We Bengalis cannot conceive of confections without a plateful of quintessential Bengali sweetmeats waiting to greet our taste-buds. Any slighting reference to sweets is nothing but blasphemy in our state, despite a steady rise in the percentage of diabetics. The eighteenth century is particularly relevant in the socio-cultural history of Bengal, with the intellectual middle class ushering in what is called the Bengal renaissance.
The period deserves special mention in the culinary history of Bengal as well. With Calcutta as its centre, the sweetmeat manufacturers or ‘moiras’ began to experiment with their recipes and came up with delicacies that would change the course of Bengali cuisine over the years. Rossogolla, chom-chom, mihidana, pantua, sondesh-each with its own share of uniqueness brought fame to Bengal. The milky-white, spongy rossogollas share an inseparable bond with Bengali culture and lead the overseas market of Bengali confectionery products. How and where did these sweets originate?
Bengal’s much-adored rossogolla is traditionally believed to be invented by Nabin Chandra Das, who owned a small confectionery shop in North Calcutta. He was popularly known as ‘Rossogolla’r Columbus’ or ‘The Columbus of Rossogolla’ by the people in his locality for his unparalleled invention. Balls of chhana or Indian cottage cheese were boiled in sugar syrup, which became spongy rossogollas when the cheese absorbed the syrup.
In the recent past, the government of Odisha has disputed Bengal’s claim to the traditional sweet, stating that rossogollas have been a part of ratha yatra rituals ever since the famed Jagannath Temple in Puri was established. According to the public relations officer of the temple, rossogollas were offered to the Lord and the sweet is undoubtedly an Odiya one. Bengali historian Haripada Bhowmick, an authority on Bengali sweets opined that the Odiya variant of rossogolla is ‘kheer mohana rossgolla’, which is in no way similar to the spongy rossogollas popular in Bengal. No matter what the bone of contention is, rossogollas will continue to fascinate epicureans across the globe.
Though there are references to ‘sondesh’ in twelfth to sixteenth century culinary texts, experts have argued that these sweetmeats were markedly different from the modern variety. While the 16th century variety had ‘kheer’ or thick milk paste as its chief ingredient, ‘chhana’ is mostly used to manufacture sondesh in Bengal. It is commonly believed that the Bengali moiras learned the art of making chhana from the Portuguese traders, who used citric acid for cutting milk in order to produce an indigenous variety of cheese. Bhola Moira’s shop is regarded as the birthplace of Bengali sondesh, which started selling sondesh from 1851. Within a decade, the sweet earned its reputation and other sweetmeat manufacturers tried their hand at kneading chhana to make sondesh. Experimentation and innovation led to the creation of masterpieces like jolbhora sondesh, monohora, gurer sandesh and scores of mouth-watering variants.
Pantua too, is made of chhana and the delicacy came to prominence shortly after the invention of rossogolla. It is prepared by frying a mixture of chhana and semolina and dipping it into a thick sugar syrup. Pantua originated in Calcutta, though the name of its inventor is uncertain. Ledikeni, another popular sweet belonging to the pantua brethren, has a very interesting history. During the tenure of British Viceroy Lord Canning in India, Bhim Nag, a popular confectioner in Calcutta dedicated a tweaked version of pantua to Lady Canning on her birthday. Out of respect for the Lady, Bhim Nag prepared a slightly different form of pantua and named it after her. Hence, it came to be known as Lady Kenny or ledikeni. Ledikeni is not dipped in sugar syrup, only a bit of it is stuffed inside.
Mihidana and Sitabhog
Both Mihidana and Sitabhog originated from Burdwan and are quite different from the chhana-based sweets. History says that on the 10th of February 1904, Viceroy Lord Curzon visited the King of Burdwan, Vijaychandra to confer on him the title of Maharaja. To make the visit memorable, local sweet manufacturer Bhairav Chandra Nag cooked up a delicious sweet called mihidana. In Bengali, mihi means fine and dana means grain and therefore, the name of the sweet implies fine grains. Mihidana has been recognized as a heritage sweet of India, with its iconic flavour and rich colour.
Sitabhog too, was an invention by Bhairav Chandra Nag and thus having the same origin as the mihidana. Both Sitabhog and Mihidana use high quality powdered rice as the chief ingredient. Legend has it that the sitaser variety of gobindobhog rice, growing in a particular part of Burdwan district gives the dish its remarkable flavour.
Calcutta has definitely lost its intellectual milieu over the years, with rising political conflicts and decline in creative faculties. The culinary heritage however, remains intact and looks promising. While the city dwells in all that has been lost, it has a myriad of sweets for companions.