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.


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