ASHEESH MAMGAIN | 26 SEPTEMBER, 2018
The sweet taste of Bengal
With Durga Puja approaching, it is natural for conversations to revolve around the sweet taste of Bengal. In Delhi all such conversations lead to Chittaranjan Park (or CR Park for short), the city’s very own mini Kolkata.
Originally known as EPDP Colony (East Pakistan Displaced People), CR Park today is one of the most vibrant and culturally rich communities of Delhi. Sweets are an integral part of the life of this community. Thus, this is the story of Bengali sweets like sandesh, rasogulla, singhara, patishapta and more.
Annapurna Sweets, Kamala Sweets, Akshay Tritiya, Rasoraj, Aristocrat and Sweet Treat are some of the shops spread across Market Number 1 and Market Number 2 of CR Park, selling purely Bengali sweets. Together these shops churn out a phenomenal variety.
(A selection of sandesh)
Sandesh is quintessential to Bengal and enjoys the highest place in the world of Bengali sweets. Interestingly, Sandesh is also the name of a children’s magazine in Bangla, which was brought out by the grandfather of the famous film director Satyajit Ray, who revived it in 1961. Sandesh is a witty play on words, as it means ‘message’ and of course, it also meant the much-loved Bengali sweet. Chaitanyacharitamrita, the epic biography of the 15th-century Krishna devotee Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, mentions sandesh as a sweet.
The invention of the modern-day version of the sweet is credited to Bhim Nag, a sweet maker from Kolkata in the mid-19th century. It is said that the sandesh he made in his shop was so loved by Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa that he would have it every day.
(A traditional sandesh shape)
Sandesh is also the symbol and product of the 19th-century Bengal renaissance under European influence. It is made with chhena (cottage cheese or paneer), which is made by curdling milk and separating the whey from it. Traditionally, using curdled milk was taboo in India and nobody would do it. But under the influence of European colonisers who used curdled milk to make cheese and who first entrenched themselves in Kolkata, the taboo was broken. Soon Chhena was being made into sweets.
Sandesh is one dish that has seen a lot of innovation by Bengali sweet makers. In dextrous hands, the delicate soft medium of chhena is turned into different shapes and forms. Today it comes in innumerable flavours, with a variety of fillings and accordingly different names too. To fashion chhena into this dessert, it is dried, pressed and then flavoured with the essence of fruits, and sometimes even coloured, and can be cooked to many different consistencies.
(A variety of Bengali sweets)
Endless sugar syrup oozing sweets are made out of chenna, like the famous chom chom. The same chhena is moulded into balls, which are then boiled in sugar syrup to give us another quintessential Bengali sweet dish: rasogulla.
Rasogulla reached an importance of epic proportions when West Bengal and Odisha fought a long and fierce legal battle about the bragging rights of being the inventor and thus the owner of rasogulla. West Bengal eventually triumphed. This led to the authentication of the claim of Nobin Chandra Das, a sweet maker from Kolkata, as the inventor of the sweet in 1860.
There is another story related to Nobin Chandra Das. When Lord Canning took over as the Governor General of India in 1858, the British authorities asked N.C Das to fashion a sweet in the honour Lady Canning. Das created a golden-brown sweet dipped in sugar syrup, which looked somewhat like a gulab jamun but in an elongated shape. It was deep fried in ghee to bestow it a deep brown colour. A very popular Bengali sweet even today, it was named Ledikeni in honour of Lady Canning.
Another fairly recent and very popular twist on the rasogolla, also to be had in CR Park, is the baked rasogulla. Although there are a few claimants to its invention the claims of one famous sweet maker from Kolkata, Balram Mullik, seem to be most convincing. Baked rasogollas are made by pouring a mixture of paneer, milk, cornflour-water mixture, saffron-water, powdered sugar and cardamom powder over rasgollas which have been squeezed to remove the sugar syrup. The whole thing is then baked at 150 degrees Celsius for five minutes and then served.
(Bengali sweets samosa)
Bengali sweets also include a sweet version of North Indian samosa, which the Bengalis called singhara. It is filled with khoya and dry fruits. Another version of this sweet, reminiscent of the Middle Eastern baklava, is called Long Lata, where a clove is used to hold the sweet together.
Coconut, a widely available ingredient in Bengal, is at the heart of quite a few delectable Bengali sweets, from the humble narkel naru (coconut laddus of a sort) to the half-moon-shaped chandrapuli and soft white balls of kacha gola sandesh.
Another perennial Bengali sweet, made especially by women during Anand Mela, a day of public feasting prior to Durga Puja, is the patishapta. It is a thin crepe stuffed with coconut, jaggery or kheer.
(Customers enjoying their sweets)
(A sweet shop in CR Park)
(A sweet shop in CR Park)