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
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.
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.
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.