or date palm jaggery ( a less refined and healthier sugar product similar to brown sugar)
- 150g all purpose or rice flour
- 5-6 cups water
- 40g ghee (clarified butter)
- 1/8 tsp sodium bicarbonate
- Make a sugar syrup by heating 2 cups sugar with 4 cups of water. Set aside.
- Fry the coconut, khoya and 2 tbsp of sugar together in a pan over medium flame, stirring continuously.
- Roll the mixture into balls and then flatten slightly between the palms. The finished fritter should be a rounded disk 2-3 inches across.
- Make a batter with the flour, remaining water, sodium bicarbonate and a bit of ghee.
- Heat the ghee for frying (oil also works) and coat the coconut milk balls in the prepared batter.
- Fry until golden and serve in the warm sugar syrup.
- A garnish isn’t really necessary but dusting the fritters with a bit of desiccated coconut is a nice touch
Most types of pithe, gokul pithe included, should be eaten warm soon after they are made. Delicate and saturated with sugar syrup (though some people prefer them plain), these festive fritters don’t really keep after the first day.
Pithe (or pitha) are a category of sweet dessert made all across South Asia. There are many many regional variations, from the rice flour and sesame pancakes of the north Indian province of Assam to empanada-like bundles of coconut and date molasses popular in Bengal and Bangladesh. Generally they are whipped up to order in tent kitchens at holiday fairs and street markets.
The profusion of shapes, sizes and textures in South Asian sweets is truly dizzying. Featuring concentrated sweetness, gokul pithe is not an everyday dessert, but a special occasion treat for celebrating with friends and family.