Malpua: India’s Oldest Dessert



It’s a dessert that is popular in nearly every street and household across India and the subcontinent. In fact you it is so common that you may even brush it off. But the malpua deserves a lot of respect after all it is India’s oldest known dessert!


Malpua is India’s oldest known dessert

Malpua, which are small deep fried pancakes that are soaked in a sugary syrup, come in various forms across India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan. The first reference to these sweetmeats is in the Rigveda where it is called apupa. This, the oldest of four Vedas, even mentions the recipe of the apupa. It was made with barley flour, fashioned into flat cakes, fried in ghee or boiled in water and then dipped in honey before serving. In fact food seems to have been an important theme within the Rigveda. The verses here even claim that through food comes the end of ignorance and bondage.

A page from the <i>Rigveda </i>containing a line that translates to ‘The Lord of Immortality which waxes greater still by food’
A page from the Rigveda containing a line that translates to ‘The Lord of Immortality which waxes greater still by food’|Wikimedia Commons

It is not surprising that the early Aryans, who composed the Rigveda used barley to prepare their malpua. This was the main grain eaten and consumed during the Vedic period. Rice, and flour came to be used much later. Similarly, honey was the earliest sweetener known and so used liberally for the apupa.


The first reference to malpua is in the Rigveda where it is called apupa

The early malpua evolved over time and there are many references to it and its changing composition from the  Rigvedic period around 1500 BCE to the Gupta period in 400 CE. The apupa is mentioned throughout this period as a delicious sweet served to welcome guests. Buddhist and Jain canonical literature, and later Vedic texts like the Upanishads and the Brahmanas also talk about apupa and its preparation. There is even a reference of ghee or clarified butter in which the apupa was fried, mixed with intoxicating Soma juice. The many different preparations of the apupa show the great culinary skills of the time.

The recipe for <i>malpua</i> has changed over time
The recipe for malpua has changed over time|Wikimedia Commons

Over time the sweetmeat changed character . Literature from the 2nd century CE mentions preparation of apupa with wheat flour, milk, clarified butter, sugar and species cardamom, pepper and ginger which were added to them. Pupalika was a small cake of rice or wheat fried in ghee with jaggery inside made during that time. Stuffed apupa’s were also common  during this time. Over centuries, apupas incorporated varied cultural influences and took the form of malpua. A version of malpua with eggs and mawa was a popular sweet in the various Islamic courts.

Egg <i>malpua</i> being prepared during Ramadan
Egg malpua being prepared during Ramadan|Wikimedia Commons

Today, the malpua is popular and is a must have during festivals like Holi, Diwali and the Ramadan. This is one dish that  is famous in almost all Indian states but the method of preparation differs from region to region.


Over centuries, apupas incorporated varied cultural influences and took the form of malpua

In the state of Odisha, in the famous Jaganath temple at Puri, the malpua is offered as an offering to the main deity Lord Jagannath as the very first or the early morning offering. Amalu (Malpua) is one of the Chappan Bhoga, the traditional food offered daily to Lord Jagannath.  In West Bengal, almost like an inseparable ritual malpua is made in the winter months with pithley (Bengali sweet).  It is also eaten by people of Nepal during the celebration of the festival of Holi.

<i>Malpua </i>is eaten in different forms across the Indian subcontinent
Malpua is eaten in different forms across the Indian subcontinent|Wikimedia Commons

The malpua has changed through the millennia and it is a testimony to its great adaptability, that it continues to be so loved even today!

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