August 17, Kolkata (Calcutta Tube/IBNS): Bengal is known for its delectable sweets. Now it is going global in taste and marketing, keeping with the times, finds Baishali Mukherjee.
Reshmi Singh, a doctor, was attending a marriage party of her colleague. It was an elaborate affair consisting of delicacies from all over India. Being a foodie she was enjoying every bit of her gastronomical experience. “But what came as a surprise was the dessert: traditional Bengali sweet Malpoa served with Brandy sauce! Though I knew about Bengali sweets gaining international flavour lately- but Brandy sauce! Simply out of the world,” she enthuses.
This kind of happy surprise is becoming common these days at opulent parties. With increasing overseas travel by Indians, food- along with many other things, are acquiring an international aura. Bengal sweet is not lagging behind.
From the archaic to the ultra modern, from the rich to the plebs- and from the veggies to the non-veg, sweets- typical Bengali sweets have successfully wooed them all. That includes celebrities, Bollywood stars to international sportspersons visiting Kolkata. Few can withstand the temptation of savouring a hot rosogolla or a Nalen Gurer sandesh (with a jaggary made from date palm). This item hits the menu during winter when this jaggery makes its appearance.
Rosogolla is believed to have been first made by Nabin Chandra Das, father of Krishna Chandra Das (The original owner of the famous sweet joint K C Das) in 1868, though some say that the rosogolla actually originated in Orissa and is as old as the Ratha Yatra in Puri. But sandesh was in vogue even before that. Though it is hard to determine exactly when the term ‘sandesh’ came to indicate a sweet made of chhana (sweetened cottage cheese) rather than kheer (thickened milk), it is reasonable to assume that the term became quite common by the later half of the 19th century.
Sanjay Budhia, managing director, Patton Group, is a self confessed sweet lover. “I must confess I have a sweet tooth. In spite of restrictions – self imposed or otherwise, I take full advantage of the special occasions and gorge on sweets on special days like– Raksha Bandhan, Diwali etc. when you get an official license to indulge in.” Though he has tasted some of the new innovative sweets like the Black Current sandesh and liked it too, he confesses that “I prefer to stick to the traditional stuff when it comes to sweets.”
Indrani Mukherjee, a young entrepreneur who runs a boutique, loves sweet in any form. “I have tasted the strawberry and papaya flavored sandesh and loved it. But the mere mention of Bhim Nag’s (a famous sweetmeat shop in Bowbazar area) Abar Khabo sandesh or the Jawl Bhora sandesh of Surya Modak of Chandannagar, makes my mouth water. Still I feel that the experimentations are good, especially the recent innovation of low-calorie ‘Diabetic sandesh.” This sweet was born out of both necessity and demand by diabetic patients who love sweets but are forbidden to take them. With India arguably the Diabetes capital of the world, the reason is not difficult to find.
However, for the renowned writer Mani Shanker Mukherjee of Chowringhee fame, experimentation with Bengali sweets is a no-no. He believes that there are certain things in this world like the classical music, where there isn’t any scope for experimentation, Bengali sweets should stand firm against the tide of interference. He insists that nothing can substitute a rosogolla or a Nalen gurer sandesh. “Traditional Bengali Sweets”, Shankar says, “are so rich and satisfying in taste that they don’t need to be changed in any way.”
Nevertheless, Bengali sweet is now spreading its wings to woo the new generation with its many variations. Savour these mouth-watering items: Parijat (a mix of pista, nuts and kheer), Moushumi (sandesh stuffed with nuts and coconut), Golapi Pera (pure chhena rolled in rose water), Dilkhush (kheer, chhena and pista) and Sourabh (chhena with sugar globules and pista).
Maestro Satyajit Ray was a frequenter at Nokur, so now are his son Sandip Ray and Tollywood director Rituparno Ghosh, often billed as Ray’s protégé,. Singer Manna Dey has a sweet tooth; so do actors Vidya Balan, Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai who try out the Bengali goodies when in Kolkata. “Bengali sweets are now travelling beyond Bengal. This recent gourmet trend is aimed at keeping sweets of Bengal contemporary and relevant to younger people,” says Prashanta Nundy of Nokur. Therefore, to tempt the new palate, the 165-year old Nokur is adding new flavours—orange, pineapple, mango lichi, black currant and kiwi—to its sandesh. Nokur already ‘exports’ its sweets to various parts of the country and abroad, from its base in North Kolkata.
What used to be a mere family-based industry is now looking beyond the horizon and talking of export markets and patents, terms unthinkable in the past. But their primary focus is to strengthen their footing to the other parts of India.
Globalization together with the new market reality has resulted in a change in the character of Bengali sweets which now come with a blend of nuts, pistachio, rose water and cardamom. The enterprising confectioners are honing the desi spread with some internationally preferred flavours like black current, kiwi and strawberry. So you have Alphanso Dahi from Balaram; Black currant sandesh/ Kiwi sandesh/ Strawberry Rabri from Nokur; Strawberry Rosogolla from Gupta’s; Tulsi Doi and Tulsi sandesh from Hindustan Sweets and Soya Roll, Rose-cream Peshwari, Orange Dahi from K.C. Das.
Says Rabindra Kumar Paul, general secretary of West Bengal Sweetmeat Makers’ Association and director of Hindustan Sweets: “ Though people of Asian origin are our primary customers, Americans and Europeans are increasingly taking interest in this delicacy. They are gradually getting aware that where a pastry is full empty calories, a sandesh or rosogulla have some nutritional value. However, compared to the Indian customers who often ask for the international flavours, the foreigners and the NRIs prefer the traditional flavours.”
K.C. Das, arguably the most popular brand of Bengali sweets (particularly for its canned rosogollas), is also gearing up to go global, albeit more aggressively as is clear from its retail spread—five shops in Kolkata, as many as nine in Bangalore and one shop in Mysore. What was a shanty shop at corner of Baghbazar in North Kolkata way back in 1866, is now Boasting of items like many innovative sweets.
Hemen Das, one of the proprietors of K.C. Das, is excited about their Bangalore outlet. “We are having 1.5 times more sale there than in Kolkata. Most of our customers there are non-Bengalis,” he says. The popularity of Bengali sweets among the non-Bengalis can also be made out from the fact that Haldiram’s which mainly cater to the non-Bengali customers are now coming up with sweets like rosogolla giving steep competition to the traditional outlets.
So, would the fusion sweets mark the end of the good ol’ mishti? A vehement no comes from Amor Bhattacharya, an NRI living in Dallas: “Traditional Bengali sweets are inimitable and have proved their worth. They are part of history now. Let them come up with items like Carrot rosogolla, Soya rosogolla, Tulsi rosogolla, but nothing can take the place of a plain hot Rosogolla”. But Atalanta Banerjee of Bangalore seems quite happy with the fusion sweets, “I just love to savour a Rosecream Peshwari. It melts in your mouth and the flavour is just awesome. I often visit the K.C. Das outlet on my way back from office.”
The next course? Sweet makers are now taking steps to integrate traditional and modern methods of production. K.C. Das is carrying on research at its southern unit in Bangalore to improve the flavour of its prime product, the rosogolla.
Aiding these efforts is Jadavpur University, where scientists are trying to evolve standardized procedures to be followed by the sweet makers. “Since health and fitness have become important now-a-days, Kalyani University, Indian Institute of Chemical Biology and IIT-Kharagpur are coming up with new ideas to help us develop new sweets that are healthy,” says Paul.
Ranging from traditional to international, Bengal’s repertoire of sweets is getting more and more colourful and exotic thus making its birth place the dessert capital of India.