Beyond Portuguese, Bengalis and Odiyas : in response to recent claims regarding origin of rosogolla

Legends of origin of sweets, as I have pointed out offers a fascinating way to understand ‘ecologies of production’ – a term I borrow from Heather Paxson’s work on artisanal cheesemaking. In an ethnographic work on artisanal cheesemaking in America, Paxson tries to map how each form of artisanal cheesemaking is shaped by the farmstead and local ecologies that contributes to farm labour and sensory qualities of cheese including its naming. ‘Ecologies of production’, in other words, allows us to understand that production of food commodities is a result of resource extraction as well as transformation of natural to cultural through cooking techniques that are a product of availability of resources, cooking methods and producers who work upon a material to produce a food. The food on our plates are products of foodways shaped by migration, exploitation and extraction of resources and hence it’s time to think of what we claim and call our own is a product of shared ecologies of production?
Any confectioner/ karigar/ homemaker who have prepared rosogolla would clearly testify that preparing this sweet is not an easy job. The primary ingredient of rosogolla is chhana and sugar syrup. A biography of rosogolla in other words needs to be located in the ecologies that produced chhana, sugar and a boiling technique which resulted in a moist spongy textured sweet that became synonymous with ‘Bengali’ sweets.

What is chhana? As most of us know, chhana is a soft mass of curdled milk. Sweetmakers resort to whey water of previous day to curdle the milk. After that, the water is strained through a muslin cloth to remove excess water. There are several claims to chhana’s origins as to do with rosogolla. Most of the legends of origin of chhana based sweets particularly that of sandesh takes us to few towns in Hooghly district. It is not a mere coincidence that origins of chhana can be traced to Hooghly district. Let me take you through some of the writings of food historian K.T. Achaya, food writings of Chitrita Banerjee as well as Chermaine O Brian who have explained this further in their work. ‘Chhana’ as Writendranath Tagore in his book Mudir Dokan writes can be traced to chhinna which means spoiled milk. Food historian, K.T.Achaya tells us of Vedic proscriptions around use of spoiled milk in ritual festivities and Banerjee and O Brien tells us of the Portuguese contribution in use of chhana in Bengali’s food culture. Both Banerjee and O Brien mentions that the local confectioners might have been trained by Portuguese. O’ Brien mentions that commodity laden Portuguese ships that left from local ports needed food that could be stored. This might have led to the training of local confectioners with the art of preparing chhana. In other words, the use of chhana as a food might have come into prevalence with the confluence of Portuguese influence that Achaya, Banerjee and Brien reports. Other than that, anybody with a taste for local cheese would be familiar with two kinds of cheese that is sold in New Market : Kalimpong cheese and Bandel Cheese. ‘Bandel cheese’ takes its name from Bandel, formerly the site of Portuguese settlement as well as part of the Hooghly district where three administrative towns were former Dutch(Chinsurah), French(Chandannagore) and Portuguese(Bandel) colonies. ‘Bandel cheese’ is a firm, smokey flavoured cheese available in few select shops in New Market, Kolkata. Two varieties of Bandel cheese are available in these grocery stores. Shoiab Danyal in his piece ‘Who deserves the credit for the rasgulla? Bengalis, Odiays… or the Portuguese?’ in The scroll points to another form of cheese widely available in Dhaka known as Dhaka paneer. In this piece, the author also refers to Francois Bernier’s travel accounts which mentions of sweetmeats, in the areas with a predominant Portuguese population.

In my own research on Bengali sweet industry, the legends of origin associated with two chhana based sweets : jalbhara talsansh sandesh and monohora point to experimentation of confectioners with chhana in Hooghly district. It is important to note that both these sweets come under the category of sandesh. Sandesh as is widely known is prepared from cooking chhana with sweetening agents to form a thick paste which is shaped into moulds. Sandesh, as many people during my field work recounted was one of the first methods of cooking that confectioners might have experimented with. A close look at the legend of origin recounted in K.C. Das booklets regarding invention of rosogolla also point to popularity of sandesh – a rather dry sweet compared to the moistness of sugar syrup based sweet – rosogolla.

Let me also clarify that there are many legends associated with invention of a sweet similar to rosogolla. Some of these legends and counter legends are discussed in Pranab Ray’s book Banglar Khabar (Food of Bengal). Why are these legends important? Without going into the specificities of these legends it would be suffice to say that most legends point to the eureka moment of dropping a ball of chhana in boiling sugar syrup. A close look at the industrial method of rosogolla preparation in K.C. Das and an artisanal preparation of preparing rosogolla would reveal two important ingredients in rosogolla preparation : consistency of sugar syrup and sprinkling of cold water when the balls of chhana are boiling in sugar syrup. In other words, it is important to dig into the history of sugarcane cultivation in Bengal, introduction of refined sugar and whether or not sugar syrup prepared from dolo chini ( the coarser variety of sugar) could be used for sugar syrup based items.

It would be important to understand that the consistency of the sugar syrup is important in rakam (sugar syrup based items are known as rakam) based items. Let me alert the readers to a bible of sweets in Bengali. Mistanna pak (literally meaning cooking of sweets) was written by none other than Bipradas Mukhopadhyay. It ran into several editions. The second edition of this seminal work was published in 1311 (1904). It has a section dedicated to sandesh and discusses recipes of at least twenty six kinds of sandesh. There is no mention of rosogolla except in the discussion on sugar and sugar syrup. It has a very interesting chapter on various kinds of sugar syrup and recommends use of refined sugar because it is much purer. It has a very interesting anecdote about proscription around use of refined sugar among the Hindus. The proscriptions around use of chhana and refined sugar calls for understanding ritual proscriptions around food based items in religious life across India. Even if we assume that these proscriptions were bound within Bengal, how are we to understand the resistance against Halwais in Gorakhpur in the late 19th Century. Historian Shahid Amin (1984), in his discussion on peasant production with reference to sugar and sugarcane in Gorakhpur cites an interesting case of resistance against Halwais in the late 19th Century. It all began with the import of cheap foreign sugar which was cheaper and less sweet than locally produced sugar . “The use of bone-charcoal in the refining of foreign sugar was initially a powerful negative factor against its widespread consumption” (Amin 1984:91).The confectioners were more inclined to use more foreign sugar and less khoya (coagulated milk) for preparing sweets. There was a strong opposition against the use of “impure” foreign sugar and there were censures against these Halwais( confectioners in North India).

Though rules of proscriptions around food ingredients and methods of cooking are unique to places its correlation in food cultures in India cannot be undermined. Given the strict rules of observance of ritual codes in preparation of temple food – a point I explore in a great detail in an entry on temple sweets in the recently published Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, it comes as a great surprise that a sweet prepared from chhana was offered in Lord Jagannath Temple, Orissa.

Most of the temple sweets across India are prepared from a combination of rice, pulses and flour and milk. In most auspicious rituals observed in households payasam, payesh or rice pudding is cooked and distributed. Ghee (clarified butter) – a milk product is a favourite among Gods and Goddesses and kitchen complexes across India use ghee. Chhana and its use in temple complexes remains to be explored. If chhana could be used as a sweet products, it remains to be explored whether it was used in curries and other dishes which were part of the offerings in temple complexes. The use of chhana based sweets in religious festivities across Bengal is of recent origin and many non-fiction writings mention refer to use of monda–mithai ( sweets prepared from crystallised sugar, flour and gram flour) in family managed Durga Puja in Bengal. In one of the oldest shops in Krishnanagar ( a town known for kheer -thickenned milk based sweets) -Bijoy Moira, monda is still available Monda, as the manager of the shop told me is made from left over cooked paste of kheer and gur and formed into lumps. Another shop in Krishnanagar sell a crystallised variety of sweet prepared from kashir chini ( a coarse variety of sugar) which is popular among devotees. The most widely accepted crystallised variety of candies in ritual festivities are nakuldana and batasha. This exclusive category of sweets that continue to be produced and sold in households point to a parallel tradition of sweets that were used for offerings and ritual purposes. Chhana’s limited presence in the ritual life points to a missing link in the narrative of offering and its ritual use in Jagannath Temple, Orissa.

© itiriti

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Sweet Notes from Old Delhi

Plunged into 2014 with two lovely sweet dishes which make its seasonal appearance on the streets and sweet shops of Old Delhi.

For all those who have a sweet tooth, here’s presenting to you Daulat ki Chaat – a seasonal delight available in the winter months. Why seasonal?  Because it is prepared from foam of cold, churned milk and it will not able to able to tolerate the heat of blazingly hot Delhi. As you make your way from Chawri Bazaar Metro Station, take Gate no 3 (Hauz Qazi Chowk) and you will see carts ferrying Daulat ki Chaat along the road leading to Kinari Bazaar, Parathewale Galli.

Rahul Verma in his article “A Delicate Delight of Winter” (The Hindu, 17 Deb 2013) aptly describes this dessert as a delicate delight.  Who would think that you can prepare a dessert from the foam of the milk?  As you take a spoonful of the dessert you are supposed to feel the taste of saffron flavour, because of the saffron flavoured milk that is added to the foam of milk resembling heaps of cotton balls neatly placed against each other.  As you order a plate, the hawkers get your plate ready with the scoop of foamed milk, lightly flavoured with saffron and topped with powdered sugar called karara. Finally it is finished with a generous doze of crumbled khoa.  The “delicate- delight” of Daulat ki Chaat is available in the winter months.  If Daulat ki Chaat is Old Delhi’s “delicate-delight” then Haabsi Halwa is the rich –delight to satiate your sweet –tooth available in sweet shops from October – March.

Daulat ki chaat

Daulat ki chaat

Thanks to Sumbul ( a fellow foodie), I got my first taste of Haabsi Halwa from Sheereen Bhawan sweet shop in Matia Mahal. The black colour of the halwa owes to eight hours of boiling the milk.  The richness comes from dollops of ghee (clarified butter) which makes the nuts (almonds, pistachios and cashew) moist. The faint heat of Haabsi Halwa comes from a generous addition of cloves which also adds to the colour according the salesperson of Sheereen Bhawan. Haabsi Halwa also works as an aphrodisiac for men. The Delhiwalla (a wonderful blog on Delhi) in their post on haabsi halwa mentions “Said to heat up the body, habshi halwa is recommended for men wanting to increase their stamina in love-making.”1 The Delhiwalla recommends to eat haabsi halwa at Haneef Doodhwala. I am looking forward to try out haabsi halwa at the recommended place.

Up, close and personal with Haabsi Halwa

Up, close and personal with Haabsi Halwa

If you have a sweet –tooth like mine, trek down to Old Delhi’s lanes to taste the delicate and rich sweet delights of winter. Beat the chill with a plate of daulat ki chaat and haabsi halwa from Old- Delhi’s sweet shops and by-lanes.

Notes

1 See the post on Haabsi Halwa by The Delhiwalla ( http://www.thedelhiwalla.com/2011/12/08/city-food-habshi-halwa-ballimaran/)

P.S. To new beginnings and  sweet- encounters. Wishing all itiriti readers a sumptuous 2014.

©itiriti

Exploring the Romance of Bengali Sweets with J. Haldar

Haldar, J.1921. Bengal Sweets. Calcutta: Chuckervertty, Chatterjee &Co. Ltd.

Anybody interested in food history in general and sweet history in particular would know  about Bipradas Mukhodhyay’s work Mistanna Pak ( a two-volume set on sweets in Bengali ).  I don’t know if this work has been translated.  The first edition of Mistanna Pak was published in 1301 (1904) and 1311 (1914). Another interesting book that appeared in a span of  seven years was Mrs J. Haldar’s book Bengal Sweets.  I chanced upon this book while browsing through National Library catalogue in Kolkata. This book was published by Chuckervertty, Chatterjee &Co. Ltd.  The colonial past of the city and the library is reflected in the faded blue stamp of the Imperial library between the crisp yellow pages. The second edition of the book appeared in 1926.

Who is Mrs J. Haldar? In the preface to the first edition, she mentions that “the genesis of this little book can be traced to the “Notes and Queries” column of the Sunday editions of The Statesman” where she “contributed from time to time in response to the queries from all over India”. She thanks in particular the Anglo-Indian and European readers of her column who provided her with constant encouragement to put together the first edition. In the preface to the second edition, Mrs. Haldar is overwhelmed by the success of the first edition and mentions that “the book  made its way not only to different parts of India but also to the United Kingdom”. She further writes, “Indeed I feel legitimate pride to learn that Rasogolla has been successfully prepared in far-off England with the help of this book and that Europeans stationed in this country have greatly enjoyed sandesh, themselves making the same”. In the preface to the second edition, she calls upon the readers to get back to her regarding ambiguity of the method of preparation or difficulty in comprehension. Such ambiguities are part of the recipe books churned out and may be in one of the subsequent post I will write about how to deal with such ambiguous recipes from Julian Barnes book The Pedant in the kitchen.

The book is divided into various sections. Two sections that are my personal favourite are “ The Romance of Bengali Sweets” and  “Operations”. This book begins with an introduction to the role and significance of sweets in the everyday life of Bengal. In a fascinating chapter called “The Romance of Bengali sweets” she discusses in detail the metaphorical use of sweets in Bengali literature to its use and consumption across rituals and everyday life.  She writes “Sweets have also been accepted as an emblem of hospitality by every stratum of society in every part of Bengal” (pp 2). She writes that a glass of water in the remotest and poorest households would be accompanied by jaggery or sugar candy and the wealth and  prestige of  an aristocratic household  depends on the number of days the bhiyen is functional during festive occasions . She then moves on to discuss “The Confectionery of Bengal” where she gives a sweet tour of undivided pre-partitioned Bengal. She says, “Dacca is generally famed for Mithais of distinction and novelty; Burdwan for Sitabhog and Mihidana; Maldah for Khaja; Janai for Monohora; Natore for Kanchagolla; Murshidabad for Pantoah and Rasogolla;  Krishnanagore for Sarpuriya and Sarbhaja;Muragachha for Chhanar Jilapi and so on” (Pp 6).

For Mrs Haldar, there are two categories of sweets; 1) Mithai and 2) Monda. The classifaction is based on milk and non-milk products. This classification comes as a departure from the previous classification of sweets which were primarily from three intermediate bases: a) flour, b) milk ( curdled milk pressed into chhana) and c) kheer (thickened milk). According to Haldar, Mithais are prepared from flour, pulse and Monda is prepared from milk. Though she does not discuss in detail the wooden, clay or stone moulds used in households or shops to give shape to sweets, she mentions that sweets in Bengal can be of any shape and size. After her discussion on classification of confectionery in Bengal she moves to a detailed discussion of pots and pans which clearly sets this recipe book different from former books. In Bipradas Mukhopadhyay’s book there is a section on “pak-patra”1 (meaning utensils for preparing the pak) but Mrs J. Haldar’s attention to the details of pots, pans and ladles require a special mention. For an user-friendly understanding, she divides the utensils into four categories. They are :- 1) pans 2) ladles 3) accessories 4) serving appliances 5) miscellaneous. While for household cooking various kinds of pans and accessories have now replaced some of them, still  no sweat shops would be complete without a good pata –  “ a wooden plank 3 ft long, 9 inches broad and 1 inch thick used as pastry board for rolling out dough on greased surface” (pp 10) or a taru – “ a wooden paddle with a broad thick blade” (ibid). In the next section she moved to discussing the ingredients. She not only lists the ingredients and their English equivalent but also the base of the ingredients and one such example is safeda or rice flour. Though rice flour can be prepared from any kind of rice, for safeda, a special variety of sunned rice called Kamini which has a nice fragrance is used. In the next section called Operations, Mrs Haldar guides a novice and an expert through techniques that are absolutely crucial in sweets. She calls it “Operations” and she begins with the ways to treat flour. One of the techniques that Bengali households working with maida will strongly recommend is “mayan deoa”. Mrs Haldar takes a novice cook through the technique of mayan deoa shortening. Apart from shortening she discusses kneading, forming, rolling out and shaping of sweets before moving on to discuss how to make pulp, paste and batter. This section is particularly useful and should be referred to particularly for some practical tips on preparing the batter of a certain consistency. Consistency of a batter is particularly crucial in coating and frying. While recipe books are generous in listing the ingredients to prepare the batter; at times the consistency is left unexplained while the pedant is left wondering why her/his food is not crispy  as the food in the photo. The details of such techniques makes this book an interesting read and such tips are particularly useful in preparing non-sweet dishes as well. In the next section, she takes us through the methods of cooking, lists the various processes and explains them in detail. And the final rule that this age old recipe book tells us like no other book…

pic 2

(Halder 1926: 25)

In the next section on Milk products, before moving on to discussing the various ways in which milk should be treated to prepare Chhana, Kheer and other intermediate bases she discusses the quality of milk and ways to ascertain it. One of the recipes she beautifully explains is sar- how to acquire that crisp layer of cream2. After this she moves on to discuss how to use sugar and prepare sugar syrup. Sugar Syrup is an important step in sweet making. Each sweet requires a different consistency, thickness and texture and some tips from this section for household preparation of the same is useful. Finally comes the prized section of recipes where she first lists recipes prepared from Flour, followed by milk primarily chhana.

But the best is her innovation Bengal Pudding prepared from a combination of chhana, khoa, sugar, egg, almonds, pistachios, almonds, raisin and rose-water. I had made a version of this when I had a sweet craving in the middle of the night last year. I loved the idea of combining chhana and eggs. I gave my own twist to this recipe. I prepared chhana from 500 ml Double Tonned Milk available in Mother Dairy Outlets. For those in Bengal please buy the chhana from the sweetshops. I squeezed the water and left it to cool and rest because I had plans of making chhanar dalna ( channa fritters cooked in a light gravy of cumin seed paste and ginger). I used this chhana that was resting in my fridge and kneaded it gently in circular motion with sugar till it mixed well. Took a lot of time but it was a pleasure to see the granules mix with the chhana grains. Try using castor sugar and let me know if it works. I skipped khoa ! I used 4 egg yolks. A fork was all that I had  to beat the egg yolks till it was light and frothy . Can’t recall the time but my hand ached and I wondered why I was doing all of this when I am supposed to sleep. Talk about Bengali sweet tooth.  I added this mix to the chhana mix and folded in gently. I cheated and added two drops of vanilla because I did not have almonds or pistachios. Finally I transferred this mix  to an aluminium bowl (pre-greased with Jharna Ghee). It was time to wrestle with the steaming process. I thought of trying out my mother’s pressure cooker technique but I thought giving the good old technique of steaming a shot. I took my non-stick kadai and rested it on the burner and added boiling water and placed the aluminium pan with a lid and placed the good old iron tongs that I had picked up from the mother’s prized possessions. I paced up and down for 15 min to take the lid off and enjoyed a slice of mid night version of Bengal Pudding.  The pudding tasted nice. It could have tasted much better. Next day I added some chocolate syrup and served to few unexpected guests and it echoed the same feeling that Mrs Haldar re-iterated in 1926.

pic1

And on that sweet note I take leave and will wait for your responses on sweets and more.. Till then indulge, cook and have fun!

Notes

1Pak is the Bengali word for condensing by heat. Across sweet industry in Bengal cooking  the mix from which sandesh and various sweets are folded and or moulded is called pak.

2 See my earlier post onhttps://itiriti.wordpress.com/2011/12/29/invisible-hands-behind-sweet-industry-what-does-it-take-to-prepare-sar/

P.S. May be this book was the first recipe book of Bengali sweets penned in English as well.

©itiriti

Sweet notes…

I don’t seem to get through my second chapter. The various drafts of the second chapter  which I had to submit some ten days back seem to be staring at me. While various names of sweet and sweet anecdotes dot the footnotes of the chapter, I struggle to find the thread that binds them together and I am back to blogging.

Reason – a book that is close to my soul and will find its way in many references in my dissertation. I take a little pride in the fact I have followed the author’s work and his book The Taste of Conquest is a must read for all those who want to want take a spice trail across three fascinating cities. I had discussed the book sometime ago in this blog.

Here’s the link https://itiriti.wordpress.com/2012/01/01/spice-trail-journey-through-venice-lisbon-and-amsterdam/.

Michael Krondl’s (2011) latest work Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert again takes you through a fascinating tour across India, Middle East, Italy, France, Vienna, U.S.A. In his words, he begins his leg of journey with India- “where sugar was first refined, to the Middle East where it was enthusiastically adopted in the later years of the first millennium, then to Europe and finally America” (pp13). Krondl discusses in detail the sacredness around sweets in India and takes you back and forth across North, East and Southern India through a chronicle of sweet spread prepared from milk (mainly chhana, khoa. After the Indian trail of Modaka, Laddu, Rosogolla, Sandesh the reader is taken into the workshop of Baklava factory in Istanbul and the genesis of Baklava is traced back to some Arabian desserts. Similar to India, Gods of Ancient Mesopotamia were also offered sweets. Krondl writes, “To feed their appetites, confectioners were attached to temples. They specialised in making sacred cakes, which were consumed in large numbers during religious rituals” (Krondl 2011:85). The dessert tour of Middle East takes you through Baghdad, Iran and finally concludes with a lovely recipe of Qatayif. The third chapter on Italy takes into the enchanting tales of how cultures merge and shape culinary delights. Venice in particular played a strong role in the spice trail and Krondl alludes to the ways in which cinnamon and sugar was used in abundance in Renaissance Italy. The fourth chapter is dedicated to France, followed by Vienna and U.S.A.- each with detailed description of the unfolding of the nation’s obsession with desserts and the ways in which the cultural encounters forced confectioners to embrace techniques, and create new inventions.

The ways in which certain commodities were responsible for labour migration does not go unnoticed by the food historian. As he recounts the tales of introduction of desserts there is an undertone of the history of sugar plantation labour. In his own words, “Sugar was the prime mover of the transatlantic traffic in human beings”. (pp4) The sweetener i.e., sugar which has been responsible for the success of confectioner’s art and artistry is celebrated across the chapters along with the desserts which makes this book an interesting read and an important book in food history. The role of dessert in food history is significant and yet from a biological standpoint it is “frivolous, unnecessary” and this is precisely why Michael points out that “when you talk about dessert you step away from analyzing basic human needs to a conversation about culture” (pp3). The book precisely explores those cross cultural linkages and connections in this mapping of desserts.

Book Review : Krondl,M.2011. Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.

©itiriti

Monohora- a tale of preservation technique

Each sweet biography in Bengal is laced with fascinating tales and Monohora- a sweet invented by artisan/s from Janai a village tucked away in Hooghly district of West Bengal is no exception. Monohora which literally in Bengali means one who steals the heart till date continues to be a favourite among sweet lovers. Unlike other sweetmeats, the genesis of this fascinating sweet remains unknown still one of the legends associated with Monohora biography is that one of the Moiras ( a caste group associated with sweetmeat business; nowadays it is referred to confectioners) from Moira para (neighbourhood of the Moiras) was entrusted by the then zamindar to prepare a sweetmeat. The zamindar (head of the village) left for some work and returned behind his scheduled arrival. The Moira was worried that the sandesh would go bad. He coated a lump of Sandesh in a  thick sugar syrup so that the sandesh would not go bad. When the zamindar returned, he tasted the sweet and remarked that the sweet has stolen his heart and hence the name Monohora ( in Bengali it literally implies “je monk e horon korechche”- one who has stolen my heart).

Stage 1 : Sandesh

In my several visits to Janai I have heard senior artisans and residents of the area recounting me this fascinating tale over Monohara- a sweet Janai is very proud of. Usually like all sweet shops across Bengal the chchana ( the cottage cheese) is mixed with sugar in a huge wok (kadai) with a wooden ladle ( tadu). Since there is a sugar coating, special care is taken so that the sandesh is not too sweet ( usually for 1 kg chchana 300gms of sugar is used). Some shops go tha extra mile to add cardamom, pistachio to the mix. The sugar syrup is prepared with due care. It is slightly thick in consistency and once it cools the round lumps of sandesh are dipped in the sugar syrup and allowed to rest for two hours. Your Monohora is ready to serve.

Stage 2: Sugar Syrup ( Ras) for Monohora

Monohora is priced betwee Rs 3-10 across shops in Janai Bazaar which is a 10 minute distance from Janai Station ( if you want to reach Janai from Bardhaman via Cord line). So in case you are free this weekend plan a gateway from the hustle bustle of Kolkata head to Janai for a sweet trail. Please do not request shopkeepers to give you plastic bags as they have been banned.

Stage 3: Sandesh is coated in sugar syrup

Last stage : Raisins are added and allowed to cool for 2-3 hours

Two shops I would hugely recommend around the Janai bazaar are Kamal Moira’s sweet shop (a shop without name plate) and opens around 11.30am. You can land there by 3pm for a fresh serving of Monohora. In case you are pressed for time you can head to Maa Kali Mistanna Bhandar as well. The shop is run by Tarun Das and his sons Pradip Das and Dilip Das. They sell another hugely popular sweetmeat Boro Bonde ( it is a fried sweetmeat and tastes like the usual bonde but slightly bigger size).

Next time when you complain of sugar coating of Monohora remember to take the coating off and eat it. Monohora is truly the sweet that marks the first sign of preservation of sweets before refrigeration methods entered the confectionery industry.

" you have to take off the coating to have a real taste of Monohora"- artisan

©itiriti

(In)visible hands behind sweet industry – What does it take to prepare Sar?

The invisible hands that toil day and night to keep the sweet industry of Bengal often go unnoticed. One such skill that has gone undocumented is the art of preparing Sar. One of the artisans in fact lamented to her family member, ‘This work requires skill of eyes and fingers but you will always remain in the backyard. No one is ever going to recognise this craft, this skill’.

Sar is one of the key ingredients of Sarbhaja – a sweetmeat of Krishnanagar prepared from Sarpuriya Pak which constitutes of Kheer, cardamom, Sugar and saffron. Artisans in sweet shops prepares the pak (cooking process of sweetmeats across Bengal is called Pak). The slow method of cooking which produces a soft texture in sweets  is called norom pak and the method of cooking hat will give a harder texture is called kara pak. In case of Sarpuriya, what the artisans don’t know to prepare or in modern day terms what is outsourced is Sar. Sar is the Bengali word for cream that floats when full rich creamy milk is boiled. Till I went on my sweet trail to Krishnanagar I was not aware about the art of preparing Sar.  This cream is used to prepare Ghee (clarified butter) in many households across India. 

Sar

Krishnanagar is the birthplace of Sarbhaja and Sarpuriya two sweets where you need Sar. Currently approximately ten households in Krishnanagar prepare Sar. I was fascinated to see pairs of Sars piled up in the cupboard of Bijoy Moira a shop tucked away near to Judges Court T point.

Sar as used for preparing Sarpuriya( a popular sweetmeat from Krishnanagar)

I was alerted that Rabi Ghosh from Khottapara (name of the neighbourhood) is their Sar supplier. If I wanted to take a look at how Sar is prepared I should visit their home.  Though I felt slightly hesitant to enter somebody’s household without prior appointment I decided to take a chance last afternoon. Around 1.30 after finishing my lunch I boarded a rickshaw to Khottapara to reach Robi Ghosh’s house.  Baby Ghosh has been involved in the art of preparing Sar ( lifting the cream of the milk to form a stiff base. She learned the art of preparing Sar from her father-in-law.

Baby Ghosh preparing Sar

Robi Ghosh proudly tells me “very few Ghosh* households are skilled in this trade”.  Interestingly, across Bengal people involved in milkman trade are referred as Goalas (Goala is one of the sub-castes specialised in milk related trade). Some sections of Goalas are skilled in this trade. Baby gets up around 5 am and waits for her husband Robi to collect milk from the nearby villages of Krishnanagar. Robi Ghosh tells me, “You need good quality milk. You cannot prepare Sar with adulterated milk”.  Usually by 12 noon Robi is back from the villages. Once the milk is collected Baby heats the milk and keeps it aside to cool down. She has a mud floored room for the preparing Sar. It is a small room with two clay ovens for heating of milk. Baby starts preparing Sar from 12.30. She has 15 kadais for preparing Sar. At one time she can prepare one Sar.  She takes small portions of cow dung cakes and distributes it evenly across 15 places. She places 15 Kadais and adds small portions of milk and keeps on stirring it for the first thirty minutes. She has to keep a keen eye and wait for the cream to settle. After that she lifts it carefully and spreads in on a wet cloth covered bamboo basket and allows it cool down for 2 hours before spreading on a wooden mat to cool down. The soft tender cream becomes a solid base and it becomes ready to use after 4 hours. Baby says, “It is easy to prepare sar during winter. In rainy season it becomes hot and humid and takes time”.  I leave her to finish her order of 80 Sars to be delivered across sweet shops in Krishnanagar. Each sar costs about Rs 13- 15 each depending on the quality. As I leave the house Robi Ghosh shows me the place where he has stored cow dung cakes and Baby quietly returns to the room to finish her orders.

*Commonly people in this area call Goala households as Ghosh households. Across Bengal people from both Goala Caste Group and Kayastha caste group share the surname Ghosh.

 

Bhaiphonta- Snapshots from the field

Sweets being sold on Bhainphonta

Bhayer Kopale Dilam Phonta/Jomer Duare Porlo Kanta/Jamuna day Jom ke Phonta/Ami Di amar Bhain ke Phonta

The above rhyme is chanted in every household across Bengal while the sister offers her phonta ( a dot made of sandalwood paste and curd) on her brother’s forehead wishing him long life so that Yama i.e., Jom (God of Death) does not reach her brother. The last two lines of the rhyme indicate that even Yamuna (Yama’s sister- Yamuna/Jamuna) on this day prays for her brother’s long life.  Bhainphonta is celebrated after Kali Puja (Festival in honour of Goddess Kali one of the 108 incarnations of Goddess Durga) in Bengal. Across India, this festival has many different names, Bhaidoonj  in Northern India, Bhai Bij, Bhau-beej or Bhav Bij amongst the Marathi and Konkani-speaking communities in the states of Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka.

 Last year on the day of Bhainphonta , I was travelling down to Chandernagore in Hooghly district of Bengal for my field work. I was listening to the show hosted by Mir on Radio Mirchi where he asked one question. Name one sweet which is prepared across Sweetshops in Bengal. There were three options. The answer as most of us know is Khaja. Khaja – a fried sweetmeat made of flour, sugar and sugar syrup is prepared on this special day across sweet shops in Bengal. Each shop has its own twists to Khaja. For instance in Chandernagore, the Khaja has a small pink rose in the centre of this layered sweet meat. 

Khaja being rolled out

 

 While the customers stand in queues patiently for hours to purchase the best bite for the brothers; the workers toil day and night to cope with the production demands. Milk supplies come in frequently and often chchana suppliers fail to meet the demands. Nevertheless the show must go on.

This year, I was visiting Krishnanagar on the day of Bhainphonta. I took a rickshaw from my lodge around 7 am and headed for the city’s most popular sweet shop after it featured in an Uttam- Suchitra movie Sabar Upore. Though the owners claim to be inventors of Sarpuriya and which is debatable; the sweetshop is one of the important landmarks in Krishnanagar. It is named after Adhar Chandra Das. Claims and contestations regarding origins of sweets are part and parcel of sweet business and this shop is no exception. While I crossed Adhar’s shop I realised it was 7 am and there were people waiting to buy their prized possession. When I reached Gopal Mistanna Bhandar, it was 8 am. I realised I will not be able to get inside the shop so I decided to wait to make my way into the kitchen where the workers told me that they had been working the entire night.

Sweet shops become a visual delight during Bhainphonta as each owner introduces new items. So sweets of varied colour and sizes are available in sweet shops.  This year, in Gopal Mistanna Bhandar one came across sweets shaped like watermelon, to fish slice to what they called “pastry”.

Biography of Langcha- Burdwan or Krishnanagar

The genesis of Langcha as we all know goes back to an artisan  in Burdwan ( a district in West Bengal) who used to make Pantua ( fried sweetmeat made of flour and chchana dipped in sugar syrup) of huge sizes.  Langcha a sweet meat – in popular parlance was created by the erstwhile artisans of Shaktigarh in Burdwan. How did Langcha Dutta ( the artisan credited with this invention ) land in Burdwan? The noted novelist Narayan Sanyal in his historical novel “Rupamanjari” actually tells us a different story. Goutam Dhoni a noted journalist and correspondent of “Ekdin” a Bengali Daily tells me this fascinating tale in his house over a plate of Nikhuti ( a sweet famous in Krishnanagar).  In his latest article in Nadia Darpan( a local Bengali Daily) Dhoni brings to our attention how Langcha has travelled from Krishananagar ( a town in Nadia District) to Burdwan .

Drawing from Narayan Sanyal’s novel Rupamanjari Goutam Dhoni(2011) argues that the genesis of “Langcha” actually goes back to the matrimony alliance between the two seats of power in two different parts of present day West Bengal. A matrimony alliance between the royal households of Krishnanagar and Burdwan changed the genesis of “Langcha”. For those unfamiliar with Langcha; it is a fried oval shaped sweetmeat fried and dipped in sugar syrup. It is made from Chchana( cottage cheese- an ingredient common to most of the sweets in Bengal). The story goes that a girl from the then Krishnanagar royal household was married to a son from Burdwan royal household. When she became pregnant she lost her appetite and refused to eat any food. During this time she expressed a desire to eat “langcha” – a sweetmeat that artisans from her maternal home used to prepare.

The then ruler of Krishnanagar made arrangements to find out who prepared “Langcha” but none of the Modaks/ Moiras( The Bengali confectioner; a caste group involved in preparation of sweets) in Krishnanagar seemed to be aware of Langcha. Apparently even the lady did not remember the name of the sweet. She had mentioned “Langcha” because the artisan who used to prepare this specific sweetmeat used to limp and walk ( in Bengali Langchano means to limp). Then the artisan was summoned to the Krishnagar court and was sent off to Burdwan. He was lured with lands to settle in Burdwan so that he could prepare delicacies for the royalty. Currently Shaktigarh, Burdwan district of Bengal is credited with huge Langchas but the shops in Krishnanagar take a special pride in how “Langcha” has travelled from Krishnanagar to Burdwan.

©itiriti

Sweet-tooth

For a long time I have been browsing the bookstores in Kolkata for a recipe book on sweets. On a self –reflexive note I remember with pleasure the sweet delicacies that were prepared post Durga Puja celebrations, i.e., the Bijoya Dashami. Bijoya Dashami marks the last day of Durga Puja when the idols are immersed in the Ganges which is followed by exchange of sweets.

Sitting in the cubicle of library I remember with fondness the smell of molasses and grated coconut which my mother cooked with care for those perfect “nadus” which were to be offered to the Goddess during the Puja which would then be offered to the guests who came to commemorate Bijoya Dashami. The celebrations of Bijoya Dashami has now moved beyond the confines of kitchen and has hit the shopfloor of sweet shops hence the homemade delicacies like Nimki, Elojhelo and Nadu are stacked in piles in various sweetshops to be sold to celebrate Bijoya Dashami.

Having spent a considerable time in an industrial township I had the pleasure of being treated to many Bijoya Dashami delicacies. There was a sheer joy in being invited to the households post play -time and being offered mutton ghugni, and sweets. Nimki, was a common item in the households and often kids preferred wearing frocks/ pants with pockets to stock them for the snack time post supper. And of course there were sweets of all shapes and sizes. To my delight, my mother thought that the best way to pass on some of these sweet treasures by gifting me a book “Mistikatha” a collection of sweet recipes by Jayasree Mukhoadhyay. Though I have not tried any recipes as of now but it will surely help me to put together a Bijoya Dashami get-together and a Poush Parbon platter without any glitches.

Mukhopadhyay, J. 2010. Mishtimukh. Kolkata: Ananda Publishers Private Limited

The recipe book is divided into three sections. In Section I, Jayasree Mukhopadhyay documents “Dokane Toire Misthi” (Sweets prepared in shops). In this section she moves beyond rosogolla and shares with her readers recipes of Kanchagolla (a round shaped sandesh made of slow cooked chchana), Misti Doi (Sweet Curd) etc. The second section is dedicated to home-made sweets. This section is particularly interesting as it will introduce the novice cooks like us to sweet delicacies which could be prepared for the Bijoya Dashami evening and for a special get together to celebrate Poush Parbon(Harvest Festival) in December. For that perfect Bijoya Dashami evening you could stack up some Misti kucho Gaja, Elojhelo, Jibe gaja and Bhaja Malpua. And for that once in a while sweet cravings post dinner you can quickly prepare some Malpua out of sweet potato or even whisk away some Rasbara. Jayasree Mukhopadhyay successfully introduces to us a variety of Pithe ( stuffed steamed sweet cakes made of rice flour) like Ranga Alur Bhaja Pithe ( Fried Sweet cake made from Sweet Potato), Bhapa Pithe( Steamed Rice Cake), Raspuli( Rice Cake dipped in sugar syrup), etc. For all those who struggle with Palm based sweets usually offered during Janmashtami she guides us through sweet delicacies like Talksheer, Taler Bara, Taler Luchi, Tal Diye Malpua, etc. In the last section of the book she presents sweet recipes from other parts of the country.

So in case you are nervous about the Bijoya Dashami and Poush Parbon celebration get hold of the book to take you through the sweet moments. Happy cooking!

Sweet Rituals

As Bengalis we love “Fish”. And Fish has also made its entry as a sweet. Well hold on to that cursor and google for fish shaped sweet and you are bound to come across the most common variety of sweets shaped like Fish as Tatwa items.

Tatwa is the gift exchange ceremony prevalent among Bengali Hindus. It is a  ritual of gift exchange on the occasion of marriage. There are primarily two sets of tatwa exchanges. The groom’s family sends the “Gaye- Haludertatwa marking the bathing of bride and groom is their respective native places where the groom’s family sends across Turmeric paste and mustard oil to the bride’s family. Along with this “Gaye- Haluder” Tatwa arrives where the Bride’s family is presented with gifts and sweets.

Sweets occupy an important component of Tatwa exchanges and the artisans toil day and night for these special “Tatwa” Orders.  Infact some of the web portals of the sweet shops have a separate section for “Tatwa” which indicates the market that Tatwa orders generate in the sweet market. Tatwa in contemporary weddings is more than gift- it is a leisure commodity so the “tatwa” products reflect the taste of the family, the status of family. In a recent visit to a family friend’s place, an elderly member commented how the “Phool shajya tatwa” ( gift exchange to commemorate the first wedding night of the couple. This gift comes from the bride’s family for the groom and his family members) from the girl’s family was from Nakur ( a famous sweet shop which only prepares “Sandesh” in North Kolkata). She recalled with pride that the owners of Nakur had specially come up with the idea of preparing something exclusive for the wedding. The exclusivity attached to Tatwa is shown in the way Tatwa items have travelled from Kheer sweets resembling Bengali Bride and Groom to Horse Pulled Tram, Reindeer, Shawl and of course Fish. 

So, Tatwa on one hand is more than gift exchange and on the other it also about the status of  gift- giving family by gifting “exclusive” ly designed products (in these case sweets) and the social display of gifts by the gift –receiving family. In these exchange and display of gifts are the fascinating products that are created and the turnover generated through selling of “Tatwa” products.

Hence all the giants of the sweet industry on their web portals have a special segment on Tatwas. Though there are many more sweet shops like K.C. Das, Hindusthan Sweets which have portals I am listing the three shops which have a separate section on Tatwa items.

Ballaram Mullick & Radharaman Mullick          

This shop was set up in 1885 by Ganesh Chandra Mullick in Bhowanipore far away from North Kolkata which was the hub of sweet shops.

http://www.balarammullick.com/adver/108611tatwa.html

2, Paddapukur Road, Bhowanipur, Kolkata- 700 020, West Bengal, India

(033) 2486 9490 / 2454 0281 Mobile :- 098301 29423

mallicksudip@hotmail.com / info@balarammullick.com

Some of the Tatwa products are : Gatraharidra ( A sandesh encrypted with the order Gatraharidra), Phoolsajya (A sandesh encrypted with the word PhoolSajya), Bridegroom Shell (A shell shaped Sandesh resembling Bridegroom) and the most fascinating that catches my eyes – Fruit shaped sandesh, Horse pulled tram ( made of Kheer), and Shenai Set( a set of musical instruments used for shehnai recital)

Ganguram Sweets

Late Ganguram Chaurasia migrated  from a remote village in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh to Kolkata in the 1880’s. He was a skilled Halwai and could make mouth watering Sweets. He took up a job in the shop owned by the then Raja Kamala Prasad Mukherjee and used to supply Sweets to the Rajbari. However, when the Government decided to evict the shop in order to construct a road, the Raja, pleased with his service, allotted him a small plot of land near Maniktola north Kolkata, from where the journey of Ganguram Sweets began in 1885.

http://www.ganguram.com/product_list.php?id=13

46 C, Chowringhee Road, Everest House. Kolkata -700071

033-22883420/1184 Mobile : 91-9830096322

Some of the products : Prajapati (Butterfly shaped sweet)

 

JalBhara Surjya Modak

For the history and contact details refer to https://itiriti.wordpress.com/2011/07/30/sweet-biographies-of-bengal/.

http://www.jalbharasurjyamodak.com/gallery%20Tawta.html.

Some of the “exclusive” items: Prawns ( a set of prawns), Train, Swan Sitabhog, Swan Kheer, Shawl (sandesh carved to a shawl).

©itiriti