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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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