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

Straight from the book

Like many people; I am a flipkart addict.  I have to browse flipkart at least thrice a day and the list of books to purchase have increased over the time.  I have a friend of mine who has travelled a long way from making the most innovative cheesy Maggie and scrambled eggs to all that tickles her taste buds. She and I have always bonded over our love for food and recipe books. Since our school days our taste buds have rarely failed to betray us till a recent glitch when I complemented a friend that she had made delicious chutney with the dosa and she politely reminded me on a social networking site that she had forgotten to add the salt.  Keeping aside this embarrassment and barring a few such dramatic encounters with my failed senses I have fared pretty well in what a microbiologist would call “sensory evaluation”.  

Early reminiscences of my sensory evaluation days began with my maa( Bengali word for mother)’s weekend experiments with Bengali food. Her all time favourite was Beladi’s cookbooks. She used to follow Beladi’s tips for preparing exciting tiffins for me, she used them to make interesting Sunday lunches and to top it all she used them to bake cakes.  My mother closely followed the recipes of Bela Dey’s book Jol Khabar ( Bengali word for snacks and tiffin) and her columns in a Bengali Newspaper Bartaman. While she tried most of the recipes to her satisfaction she regrets that she never tried Mushroom Pakora as she did not know how to clean mushrooms and prepare them.  We stayed in an industrial township where even paneer was a luxury in my childhood. When she came to visit my small pad and discovered a packet of mushrooms stacked away in the refrigerator she told me that she will pass on a simple, easy to make recipe when I visit her. The recipe is easy and quick to make. Despite her insistence to photocopy the section on snacks from her prized possession of Jal Khabar I forgot to get a photocopy.

One fine day when I bought a packet of mushrooms and was fiddling with it and wondering what to prepare for some friends  I googled  Bela Dey and realised that a website has some of her recipes from the book Jal Khabar. I was elated that I could whisk away some of the snacks from my childhood evenings during tea breaks. And even my mother’s favourite mushroom pakora. The link is as follows

http://kolkata.streetprint.org/items/11362?authors=Bela+Dey

For all non- Bengali readers you can leave a personal message and I can translate some of the mouth-watering snacks that Bela Dey pens here. The list of snacks available on the above link are  Kucho Nimki (Small Namkeens), Shaker Bara ( Pakora made from Saag/ Greens), Egg-Bread Pakora, Chicken Pakora, Egg Pakora, Egg-Tomato Pakora, Paneer Pakora and Mushroom Pakora.

The genesis of cookbooks is varied and specific to each culture. Cookbooks represent our and their time. In fact coming to Bengali cook books some of the oldest cook books in Bengal and the way food was coded with nationalist identity, the authentic and creation of a “Bengali” middle class is evident in a fascinating essay by Utsa Ray titled “Aestheticising labour: an affective discourse of cooking in colonial Bengal” South Asian History and Culture,1:1:60-70. In this essay Utsa Ray discusses the genesis of Bengali cook books and how the aesthetics were cooking was seen as an integral component of creation of modern Bengali woman. While the “domestic” hearth in colonial times remained in the hands of women who needed to be trained in the aesthetics of cooking “Bengali” and other cuisines; the public/ commercial kitchens were manned by professional cooks/ men popularly known as thakurs (preferably Brahmins from Orissa) who were specially invited to cook a meal during special occasions. Initially it was the male culturalogues who dictated how women should have spacious kitche, and observe kitchen hygiene. Latter the print capitalism aided women to voice their concerns relating food in the public domain through recipe books. One of the important landmarks in the history of documentation of Bengali recipes date back to Bamabodhini, (from 1884) a periodical meant for women. Similarly Mahila another woman’s journal also published recipes from 1895. But what defined the journey of woman’s cookbook was PragyaSundari Debi’s two volumes of Amish and Niramish Ahar( Two Volumes on Vegetarian and Non-  Vegetarian cooking). She was the editor of the  journal Punya.

While Pragya Sundari Debi’s cook books describe the art of Bengali cooking it is significant to see how the cookbooks represent the changing times. The changing times of measurement scales, the changing times of taste and culinary skills, and most importantly the changing class. Every time I have to recommend a friend to try some “old”/”traditional” Bengali dishes I take out my PragyaSundari Debi volumes and go through the pages and reinvent the dishes using my quick fix options I wonder the effect and appeal these cookbooks must have had when it was published. In this context, Utsa Ray points out the way aesthetics of recipes was coded with “authentic” taste/ “authentic”. While the search for the authentic and reproduction of authentic goes hand in hand in public and private hearths it is important to understand the ways in which cookbooks capture the times of a by-gone era, the present and the future.

©itiriti