Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Rosogolla Revisited

Some time back I had blogged about the Rosogolla and how shocked I was to discover it had originated in Orissa. That post gets a lot of hits even now, and if you re-visit it you will notice a fierce debate (in the comments section) between the Bengali and Oriya camps, both of whom lay claim to this popular sweet dish.

JetWings Feb 2008While browsing the in-flight magazine on a Jet Airways flight recently, a photo-essay by Ranjita Biswas caught my attention. Ranjita traces the history of this famous 'Bengali' sweet; but her search ends in Bengal rather than Orissa. Here's are some excerpts (and pictures):

"It was during the British colonial days that the rosogolla suddenly appeared as an item on Bengal's platter... To trace it's origin, one has to travel to the Bagbazar area in Kolkata's northern part. Nobin Chandra Das, the man who invented the rosogolla, lived in Bagbazar for more than a century. He was poor and fatherless and his meagre income, from selling sweets in a ramshackle sweet shop, was the only source of sustenance for him and his widowed mother. Little did he know that one day he would become a legend..."

JetWings Feb 2008"Nobin Chandra's rosogolla was born in an age when Bengali mishti meant the ubiquitous Sandesh made with channa and sugar. As was the trend, Nobin Chandra also made Sandesh but he itched to do something new. He decided to experiment by using the same channa to make a sweet, but by boiling it in sugar syrup. Many of his attempts ended in failure, as once put in sugar, the cheese crumbled. He found that the boiling syrup had to be kept at an even temperature to let the casein stay intact. And on one fine day in 1868 the Rosogolla was born."

"But contrary to belief the sweet was not an instant hit... The rosogolla took its first few steps towards fame, when luck, in the form of businessman Bhagwandas Bagla, visited Nobin Chandra... At first the rosogolla was popularized by non-Bengalis and found a wider market when his son KC Das expanded the business"

Eating India by Chitrita BanerjiThis week I read Chitrita Banerji's evocative book on Indian cuisines, Eating India. About the Rosogolla, she writes, "It is supposed to have been invented (perhaps through a happy accident) by a nineteenth-century confectioner named Nobin Chandra Das, whose son, K.C.Das, opened the eponymous Calcutta shop in the 1930s..."

But then it gets interesting, "Like most Bengalis, I had always assumed that these and other channa-based sweets had evolved out of the regional imagination, until I came across the theory that the Bengalis had learned to make them from the Portuguese who settled around the Bay of Bengal in the 17th century."

Chitrita is a skilled writer and made the Bengali in me very nostalgic with her evocative descriptions of elaborate Bengali feasts and forgotten delicacies. Her research throws up the idea that channa was never used in ancient India, because the Hindus believed that deliberately 'cutting' or spoiling milk of the sacred cow by addition of acid is a sin. Apparently, the paneer only came to India with the Muslim conquerors from western and central Asia (and was never offered to Hindu gods).

She finds evidence of channa in Bengal only after the 18th century, during the same period when travellers wrote about the skilled Portuguese confectioners in Bengal, many of whom had settled here and married locals. Interestingly, she was unable to find any trace of channa-based sweets in Goa, which was the Portuguese's primary stronghold in India.

While the rosogolla's origins seems to be a matter of myth now (check out the wiki debate), there is no denying the pleasure of ending a Bengali meal with these spongy white delights!

If you like Indian food and history, you may also enjoy the following posts:

  • Biryani Stories
  • Of Nawabs and Kababs
  • Kababs In and Around Delhi

  • 19 comments:

    bint battuta said...

    Not fair! You've done it again! I'm hungry and drooling at the thought of rosogolla, and mishti dahi too, from KC Das in Bangalore...

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    Smita said...

    Usually I am sick and tired of Rosogulla jokes - oh ur as sweet as one, ur cheeks are as round as one. etc etc. But I do love the sweet. Good for the stomach too :)

    Kate / Kajal said...

    Looks like the rosogulla has had quite a journey ! really interesting and informative post.
    I now have new found respect for this sweet which i used to simply wolf down without ever wondering where, why n how it came into existence.

    Shantanu said...

    @bint battuta: Yeah, KC Das at Bangalore is quite an institution too. They moved to Bangalore during 1972 when the W.Bengal govt. banned milk-based sweets during a time when there was a milk shortage!

    @smita: Heh! :-)

    @kate/kajal: I find the history of our food fascinating too.

    Smita said...

    You have been tagged!

    You need to write 7 random things about yourself and tag 7 or more people to do the same. :))

    You may need to leave comment in their blogs so they know.:)

    Shantanu said...

    @smita: Hmmm...I don't have a great track record of responding to tags, I must point out. :-)

    Zhu said...

    It's funny, when I saw the picture it reminded me of a Chinese sweet!

    Philippines Travel Guide said...

    another food history post...the pic reminded me of a similar sweet here in the philippines

    Shantanu said...

    @zhu, philippines guide: Interesting. Looks like there are some rosogolla cousins in the Far East whose history needs to be traced too! Who knows if they are long-lost siblings? :-)

    Anonymous said...

    Hi Shantanu! Thanks for the fascinating post on one of the most loved sweets of India. You mentioned that you read the article on "Rosogolla-A sweet piece of history" in a recent in-flight magazine on Jet Airways.

    Would it be possible to find out about the month of publication of the issue featuring this article?

    Thanks and keep posting!

    Shantanu said...

    @anon: It is the current one (dated Feb 2008).

    Anonymous said...

    South East Asia is a non-cow herding culture. I have heard this theory that Rasgulla was popularized through Oriya sailors called Sadhabas.

    Indeed Orissa has a long history of influence in South East Asia. The Burmese pagoda architecture contain enough Oriya temple influence.

    One of the biggest festivals in coastal Orissa is the Bali Jatra (Journey to Bali) where children set paper ships afloat on the Mahanadi.

    I knew a Thai guy whose surname was Klinkachorn. I was told that the etymology of that surname is Kalinga Charan. (Kalinga = Orissa).

    Even Indonesian President Megawati's daughter is named Orissaputri.

    I am not surprised that some Oriya cuisine also took root there.

    Anonymous said...

    My claim about the tradition of rasgullas being prepared in the Jagannath temple during the Rath Jatra corroborated in a state newspaper:

    http://www.orissadiary.com/Shownews.asp?id=7511

    Rasgullas are a well established tradition in the Puri temple, not some newly introduced sweet from bordering Bengal (as some jingoes have claimed elsewhere).

    Anonymous said...
    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
    Anonymous said...

    I am extremely gracious for the fine posting sir! Maintain up your outstanding work. A big THANKS from me!

    Soumyojit Ganguly said...

    A well written post and a controversial one too. For me it does not matter where the sweet is originally from, till it's spongy and mouth watering :)

    Shantanu said...

    @Soumyojit: Exactly! Whoever did it, did a good job. :)

    Anonymous said...

    LIES, DAMN LIES & NOBIN DAS!

    According to the K. C. Das website itself, friends of this supposed culinary Einstein advised him to patent his famous creation, the rasgulla.

    According the website:
    "Contrary to the advice of his friends and admirers to take out patents, he taught the intricacies of Rossogolla-making to numerous sweetmeat makers."

    Except that there was no patent law in India those days! The first ever legislation to protect intellectual property law had just been introduced in India! It was Act VI of 1856 on Protection of Inventions. It granted "exclusive privileges" to the inventor. The legislation was designed only to safeguard British colonial interests. Not surprisingly, the first petition was filed by an Englishman - a certain civil engineer by the name of George Alfred DePenning for his invention, "An Efficient Punkah Pulling Machine".

    The first real patent law enacted in India was the Indian Patents and Designs Act 1911. Even this law was to safeguard British colonial interests and not designed to protect Indian inventors. This led to the Indian Patents Act of 1970: the first patent law designed to protect the likes of Indian inventors such as Nobin Das, which was over a century since he masqueraded as the creator of the rasgulla.

    To claim that way back in 1858, Nobin Das & Co. thought about patenting the rasgulla proves that the entire story is a load of PURE, UNADULTERATED BULLCRAP!