by David Cecelski
I always look forward to visiting “Little India” when I am in Cary. A recent wave of new immigrants has made Cary the first place in the state where there are enough Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis to support a little business district that caters mainly to them. For me it’s a delight, a way to explore a new cuisine and get a little taste of other cultures that I might not otherwise ever have.
Located on East Chatham Street, just down the road from the Wake Med Soccer Park (which is usually what brings me and my son there), the two little strip malls that make up Cary’s Little India include four or five restaurants, two or three groceries, a florist, boutique, a dance studio and several other South Asian businesses. A number of the restaurants and groceries advertise that they sell halal meats and seafood, that is, those raised and butchered in accordance with Islamic beliefs.
Today my new adventure in Little India was trying the Bengali mithai (Hindu for sweets) at the Mithai House of Indian Desserts. Run by Sudha Moy and Suchitra Dutta, the shop makes all its desserts from scratch and does a flourishing retail business, but also sells wholesale to Indian grocers as far away as the DC suburbs.
All the tastes were new and intriguing to me—desserts seasoned with cardamom, saffron and rosewater, rich in ground pistachios, almonds and cashews, and often using a cheese base that the Duttas make fresh every day out of cow’s milk and lemon juice.
There were an eye-opening number of desserts at Mithais—almond burfi, chum-chum, besan laddu, gajjar halwa, gopal bhog, gulab jamun, rasgulla and probably a dozen more. I didn’t know what any of them were until one of their nice customers explained them to me. There were some wonderful-sounding homemade yoghurt there, too—khajuri yogurt flavored with date molasses, shrikhand yogurt flavored with cardamom and saffron. I brought home a container of sweetened mango yoghurt and it was heavenly.
All the desserts had flavors, and probably pasts, that I am sure I will never appreciate fully, but I still found them exciting because they offered me at least a little window into the cuisine and history of our new Indian neighbors. To name only one I looked up, I discovered that rasgulla, a yummy little ball of the shop’s homemade cheese rolled in light cane syrup and flavored with just a hint of cardamom or rosewater, originated centuries ago in the state of Orissa, on the east coast of India.
One school of thinking traces rasgulla’s origins to the town of Puri, where it has long been a traditional offering to Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and beauty and the consort of the Puri temple’s main deity, Jagganath. The rasgulla offerings are apparently intended to appease Lakshmi’s anger for all the attention lavished on Jagganath during Rath Yatra, the town’s famous chariot festival and the occasion for one of Hinduism’s greatest pilgrimages.
The sweet little rounds of cheese dough eventually traveled from Orissa next door to West Bengal, during the artistic, scientific, religious and intellectual awakening known as the Bengal Renaissance. They were carried there by cooks mainly from Puri, who left their homeland to work in the households of wealthy Bengali. The dish found a home in West Bengal and gradually spread into much of South Asia and, eventually, to these remarkable little strip malls in Cary. Here it—and all the dishes, spices and mithais that you can find in Cary’s Little India—provide welcome reminders of far-off homes for our new neighbors, exciting new tastes for the rest of us.