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Importance of 'sar' in sweets of Bengal

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Sourav Roy in conversation with Baby Ghosh and Robi Ghosh, Krishnanagar, West Bengal, 2017

Sourav Roy (SR): I want to begin by asking you both of you, when did you get into this business of making sar?

Rabi Ghosh (RG): I have been doing it for the last twenty six years. Before me, my father was there, before that my grandfather it has been on for quite some time. I will continue as long as I can. After that, I have to stop it anyway, if my body doesn’t permit.

Baby Ghosh (BG): This business is of my father and mother-in-law’s. When I got married into this family I also became a part of it. I am from an interior village. I learned it from my late mother-in-law, my husband gets the milk and I make the sar.

 

S.R.: Rabida, please tell us how you begin in the morning.

R.G.: Around five in the morning, I go to milk the cows. First I milk the cows in the neighbourhood and give the milk to her so that she can start the process of making sar. Then I go to the other villages to collect milk –Anandanagar, Sahebnagar, Mayakhol. I comeback and supply some of the milk to other customers, even though my main business is of sar and not milk, so I bring most of the milk for my own use. I used to do all parts of making the sar myself, now that I don’t get the time, I do most of the drying process after the sar is made, it has to be done over many times. It requires thorough drying, turning, and fanning if needed. It can’t be done at one go, it has to be done over and over again. As I do the milking myself, I pick the local breed, because their milk has more fat and it makes good sar. The cow which gives more milk, has less fat in the milk. So I pick five cows and take one litre of milk from each, five litres in total. I will not take five litres of milk from a single cow. It makes a lot of difference in milk quality. I am ready to pay them a higher price so that I can get better quality milk and charge a higher price for my own product.

 

S.R.: Baby-di, now I want to ask you, after Rabi da brings the milk, it is your turn to make the sar. Please tell us how you go about doing it.

B.G.: So, only cow-dung can be used as fuel for making sar. So first I boil the milk in a large kadhai (thick –bottomed wok) and once it is boiled, I portion the hot milk equally in small kadhai-s, mostly around fifteen, twenty in the season when the demand is high. Under each kadhai there is very small amount of slowly burning fuel, so that the milk is boiling on a very low heat. You can’t hurry the process. And slowly a thick film of cream (sar) starts to settle on top of the milk. I have to constantly adjust the heat under each kadhai.  When the round layer of sar is thick and dry enough to separate from the liquid milk under it, I take it out carefully and pour the milk back into the large kadhai. So one by one I do this for each small kadhai.  The disc of sar taken out is kept out to dry (on a layer of thin washcloth laid on a winnow).

 

S.R.: How do you know when you can take off the sar?
 

B.G.: It takes about forty minutes for each small kadhai. I take it off one by one with a thin blade. I can understand when it is ready to take off by looking at it.

 

S.R.: With the milk constantly boiling and changing, how does the nature of sar change?

B.G.: I am continuously putting boiling milk in the small kadhai for each batch. In the start, the milk is whiter and sweeter and so is the sar. As the milk continues to boil, it changes colour and becomes more brownish and saltier, so the sar too is saltier and more yellow.
 

R.G.: After she takes out the sar, she keeps it on the bed of absorbent cloth on top of a winnow. I take turns to shift it from one bed to the other every half an hour or forty-five minutes.  I turn them over each time I shift, so that they don’t get stuck on the cloth. If they get stuck, they will tear. Then I have to stack them together. Some of them need fanning (electric fan) to dry properly. Earlier you start, the less milk it takes to make sar, the faster it dries and everything goes smoothly. The later you start, things tend to go wrong, it takes more time and more effort.

 

S.R.: And why do you think that happens?

R.G.: It actually depends on the location of the sun and the nature of sunlight in the morning.  In cloudy days, what takes thirty minutes to dry, will take forty-five minutes. It gets especially difficult in the monsoons, when one has to dry the sar next to the clay oven, where we have a rack of iron rods. Then I have to turn them over at very short intervals, otherwise they stick to the cloth. In winter, sar forms more easily and dries more quickly. Monsoons are most difficult. Also the cow milk is thinner in monsoon, so less cream makes it more difficult to make sar. So everything depends on the season.  
 

 

S.R.: Is the demand higher in winter?

R.G.: Yes, the demand is higher in winter. The more you make, the more it sells.  In monsoon, the demand is also less.

 

S.R.:  Who are your regular buyers?

R.G.: In the evening, we start making the packages for our regular buyers according to demand – Adhar’s shop, Bijay Karta’s shop (Bijay Kumar Modak’s shop), Tapa’s shop or Pal’s shop at Chakarpara crossing, Nadia Sweets. In fact, I even deliver to many places outside Krishnanagar; to Bhalko. I used to send my products even further to Cooch Behar (in North Bengal, while Krishnanagar is in the South of the state of West Bengal, about 500 km apart) but not anymore.

 

S.R.: How do you do the packing?

R.G.: Like chapatti-s one stacked on top of another. If they are still soft, I put a dry shaal leaf on top of each. If they are dry enough, then I can stack directly on top of each other.

 

S.R.: But there is a fixed demand from each place, you know exactly the demand.

R.G.: Yes, on a daily basis. When the delivery is done this evening, they tell me the number they will need for the next evening. Sometimes they request for a few extra over the regular amount, if possible, if there is extra milk. Sometimes, we can keep the request, sometimes we can’t. The best part about our business is, we don’t work on credit. We deliver the product in one hand and take cash payment. There is no question of, “let it be today, take the payment tomorrow.” Many sweet-shop owners have tried to make the sar in-house for cost-cutting, some of our regular buyers for example. But they have not been able to make it of this quality. So they have to come over often to pick it up themselves from our household. Like they have high demand for any fair or festival and they are running short, so they have to come over to pick up sar from us.

 

S.R.: Now to ask didi, does the price match up with the labour that goes into making the sar?

B.G.:  No, we don’t get a price that matches our labour. The price of milk has gone up; the labour is ever increasing but the price is not. Even the sweet shop owners themselves say, that the price we give you is not enough for all the physical labour that goes into making sar. They all admit this. Especially in summer, working all day next to the oven, is quite hard. Winter, it is still a bit better. The fumes get in your eyes from the oven, that creates problems. But this is what we do, our business, and our livelihood. So we continue. We have seen our in-laws work hard and bring up their children while continuing with this business. So we also continue to do the same. So I like this, even though it is a lot of hard work.

 

S.R.: So what is the current rate of sar?

R.G.:  The early batches which are sweeter and bigger are twenty-five rupees per piece. While the later batches, which are salty and smaller in size are twenty rupees per piece. So it varies. But now the sweet makers cheat on sar when they make Sarpuria- Sarbhaja unlike earlier times. If they used the right amount of sar, then the supply would be difficult even if twenty or fifty more households were invested in making it. When we started, there were four layers of sar used in making one Sarpuria, now most use two, some use one, some don’t use any at all. Yet they call it Sarpuria, which is not right. So now very few households make Sar.

 

S.R.: So the demand of sar is solely for Sarpuria- Sarbhaja? There is no other use for it?

R.G.:  Mostly for these two. Adhar’s shop used to make Sarer Payesh (small pieces of sar boiled in sweetened, reduced milk). They don’t, anymore. Even though Krishnanagar has always been famous for Sarpuria- Sarbhaja and clay modelling, making sar has never been recognised as a cottage industry.  

 

S.R.: So do you think, sar can be used for any other food item beyond Sarpuria- Sarbhaja?

B.G.:  If a restaurant wants to experiment and come up with something they can make with sar, they are most welcome to try.

R.G.: Yes, like with chhana different kinds of food and sweets are made, it is up to them to experiment and make new dishes. They have to think about preservation of sar, and also costing and keeping their customers. Also about how long they will last.

 

S.R.: So how long does sar last?

R.G.: During winter, three days and in summer, forty eight hours. If you keep it in the fridge, it will last for five days.

 

S.R.: Will the taste change if refrigerated?

R.G.: No, the taste will not change, but the colour will change a bit. Which is of course expected, fresh things and refrigerated things will look a bit different. And that reminds me, our family is making sar for about hundred years.

 

S.R.: Do you think your children will continue?

R.G.: That is very difficult to say right now. But we have not taught them. But who knows, when our son gets married and the daughter-in-law wants to continue her in-laws’ business, like she did. Our time is almost up. The good thing about this business is, we recover our money on a daily basis, which is not very common in most businesses, most work on credit. So it is for them to decide. But this is mostly a duty, this milk and sar-work never stops. It goes on for three sixty-five days, without a break.

B.G.: Even if suddenly we want to stop, we can’t. We have a commitment to the shops. Before we stop we have to ask for their permission and when they agree, then only we can stop.

R.G.:  There are some shops where only I supply sar. If we stop, what will they do? The shops which have other suppliers, can compensate by taking more from them. We also have a relationship with them, a commitment.

B.G.: It has been going on for three generations this way. I hope it continues.