Why Bengalis can't claim Netaji or rosogolla

It was being offered at the Jagannatha Temple in Puri more than 100 years before the people of Bengal woke up to their beloved sweetmeat.

 |  Fortune Cookie  |  4-minute read |   02-08-2015
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Being a Bengali, I will be accused of being blasphemous, but I believe the weight of history is in favour of Odisha government’s move to seek a Geographical Indication (GI) tag for the rosogolla. For most flag-waving Bengalis, that is like saying Subhas Chandra Bose was an Odiya because he was born and raised in Cuttack, but historical evidence points to the rosogolla having been invented at Pahala, a still-thriving village of confectioners located on national highway five between Bhubaneswar and Cuttack. And even Mamata Banerjee can’t alter history.

The halwais of Pahala called the sweetmeat "kheer mohana" and it was being offered at the Jagannatha Temple in Puri as far back as in the 18th century, more than 100 years before the Bengalis woke up to their beloved rosogolla. The palm leaf manuscript, Niladri Mahodaya, which historian Sarat Chandra Mahapatra dates back to the 18th century, mentions the ritual of Lord Jagannatha offering kheer mohana to his consort, Mahalaxmi, to pacify her anger over his nine-day sojourn without her. This ritual, which saw 15 quintals of rososgollas being offered to the goddess this year, is still performed as a part of the Niladri Bije ("the arrival of god") festivities during the Rath Yatra. Temple historians, notably Jagatbandhu Padhi, insist this ritual is as old as the temple itself, which was built in the 12th century.

As one approaches Pahala village on one’s way to the seaside pilgrimage town of Puri from Bhubaneswar, a halt at the Kalinga sweet market, a beehive of shacks selling uniformly priced sweet specialities of the area, is like a ceremonial ritual. You cannot escape it. It is quite possible that Bengali pilgrims to Puri’s Jagannatha Temple brought back sweet memories and perhaps the recipe of the cream-coloured kheer mohana that used be sold at Pahala, which is equally famous for its unputdownable chhena poda (I call it the Indian cheesecake, for there’s no other way to describe it more accurately) and chhena gaja, which are made from a dough of paneer and sooji, and deep-fried in sugar syrup.

But it was not the Pahala kheer mohana recipe that Kolkata’s sweetmeat-maker Nobin Chandra Das, father of the KC Das immortalised on rosogolla cans, perfected into the sponge rosogolla at his hole in the wall in Baghbazar in 1868. For Bengalis, who were till then familiar only with the dry chhena sweetmeat famously known as sandesh, a newer gustatory height was scaled with the perfection of the rosogolla.

What Nobin Chandra did after much experimentation was first steam chhena (cottage cheese) balls and then soak them in sugar syrup. Food writer Madhulika Dash credits the invention of this technique to another Odiya sweetmeat maestro, Bikalananda Kar of Salepur village, near Cuttack. Nobin Chandra’s sponge rosogolla, clearly, was an evolutionary step forward for the sweetmeat invented in Pahala, which was different because it was cream coloured, soft but not spongy, and the halwais who made it added arrowroot powder and sooji to the chhena.

With Kolkata being the second metropolis of the British empire, rosogolla became synonymous with it and the emerging Bengali identity (although it was a Shekhawati millionaire, the timber merchant Bhagwandas Bagla, who popularised it far beyond the obscure corner of Baghbazar from where Nobin Chandra operated). Nobin Chandra, though, must get the credit for using reetha (soap nuts) to counter an enzyme in the protein named casein, the main component of chhena, which caused rosogolla balls to disintegrate when put into sugar syrup.

The technique not only gave rosogollas stability and durability, but also their famed sponginess by trapping the bubbles produced during the cooking process. And of course, it was Nobin Chandra’s son, Krishna Chandra Das, who made these rosogollas a household name by canning them. It was also KC Das who opened the first proper shop, Krishna Chandra Das Confectioner, along with his younger son and Olympic weightlifter Sarada Charan, to carry forward his father’s legacy.

Constant innovation is the biggest contribution of the Das family to Bengal’s sweetmeat industry, which saw them invent delicacies such as the ice-cream sandesh and the Amrita Kumbha sandesh for diabetics. But the villager of Pahala beat them to the invention of the rosogolla.

Indian delicacies that already have the GI tag:

Dharwar pedha (Karnataka)

Feni (Goa)

Tirupati laddu (Andhra Pradesh)

Bikaneri bhujia (Rajasthan)

Nashik valley wine (Maharashtra)

Writer

Sourish Bhattacharyya Sourish Bhattacharyya @sourishb1963

The writer is a columnist for Mail Today, blogger at Indian Restaurant Spy and a founder member of the Delhi Gourmet Club.

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