“MISHTI MELA” A Cornucopia of Sweet Delights
Dessert has always been the “piece de resistance” of the Bengali culinary arts. AAPI’s Global Health Summit 2017 in Kolkata offers a unique opportunity to experience the varied sweet savories from Amar Sonar Bangla. Beyond the ubiquitous Rossogolla, Cham Cham, Payesh and the hybrid concoction called Rasmalai- found in every desi joint, there is a mind boggling array of sweets, some not really known beyond the local regions, that are truly masterpieces of confectionery. A visitor to Kolkata usually returns with reminiscences of the lip- smacking Mishti Doi and the sublime varieties of Sandesh-so unlike the “pedas” of the rest of the country; however it takes a diligent effort to explore all the varieties of Bengali desserts, some of which are of the seasonal homemade variety- not to be found in any local stores anywhere.
Most Bengali sweets are cottage cheese or “chhanna” based unlike those of Northern India where you have usage of dried milk or “khoya”. Some have coconut or semolina as additives. The sweetener is usually cane sugar though jaggery derived from palm trees often imparts its own distinct color and flavor. The fillers can be fruits ranging from litchi to mango and jackfruit or vegetables like the sweet potato and tomato. Yoghurt is of course paramount in the “doi” preparations.
Arguably, the prize-winner for the lesser known regional varieties would be Sitabhog and Mihidana of Burdwan. Sitabhog- legendary favorite of Sita, looks like grains of white or yellow rice and Mihidana looks like delicate yellow boondis, but are a melt in the mouth combination made by a Bhairab Nag whose descendants still run the local shops. Apparently this dessert was commissioned by the local royal family to commemorate Lord Curzon’s visit to the area, who liked it so much that he made it the official sweet during his tenure. These rarely make it outside
the region as refrigeration is taboo and they have to be consumed on the same day.
Langcha from Shaktigarh is an oblong fried combination of chhanna, khoya and flours of different cereals. According to Bengali author Narayan Sanyal’s novel ”Rupamanjari” the bride from Krishnanagar, married to a prominent Burdwan family, yearned to eat a certain sweet during her pregnancy, prepared back home by her lame cook. Unable to remember the name of the sweet she called it “Langcha” meaning “lame” in fond memory of her childhood
A favorite during Durga Puja season is Shorbhaja- fried layers of thickened cream originating in Krishnanagar and a close relative the Shorpuriya which resembles a milk cake.
Different from all of the above is the winter delicacy of puffed rice and date palm jaggery called the Joynagarer Moa. A simple rustic sweet, it is sold door to door by street hawkers in this town in South 24 Parganas during the season. Not to be outdone,are the Jolbhora Sandesh of Chandernagore,Lal Doi of Nabadwip, AamerMorobba of Siuri, Birbhum, Garbeta’s Balushahi, Malda’s Rashakadombo, and Berhampore’s Channa Bora.
Ledikeni is aunique sweet commissioned by Lord Canning for his wife’s birthday party. A team of confectioners worked for days to come up with an elegant variety, stuffed with elaichi and saffron and fried in ghee. Totally different in taste from the Langcha orPantua,its name is pidgin for Lady Canning.
Every household in Bengal has its own favorite recipes for Naru, Pithey, Payesh and chutneys, and every Bengali will wax eloquent over how his favorite aunt or grandmother made a certain gokul or patishapta or raangaalur pithey, chushi pulli or nalen gurer payesh during the harvesting festival of Poush Parbon Sankranti.
The usually non- entrepreneurial Bengali has been able to develop, can, and export the iconicRossogolla.In 1868 Nobin Chandra Das created the spongy tender Rossogolla and his physicist grandson Sarat Chandra Das created the technique of canning Rossogollahelping it to travel outside India. He was always looking for waysto innovateand introduced chocolate and fruit fillings after visiting Switzerland. From Japan he brought back machines to steam sweets instead of cooking on an open fire and machines to kneadchanna. K.C. Das’s Rossogolla tins are a fixture in every Indian grocery store all over the world.
Now, to enter into a swirling, deep, dark controversy. It appears that the famous Rossogolla, mascot of Bengali mishti, may not have originated there but in Orissa in the 12th century. According to legend Lord Jagannath offered a variant of Rossogolla similar to kheer mohanna of Pahala to his wife Laxmi to appease her prior to his 9 day RathYatra. West Bengal has filed an applicationfor Geographical Identification tag to stake its claim and preempt Orissa.
Newer flavorsare now the rage in Bengalisweet making, catering to a young urbane multi-cultural palate-often fusing Indian and western recipes. When it comes to innovation and experimentation, the sky is the limit and the Bengali cuisine certainly has a head start.