Most visitors to India make a beeline for the Taj Mahal, the ethereal white marble monument. But the city of the Taj, Agra, also woos its guests with another offering: a candied sweet that takes its name from the vegetable it is made from. Petha, translucent and delicious, is a candied delicacy that few can avoid tasting, or at least spotting, as it is available in every nook and corner of the city.
Older than the Taj, petha is made from ash gourd and has been part of Agra’s culinary scene for more than 400 years. Often labelled a “poor man’s sweet”, on account of the humble ash gourd (white pumpkin) it is made from, it is said to have its roots in royal kitchens.
Legend has it that the sweet was made by chance during the construction of the Taj Mahal, when thousands of artisans worked tirelessly to build the world's finest monument to love under the supervision of Mughal ruler Shah Jahan. Apparently tired of eating the same food every day, the workers put forth a request to the emperor: a desire to eat something sweet.
To keep the artisans motivated, Shah Jahan conferred with his master architect, who conveyed the emperor's desire to the royal priest Pir Naqshbandi Sahib. The priest, it was said, received the recipe while he was in a trance state, and transformed the ash gourd growing abundantly on the Agra's riverbanks into an exquisite sweet.
Another story, narrated by Subash Goyal, the owner of a chain of sweet shops across Agra, goes that once the caravan of Noor Jahan, Shah Jahan's stepmother, stopped at Noori gate. There the queen was served a white sweet by local residents and she liked it so much that it was immediately included and improvised in the royal kitchen.
Unlike other Indian sweets, which are largely milk-based, petha is made from a vegetable. It doesn’t contain expensive ingredients such as saffron or pistachios, and its preparation is not as tedious as some others. And yet, such is its delectable taste that people traversing the country by train often alight at Agra junction just to pick up this white candy.
The credit for the sweet's popularity also goes, in large measure, to Seth Pancham Lal Goyal, nicknamed Panchhi. This gentleman started his first store in Agra in 1926 at Noori Gate. This venture has expanded to include five stores run under the brand name Panchhi Petha by his son Subash and grandson Amit. The chain sells 23 varieties of petha, including sukha (dry) and geela (moist), chocolate, paan and cherry.
The main Noori Darwaza location is always flooded with tourists, although the pandemic cut down business by about 30 per cent. To give The National a better idea about the sweet's preparation, Subash arranged a visit to his factory, located 15 kilometres away from the city centre in an industrial area.
The white pumpkin is first cut into pieces and left in white calcium hydroxide for a few hours. It is then washed, drained and boiled in water until it starts to turn translucent. Finally, it is soaked in sugar syrup before being dried.
“Petha is not a sweet, but a pure form of fruit, with sweet added to it,” says Goyal. “Unlike milk-based sweets, it is long-lasting and can be preserved for months. For more health-conscious customers, we also offer sugar-free petha.”
Business sense and eco impact
At least 50,000 people are associated with the Petha business in Agra. On average, 800 metric tonnes of the sweet is produced in and around the city daily. As per the Petha Association leaders, the manufacturing and sale of this delicacy used to generate a business of about $68.5 million annually in its heyday.
However, the past few years have not been good for petha-makers, with health- conscious people avoiding it owing to its high sugar content. The manufacturing process has also attracted environmental concerns. The sweet is still made in the traditional method, using coal stoves to boil the gourd. The Supreme Court of India, taking note of the impact pollution has on the colour of the Taj Mahal, has asked makers to shift their base away from the city.
The long Covid-19 lockdowns in India have also adversely impacted business, and many makers have shut up shop permanently. If this continues, connoisseurs predict, the day is not far away when this poor man’s sweet with royal roots will vanish from Agra.