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…

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(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.

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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

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(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.

 

Sweet biographies of Bengal

The gastronomic culture of Bengal is well known for its affinity towards sweets; particularly “rosogolla” and “sandesh”. Rosogolla is a round shaped sweet made out of Chhana (cottage cheese) and dipped in sugar syrup. Sandesh on the other is a sweet made of kneaded chchana cooked with sugar/ jaggery and made into diffferent moulds.

While there are debates as to who invented Rosogolla it was the enterprising family of Nobin Chandra Das and his successors primarily K.C.Das and Sharadacharan Das who were instrumental in putting the Rosogolla on the global map. Bengalis have a fettish for Chhana based sweets. What is Chhana?  Chhana is an important base for a variety of sweets. It is obtained by acid coagulation of hot milk and draining out the whey.

Nobin Das popularly known as Nobin Moira is known for his invention of Sponge Rosogolla. Langcha (a popular sweetmeat) in fact is named after Langcha Dutta who was a karigar from Kalna. He was efficient in preparing Pantua (Another Fried sweet made of Chhana and dipped in Sugar syrup) of huge sizes. Since he used to limp and walk hence the name Langcha (In Bengali Langchano means to limp). Surjya Modak from Chandannagore, Hooghly invented ‘Jalbhara Talsans Sandesh’ (1818). Bhimchandra Nag and Nakur Nandy from Hooghly district created revolution in Sandesh from their respective shops in Kolkata.

My first field work was in a sweet shop in Chandernagore/ Chandannagore by the name Jalbhara Surjya Modak, descendants of the legendary Moira/ Modak (confectioners in Bengal are known as Modaks/ Moiras). Chandernagore is a former French colony ( For details on Chandernagore visit the link http://www.chandannagar.com/htmlfiles/chanhistory.htm). Unlike the rest of India, certain towns on the banks of the Hooghly river had  Dutch and Portuguese settlements. For instance, Chinsurah a town close to Chandernagore was a former Dutch settlement and Bandel, few kms away from Chinsurah was a Portuguese settlement. These settlements have played a key role in the social history of sweetmeat in Bengal. While the earliest documentation on sweetmeats record “kheer” as the primary ingredient of sweetmeats with the advent of Dutch and Portuguese according to some scholars and traditions “chhana” became an important component of Bengali sweets.

For instance, the web portal (link given below) of Jalbhara Surjya Modak credits the Dutch cook of Bandel Church ( a church where Portuguese sailors had stayed for a long time) for introducing the Moiras of Hooghly to Chhana.

(http://www.jalbharasurjyamodak.com/profile.html)

Jalbhara Surjya Modak is currently owned and run by Saibal Kumar Modak, descendant of the famous Surjya Moira or Surjya Modak who is known for the invention of Jalbhara Sandesh (a Sandesh with sugar syrup filling). In April 2010 when I met Surjya Modak to discuss and plan my work he offered me Jalbhara Sandesh. As I finish eating the sweet he asks me whether or not I was aware about the history of the Jalbhara and if I had savoured their sweets before. I politely told him I knew that unlike the Jalbhara in Kolkata, I am aware that if one is not careful with Chandernagore Jalbhara then one might end up spilling the water.  Jabhara Sandesh as it is popularly known now was invented on the occasion of Jamaishasthi( a feast prevalent among Hindus in Bengal in honour of son-in- law)

In 1818, on the occasion of Jamaishashti, the Bandopadhyay family of Telenipara, Chandernagore sent a request to Surjya Moira that they wanted us to prepare a sweet which will surprise their son-in-law. The first step was creation of a Talshansh sandesh (a sandesh/ sweet shaped like the kernel of a palm). The dice for this Talshansh Sandesh was invented by Surjya Modak’s grandson, Lalit Mohan Modak who was an experienced hand. In those times Siddheswar Modak(Lalit Mohan Modak’s father) used to run the shop. The dice (shaped like kernel of a palm) was filled with Kara-Pak (slightly harder vesion of cooked chchana) sandesh to which rose-water flavoured sugar syrup was added. In those days sugar syrup was made of dolo chini(a variety of locally produced sugar). This sweet was sent to the Gangopadhyay family. When the son- in- law was offered this sweet, the moment he bit into it the water spilled over this clothes. Following this incident Jalbhara Sandesh became popular. Then orders came on pouring in and Surjya Modak became famous for introducing Jalbhara. Jalbhara Talshansh Sandesh was its real name. Now it is popularly known as Jalbhara Sandesh. Our Jalbhara Sandesh is unique as the “water” does not dry up”. In my several interviews with Saibal Kumar Modak we have discussed why Surjya Kumar Modak is credited with the invention of Jalbhara considering his grandson Lalit Mohan Modak had prepared the dice. Again he alluded to the fact that everyone in the area knew the product was available at Surjyi Moira’s shop.  So next time you want to try out give into your sweet temptations visit Jalbhara Surjya Modak for Jalbhara Sandesh, Motichur Pak. They even sell Mango filled Jalbhara. Since the shelf life of Bengali sweets is short put on your shoes and take a tour of this former French Colony and finish off with a visit to this legendary shop.

Address of the shop: 247, G.T.Road ( East) , Barasat , Chandernagore,Hooghly : 712136 West Bengal ( India ).Phone No : (033) 2683 5640

Other details regarding the shop is available on the following website

http://www.jalbharasurjyamodak.com

© itiriti

Please visit the following article on Surjya Modak

http://yummraj.com/2012/11/02/surjya-kumar-modak-chandannagore-west-bengal/.