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Crafting Sweets in Bengal

 

Sweets play an important role in the everyday life of a Bengali—almost an inseparable part of the population’s cuisine and culture. It is common practice across West Bengal and other parts of India to welcome a guest by offering sweets. No life cycle ritual is complete without an exchange of sweets, so much so that among Bengali Hindus a special ritual of gift exchange called tatwa is responsible for a new category of sweets that is specially prepared for the occasion. Sweet shops have special sections in their sweetshops called tatwa sweets and they are mostly available on request; it is only when a customer wants to order tatwa sweets that he is made privy to the catalogue of the same. Tatwa sweets carry interesting embossing ranging from greetings, names of rituals to symbolic auspicious objects associated with Bengali weddings such as fish and butterfly. In other words, sweets dominate the ritual calendar of Bengali culture.

 

The very mention of the word sweet evokes the sensation of sweetness. Sweetness, as Sidney Mintz in his anthropological work on the spread of sugar in British diet shows, is intrinsically linked to Britain’s colonial history. The history of sugar is closely tied to the two other global commodities that was responsible for transatlantic trade and forced labour—tea and coffee. Interestingly, sugar can be added to both tea and coffee. Mintz in his work shows that if it were not for industrial Britain’s fetish for sweetened tea, the increase in consumption of sugar would not have achieved its peak. While on one hand sugar became synonymous with sweetness, another product that has been used across sweet dishes throughout the world is milk. Milk and milk products are mostly consumed in agrarian belts and India’s Gangetic belt is responsible for a culture of livestock rearing. Milk is the pan-Indian intermediate base of sweet preparation. Milk is one of the basic base to which grains of various kinds can be added to cook pudding. In Bengal, this dish is called payesh. Prepared from a special variety of short-grained sundried rice, milk and sweetening agent (sugar or molasses), this humble dish has many versions across Asia. There are many varieties of rice or cereals that can be used for this dish. On the milk front, it must be noted that in South East Asia coconut milk is used. Historian K.T. Achaya describes kheer as the ritual food and argues that the term is derived ‘from the Sanskrit word ksheer for milk and kshīrika for any dish prepared with milk’ (Achaya 2002:130). This dish acquires a new name with each topographical region. New variations are added depending on availability and use of cereals. What remains crucial in the sweet topography of Bengal is its importance in one of the life cycle rituals of Bengal—the Hindu birth ceremony. Payesh is the first food served to a child in the rice-feeding ceremony. For a boy, the rice-feeding ceremony is observed after three or six months, for a girl it is observed in an odd month. The rice feeding-ceremony or annaprasan is an occasion to introduce a newly born to Bengali food. What is significant to note is that payesh, the first wholesome food, becomes an important food item that is to be eaten on every birthday. While cakes have entered Bengali households, payesh has not lost its ritual significance.

 

Payesh is mostly cooked and consumed in households. Variations of payesh like chhana-r payesh (rice pudding made with tiny balls prepared from chhana) can be found in sweetshops. A close look at the non-availability of rice-based payesh in sweet shops can be attributed to Hindu codes of eating and offering foods to gods and goddesses that separate the domestic hearth from the commercial kitchen. In both sites (households and kitchens), ritual calendar plays an important role in deciding what kind of sweets will be prepared and served.

 

In the last quarter of the 19th century, the first recipe book dedicated to sweets was published— Mistanna-Pak (cooking sweets) by Bipradas Mukhopadhyay. In the second edition, we find at least 26 varieties of payesh. The select list below gives us of the varieties of tropical vegetables and fruits that were used to prepare payesh.

Nalen gur-er payesh (pudding made with natural palm jaggery)

 

Luchi-r payesh (pudding made with shredded pieces of fried discs of bread from flour)

 

Chira r-payesh (pudding made with flattened or beaten rice)

 

Khseer-er payesh (pudding made with thickened milk)

 

Gol alu-r payesh (pudding made with boiled cubes of potato)

 

Bonde-r payesh (pudding made with small droplets of sweet prepared from gramflour)

 

Kancha aam-er payesh (pudding made with raw mango)

 

Chhana-r payesh (pudding made with chhana [a form of cheese; coagulated milk through separation of whey water])

 

Kshirika (another name for payesh; made with rice and milk)

 

Kochi lau-er payesh (the signature ingredient of this payesh is unripened bottle gourd)

 

Golapi phirni (powdered rice cooked in milk and flavoured with rose petals)

 

Suji-r payesh (payesh made with semolina)

 

Komolalebu-r payesh (payesh made with oranges)

 

Kanthal bichi-r payesh (the signature ingredient is jackfruit seed)

 

Lal alu-r payesh (cubes of sweet potato is cooked with milk and sweetening agent)

 

Modhu-r payesh (the signature ingredient is honey)

 

Piyanj-er payesh (a pudding made with onions)

 

Mankochu-r payesh (taro root is the signature ingredient)

 

Paniphal-er payesh (water chestnut cooked with milk)

 

 

Apart from payesh, another common item that was prepared in households to commemorate rice harvest was pistak/pitha. Various recipe books hint at a wide variety of rice puddings that were made to celebrate poush parbon (Poush is the ninth month in Bengali calendar, and poush parbon is a harvest festival). Similar to payesh recipes, steamed rice cakes made innovative use of fruits. One such interesting pitha was kumra bichir panpitha (made from pumpkin seeds). The recipe involves patience and technique. Pumpkin is a tropical vegetable and is used in several vegetarian dishes in Bengali households. The ingredients used for this pitha are: grated coconut, thickened milk, sugar, arrowroot, semolina. The seeds are soaked, peeled and made into a paste. This paste is then mixed in appropriate proportions with the above ingredients and cooked on slow fire. When the mixture has reduced considerably to a dough-like consistency, it is finished with cardamom powder. After removing from the fire this mix is then given the shape of betel leaf roll (paan-er khili). Rolling betel leaf is an art; the leaf has to be folded in a cone shape. Once the rolls are ready, it is then cooked in piping-hot sugar syrup. Mukhopadhyay observes that many people prefer to cook it in milk. In that case, the milk is reduced with sugar and dry fruits like cashew, pistachio and even raisins. This enhances the flavour of the pitha. Household sweets, in other words, are made from a variety of base ingredients beyond milk. One of the most common sweets associated with households is made from a combination of grated coconut, sugar/jaggery. The cooked paste of narkel naru can be moulded into various shapes. Across households, terracotta and wooden moulds were used for coconut-based sweets. Payesh, pitha and naru are some of the sweets made in the households. Jayashree Mukhopadhyay (2010) in her recipe book Mishtimukh ('Sweetening one’s Mouth') divides her recipes into two main categories: ‘dokane toiri mishti’ (sweets made in sweetshops) and ‘barite toiri mishti’ (sweets made in households). This categorisation is important as any discussion of craftsmanship around sweet production requires equal attention to both these traditions. Most of the sweets in the household were prepared by women, or under the supervision of women. It is not a coincidence that recipes of household sweets reflect an innovative mix of fresh ingredients as well as leftover ingredients such as use of seeds. The use of fruits, vegetables in household sweets has inspired the commercial sweet production and hence it is not uncommon to spot a mango-flavoured curd in a sweetshop. In other words, sweet dishes which would have otherwise remained in the confines of domestic kitchens have made inroads into the commercial kitchens of sweetshops.

 

To understand a ‘Bengali’ sweetshop, it is very important to understand the base materials used in sweet production. Though Bengali sweets have become synonymous with chhana-based sweets, what did confectioners sell before the advent of chhana? Before the advent of chhana, sweetshops mostly sold sweets produced from sugar. Sugar candies in the form of nakuldana, batasha, kodma were not only offered to gods and goddesses, they were also consumed as part of everyday food. No guests in Bengal would be served water without a helping of batasha. Sugar candies are an important part of ritual life of Bengal as well. For instance, celebration of Holi would remain incomplete without a serving of kodma. Kodma is again a variety of sugar candy and is available in various shapes, sizes and colours. Any discussion on the sweet industry therefore requires an understanding of the history of sugar. In this edition Michael Krondl in his special article on sugar takes us through a journey of how sugar, sugarcane cultivation and jaggery is produced to set the backdrop of one of the most sought-after commodity which has acquired a new life in every food culture with its use. Sugar has been responsible for the transformation and mutation of food cultures through its innovative use in desserts. Michael Krondl’s larger work on history of desserts takes us through a fascinating journey of some dessert cultures beginning with India, Middle East, Italy, France, Viennna and finally stopping at United States. This history of desserts tells us about the power and landscape of sweetness.

 

In this vast landscape of sweetness, ‘Bengali’ sweets have become synonymous with roshogolla, mishti doi and sandesh. Both roshogolla and sandesh are prepared from chhana. Chhana is prepared from coagulation of milk and separation of whey water. There are several legends of origin associated with chhana. Drawing from K.T. Achaya, Chitrita Banerjee (2001) attributes the discovery of chhana to the Portuguese settlers who had settled in Bandel. It is believed that the local confectioners mastered the craft of making chhana while making victuals for the ship for sailors in Bandel (O’Brien 2013). The versatility of chhana can be attributed to the variety of ways in which it can be consumed. Chhana can be eaten raw with sugar, it can be cooked into a paste over fire and moulded into various forms and it can be boiled. Drawing from my previous work I argue that the cooking techniques is also responsible for the taxonomies employed at the workplace of sweet production. There are two departments for which workers are hired—pak-based items like sandesh and rakam or sugar-syrup-based items. Mostly karigars (craftsmen) are expected to join in as jogare (helper), followed by half-karigar, ununer karigar (unun meaning mud stove) and then pata-r karigar and rakam karigar. The wooden board on which a karigar gives final shape to the cooked chhana is known as pata. Cooked chhana is called pak. Pata, in other words, symbolises the skill of control over cooking methods, innovation and technique. Karigar/s come from varied caste backgrounds. However, during the course of my fieldwork in 2010–12, I was told that despite the diversification of caste backgrounds, mostly male Hindu workers are employed through kin networks. While people across caste backgrounds have joined the profession, once the craftsmanship of sweets was associated with the mayara/moira—the Bengali word for the confectioner and the confectioner caste group in Bengal. Many of the legends associated with the origins of roshogolla and sandesh points to the craftsmanship of a famous moira. Despite the dispute over the origin of roshogolla between West Bengal and Orissa it might be important to take stock of the various legendary moiras—Nobin Moira (ancestor of K.C. Das Pvt. Ltd), Surjya Moira (one of the famous moiras credited with the invention of jalbhara talsansh sandesh—sandesh shaped like a kernel of palmyra palm with a filling of flavoured water or jaggery) and many others. Both the legends are associated with chhana-based sweets—one of the rakam variety and the other from the variety of sweets that requires the chhana to be cooked. In other words, the proliferation of the Bengali sweet industry and the sweetshops can be attributed to chhana’s discovery. In addition to chhana, there are three other intermediate milk base from which sweets are made. They are sar (layer of milk cream), kheer (thickened milk), khoa (dessicated milk).  

 

Food historians working on Bengali food suggest that kheer-based sweets were prevalent before chhana was introduced. Evidences of kheer-based sweet culture can be found in Chaitanya’s biography. Shri Chaitanya was a leader of the Bhakti movement in Bengal. In one of his biographies there is a mention of sweets made from ‘puffed, popped, or flaked rice, combined with white or brown sugar and/or kheer. Others were concocted from flour, coconut, ground legumes, or sesame seeds’ (Banerjee 2001:89). Today kheer-based sweets can be found in several places in Nadia district. Krishnanagar, the district headquarters of Nadia district is not very far from Nabadwip—the birthplace of Shri Chaitanya. Two sweets are important to note here—sarbhaja and sarpuriya (See the interview with Prabir Kumar Modak, owner of a famous sweetshop in Krishnanagar). As the names suggest both these sweets are prepared from sar—a specially prepared cream that is sourced from milkmen households (See the video on the making of sar and interview with Baby Ghosh and Robi Ghosh for further details).

 

The sweet industry is dependent on a number of suppliers. One of the art and craft intrinsically tied to sweets is the art of making moulds. Crafting of moulds, as Anirban Banerjee reminds us, was done in households. Stone slabs were carved to make symbolic motifs for specially dried mango sheets called amsatta. Today, moulds are rarely prepared in households. Most shopkeepers profess that shops in Notun Bazaar, Kolkata, are the go-to place for buying moulds. Moulds are an important component of the sweet industry. During my fieldwork in Notun Bazaar, one of the craftsman recalled how one of the shopkeepers had gotten a designed sweet to order a mould. Moulds, as Anirban Banerjee’s essay shows, have undergone a change in terms of material and design. Mostly wooden and terracotta moulds are still found in shops (see the interview with Jayanta Kumar Das, one of the artisans skilled in carving moulds). Shops in Notun Bazaar also sell the pots and pans essential for sweet-making.

 

No discussion on the Bengali sweet industry can be complete without a detailed discussion of the pots and pans used in the sweetshops. Mrs J. Haldar, in her very successful recipe book and one of the first English recipe books dedicated to sweets, discusses the pots and pans used in sweet preparation. This book, like Mistanna Pak, ran into several editions. Though this book was meant for connoisseurs and amateur cooks, the discussion on pots and pans is useful to understand why this industry has remained artisanal despite mechanisation efforts. While the industry is innovating itself to meet industrial standards through introduction of quality control laboratories or machines, skill over tadu (a long wooden ladle) is considered to be extremely important for a well-cooked paste. According to Haldar (1926), there are four kinds of pans: khola (a deep pan used for boiling liquids), karha (a shallow pan for cooking), tal (a flat pan with two-inch edge used for frying), taoa (a flat pan with a curving in the middle). There are five kinds of ladles of which tadu is one. The other four are:

Hata:  A ladle with a hollow cup at the end, used to agitate liquids. It is mostly used by ununer karigar (karigar skilled at the workings of the oven)

 

Jhanjra: A skimmer used to remove scum

 

Khunti: Spatula

 

Kathi: A wooden stick to check consistency

 

Other accessories include pata (wooden board), sil-nora (slab and muller for pasting), chaki-belun (pastry board and rolling pin) and mortar-pestle (Haldar 1926:10).

 

The control over each of these tools are important for a karigar to transition from one stage to another. The control over temperature is one of the important techniques of cooking and as one karigar while sprinkling water to piping hot chhana balls in sugar syrup comments that one can replace hands with machines but one can never replace ideas. For instances across sweetshops, karigars add semolina or flour to chhana so that the chhana balls do not crack. Such additions are innovations. Since most of the sweetshops depend on chhana suppliers for chhana there can be difference in quality. Chhana, as most shopkeepers, including Prabir Kumar Modak, reminds us, is a delicate intermediate base and it has a very short shelf life. However, karigars have experimented with cooking methods and it is well known that the drier version of cooked chhana paste has a much longer shelf life. Hence, two kinds of sandesh are easily available in sweetshops—kara pak (sandesh made with the drier version of chhana paste) and naram pak (naram literally meaning soft). The soft version of cooked paste of chhana is used to make kanchagolla and this soft roundel melts in one’s mouth within minutes.

 

In other words, craftsmanship of sweets in Bengal has to be understood across two sites—the household and sweetshops. The base material used for sweet preparation is diverse in nature. Apart from intermediate milk bases like kheer, khoa and chhana, fruits and vegetables are also used with milk. This module begins with an introductory article on sugar by Michael Krondl and moves on to one of the important tools used in sweet industry—moulds. Anirban Banerjee takes us through a journey of domestic and commercial production of moulds. There are three interviews with experts associated with sweet industry—Prabir Kumar Modak, owner of a sweetshop and descendant of a legendary moira, Bijoy Moira of Krishnanagar; Baby Ghosh and Roby Ghosh (sar karigars and suppliers) and Jayanta Kumar Das (an expert mould carver). Also relevant are the three photo-essays providing an important visual narrative of the Bengal sweet industry. The first photo-essay on batasha by noted photographer Sanjeet Chowdhury is about a parallel tradition of sugar candies followed by an essay on chhana pattis or markets where chhana is sold. This photo-essay is important to understand one of the important supply-chain networks connected to the sweet industry. Last but not the least, Anirban Banerjee’s photo documentation of moulds housed at the Gurusaday Museum is a telling story of a bygone era of craftsmanship. This module, thus, attempts to bring together the diverse range of sweet traditions of Bengal.

 

 

References

Achaya, K.T. 2002. A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

 

Banerjee, Chitrita. 2001. The Hour of the Goddess: Memories of Women, Food and Ritual in Bengal. Kolkata: Seagull Books.

 

Dey, Ishita. 2015. ‘Production, Caste and Ritual in the “Bengali” Sweet Industry.’ PhD thesis. University of Delhi (unpublished).

 

Haldar, J. 1921. Bengal Sweets. Calcutta: Chuckervertty, Chatterjee & Co. Ltd.

 

Krondl, Michael. 2010. ‘The sweetshops of Kolkata.’ Gastronomica 10.3: 58–65.

 

———. 2011. Sweet Invention. A History of Dessert. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.

 

Mintz, Sidney. 1985. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Viking-Penguin.

 

Mukhopadhyay, Bipradas. (1311)1904. Mistanna-Pak. Volume 1 and Volume 2. Kolkata: Cornwallis Street Bengal Medical Library.

 

Mukhopadhyay, Jayasree. 2010. Mishtimukh. Kolkata: Ananda Publishers Private Limited.

 

O’Brien, Charmaine. 2013. The Penguin Food Guide to India. New Delhi: Penguin Books.