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.