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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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