NEW DELHI (Reuters) - It's festival season in India, and that means sweets -- often garnished with edible silver leaf for that final gourmet touch.
Even this year's steep rise in silver prices hasn't deterred Indian confectioners from presenting sweets rolled in fine sheets of silver called varq during the long festive season that climaxes with Diwali celebrations this week.
The price of silver has increased by about a third to roughly $32 an ounce from a year ago, though it spiked as high as $50 an ounce in April. Still, manufacturers of silver leaf and confectioners say they see little impact.
"The prices of silver leaves are at least 30 percent higher compared to the last festival season ... but there is not much effect on the demand," said K.A. Patel of Amee Enterprise, a silver leaf manufacturer from Gujarat.
Silver leaf is still made by hand in small workshops by men pounding on a piece of silver until it is flattened into extremely fine sheets. Interest surges during the festival season as people celebrate with sweets.
"There is more demand during the festival season as people like to indulge and binge on food," said Patel.
Once used to garnish the food of royalty, silver and even gold is gaining popularity as a garnish for chocolates and cakes, in the form of dust or leaves.
But silver really comes into its own to wrap festival sweets such as kaju katli, which is made of cashew nuts, sugar, milk and powdered cardamom.
Silver is technically flavorless but consumers say it does add a distinct taste to sweets.
"They make them look nice, plus kaju katlis without the leaf just aren't the same," says Satyam Pati, a content writer from Bangalore.
Used for centuries in food, tobacco, mouth fresheners and for garnishing dishes such as biryani fried rice, silver is also said to have therapeutic properties.
Some traditional physicians still recommend it as beneficial for the heart, stomach and the mind. A preserve of Indian gooseberries coated in silver is a popular cure prescribed by ayurveda practitioners for digestive problems and a variety of other ills.
"Just yesterday, a girl came and bought varq from me for wrapping her herbal medicines in, a hakim (traditional medical practitioner) had recommended it to her for an eye problem," says Mohammed Wasim, a silver leaf maker from Lucknow.
But questions have been raised about the adverse effects of silver on health, with spurious, adulterated products found. Some confectioners even stopped using silver leaf.
"Unless you buy sweets from a good store, you can never be sure of the quality of varq, so I don't really like it," says Mayank Tyagi, a marketing professional from Gurgaon, near Delhi.
Not everyone agrees, however.
"I feel sweets are incomplete without it," says Wasim.
Editing by Elaine Lies