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Sweets crafted in Bengal

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Ishita Dey in conversation with Prabir Kumar Modak, Krishnanagar, West Bengal, 2017

Ishita Dey (ID): Where does Krishnanagar feature in the sweet map of Bengal?

Prabir Kumar Modak (PKM): In order to speak about Krishnannagar, one has to recall poems by Sarat Chandra Pandit (Dadathakur), where he says “Krishnanagarer Moyra Bhalo” (the sweetmakers of Krishnanagar are rather good). Everyone agrees that it is different from other districts of Bengal. Where we feature in Bengal can only be judged by the public. But Krishnanagar is synonymous with sarbhaja and sarpuria (sweets made from layers of cream, the former fried and dunked in sugar syrup, the latter creamy and flaky). It has become an identity of Krishnanagar. So these two are truly Krishnanagar’s own. That’s the unique place of Krishnanagar.

 

I.D.: Sarbhaja and Sarpuria are made from sar. Please tell us more about it.

P.K.M.: Yes, the names themselves give it away. Sar is crucial for making these sweets, where it can either be used for stuffing or as a wrap. The recent variety of Aamshawtto Sandesh, where aamshawtto (thin sundried layers of mango pulp) is laid on top of the sandesh. Now replace the aamshawtto with sar, which is exactly what sweet artisans here have been doing. Sar is made by creating a thick film of surface cream by gently heating the milk, then taking out a layer of thick cream from the residual milk and, then drying it till it resembles a white chapatti (round hand-slapped unleavened bread). You will hear about different processes from places outside Krishnanagar but what they claim as sarbhaja and sarpuria are very different.

 

I.D.: Along with sar, isn’t kheer (milk churned and reduced to a paste over gentle heat) also important? Generally Bengali sweets are always understood as sweets made from chhana (cottage cheese).

P.K.M: Sarbhaja, is as much sar as it is kheer. To make sarbhaja you have to take one layer of dried sar, put a thin, even smearing of kheer on it, like you put jam on chapatti, and put another disc on top of it. Then a layer of kheer again, and then a layer of sar. But you can’t go on and on, because with every layer, price also increases. So nowadays, we keep it to three or four layers of sar. Else we will have to charge Rs. 100 per sarbhaja and there will be no takers! There is a special technique for making of the kheer as well. It can’t be too hard or too soft, it has to have a cream-like consistency. Then after these stacked layers are dried, naturally dried, without any dryer, then they are fried in ghee (clarified butter) before they are dunked in sugar syrup. When sugar was not used, say five hundred years ago, dolo chini (brown cane sugar processed with algae) was used to make the sugar syrup for sarbhaja, and it used to have a distinct flavour of that sugarcane juice which is not there anymore. Use of dolo chini started to fall after 1860 and it completely stopped after 1890. I am taking about the sweet industry. The remnant use of dolo chini was only to make sweets that were offered to the household gods, to make sweets like makha sandesh (soft, sweetened ball of cooked chhana), monda (a sweet with a crunchy sugar crust). Mill sugar was not accepted, as dust from animal bone was used to purify the sugar in the mills. So Bengali Hindus considered mill sugar to be non-vegetarian. But thought processes have changed. We only use industrial sugar for sarbhaja. But the thickness of the syrup needs to be well adjusted, just right, that’s what is the handiwork of the artisans.

 

I.D.: Tell us how is sarpuria made.

P.K.M.: The theory or the process of making it is not very different from sarbhaja. Pasting of layer is done in similar manner. But sarpuria is also part chhana. This stuffing or paste is mostly chhana, and a bit of kheer. So main ingredients are sar, kheer and chhana. Then there are almonds, pistachio and green cardamom dust in the paste,. Almonds and pistachio of course are used to drive the price up, at times. And taken off to make it cheaper, also.

 

I.D.: Did you also use zafran (saffron) in the stuffing for colour?

P.K.M: Yes, we used to, originally. But high-quality saffron very rare and costly. Using the same will also make the product costly. So we don’t use it anymore. Green cardamom is the new replacement. Now that we are applying for G.I. registration for sarpuria, we have mentioned green cardamom in the basic ingredients list, not saffron. Because the availability of saffron in the market doesn’t match the volume of market demand for sarpuria. So the flavour of sarpuria now comes from green cardamom in the place of saffron. To replace the yellowish colour of saffron, many people use food colour, but I don’t use it in mine. I am against using artificial chemical flavours or colours.

 

I.D.:  Is the oldest sweet shop in Krishnanagar yours? I mean among all the old sweet shops in the old market…

P.K.M.: If you go by the local history of Krishnanagar, the current town is originally formed of three villages: Gowari, Ghurni and Reoi. Both Gowari and Reoi were close to the river and Reoi is the area now adjacent to the Royal Palace of Krishnachandra Roy. Ghurni is famous for their clay idol artisans, is also close to the river Jalangi. Gowari market supplied materials for the royal household through the river transportation. So the main marketplace was Gowari. So these three villages, Gowari, Ghurni and Reoi, made up the Krishnanagar town which was later divided into nine mouzas (administrative districts). There were very few sweet-artisans in Reoi, neighbourhood of the palace, and few in Gowari. Ghurni didn’t have any. So eventually all old sweet shops came to be in the marketplace of Gowari, most of them are not there anymore. But we are still there.  

 

I.D.: How old is your shop?

P.K.M.: If I include myself, I am the fifth generation since the shop started. My grandfather, after whom the shop is famous, Bijay Kumar Modak, the shop was actually established by his grandfather. Since he didn’t have any male child, so he brought in my grandfather in the business, who was the grandson from the mother’s side. The business was originally established in 1838 and was handed over to my grandfather, my father’s father, Bijay Kumar Modak, in 1898. The shop was in Reoi to begin with but was brought to Gowari market, as it was a developing area.

 

I.D.: What kinds of sweets were made in the shop at that time?

P.K.M.:  Sweets then were very different from now. Because there was no mill sugar in 1838 and hot cane jaggery (made by reducing sugar cane juice) covered with cold algae was used as a sweetener. It became partly liquid and partly solid semi-refined sugar which is known dolo chini. From that sweets like makha sandesh were made. Rasogolla (chhana dumplings soaked in sugar syrup) was technically not possible from dolo chini. All this fight over the origin of Rasogolla, surfaced after the introduction of mill sugar.

 

I.D.: Were sarbhaja and sarpuria possible with dolo chini?

P.K.M.:  Yes, the only sweetening agent was dolo chini.  With the advent of Vaishnavism, these two sweets came to Nadia district. Sweets form a very important part in the purely vegetarian diet of the Vaishnavas, and this happens to be an important inspiration for the artisans here. It is mentioned in Chaitanya Charitamrita, that the favourite food of Chaitanyadev was sarbhaja and sarpuria. So you see, there is no conflict of interest in our G.I. claim for these two sweets, unlike the claim for Rasogolla. So we are the original creators Shawrbhaja and Shawrpuria and continue to be.

 

I.D.: By ‘we’ you mean the sweet artisans of Krishnanagar?

P.K.M.:  Yes the original sweet artisans of Krishnanagar. And not always those legacies are maintained by the current commercial sweet artisans. It was a business then also but within the family, now it is in the hands of the businessmen, now the honour is also lost.

 

I.D.: Even without fridge, you introduce seasonal products.

P.K.M.: Yes, we give minimum three days of longevity. Milk mostly gets effected during rainy season, and its longevity drops. When rains subside, the shelf life increases. Then we guarantee longevity for seven or eight days. In Summer, that comes down to three or four days. Perishability of sweets depend on the moisture content of the air. Most sweet shops have forgotten this basic and uses fridge hoping it will solve all the preservation problem. But they forget that the moisture content of the air affects the ingredients as well, even before making the sweets.
 

I.D.: So is moisture the main factor which determines the shelf life of sweets or the sugar content? 

P.K.M.: Yes, moisture determines how long sandesh or rasogolla will last. But sugar content is of course a factor as well. Sure, sugar is a natural preservative but you can’t use it large proportions to increase the longevity of the sweets. To maintain the quality and taste of each sweet, sugar needs to be used in fixed proportions. You can’t change that. You have to then determine the shelf life keeping that sugar proportion unchanged. The balance of quality and longevity has to be there.

 

I.D.: As you said sugar is a natural preservative, can you give an example where it gets consciously used? Is Manohara (kind of a sandesh coated in sugar syrup) from Janai an apt example?

P.K.M.: Yes, it is. The sugar coating that is given also helps increase its shelf life, by not letting the moisture in.

 

I.D.: With these challenges of preservation which we discussed, what products do you introduce seasonally, apart from sarbhaja and sarpuria, which are available all through the year?

P.K.M.:  Please note that our taste buds also change seasonally. In summer, we prefer food which has more liquid in it, so the demand of rasogolla increases. So we vary the production accordingly – we make more Rasogolla, Pantua, Ledikeni (deep-fried balls of chhana soaked in sugar syrup) at that time. Or something which I have introduced from my own idea and has become well-accepted, pistachio rasogolla, where pounded pistachio is mashed with chhana. Though because of the cost of the pistachio, I don’t make it all the time, but make it as often as I can. Also in summer, we use a mango-flavoured root herb, Aamaada as a flavouring agent. Even if I give examples of sweets from other places, like mihidana and shitabhog of Bardhaman (both has very fine, soft texture and mild sweetness and are deep-fried). They taste better in summer, autumn or monsoon but not so much in the winter.

 

I.D.: What are the sweets made in winter in your shop?

P.K.M.:  In winter, sweets are mostly made from nolen gur (seasonal date palm jaggery). Our shop is famous for sandesh made from nolen gur. The natural taste is unmatched. Many shops, I won’t name them, big ones in Kolkata and some in Krishnanagar has challenged us, and have tried to replicate. But they did not succeed, because they don’t have the same nolen gur. The taste depends on the purity of the jaggery, we take great efforts and pay very high price to make sure we get the original.

 

I.D.: When can you get nolen gur?

P.K.M.: It entirely depends on the weather in winter, when the moisture content in the air drops, a structural change happens in date palm trees. When the north-westerly wind blows the trees start releasing their sap and the colder it gets, the wind becomes stronger and better the sap produced. But the fog spoils the jaggery. All these factors ultimately decide the quality of the gur. So what the good shiuli-s (the professionals who carve the date palm tree trunk to release and collect the sap) do, they start from the end of kartik (the first month of autumn in Bengali calendar) to carve the trunk. In the next month, aghran, they connect a pipe to the trunk to collect the sap. So that’s when you start getting the flavour. But after carving a tree for two days, you have to let it rest for ten days, if possible for fifteen days. The taste and flavour of this jaggery is unparalleled, it can fail the taste of any sweet in the world. So I try and collect that. So we use this gur to make sandesh. I have both new suppliers and suppliers who are three or four generations old.

 

I.D.: How long does this gur last in your shop after you buy it?

P.K.M.: It varies as it depends on how it smells and judging that smell is not easy. The fresher it is the longer it will last; it smells a bit like dried fish scales. When we mix it with sandesh, the smell changes but a slight hint of the fishy smell remains and that attracts our palette. Most sweet artisans have forgotten this, and use nolen gur adulterated with mill sugar. The specialty of nolen gur is not in its sweetness. In fact, this one which I just mentioned is not at all so sweet. It becomes sweeter by the end of magh, (the second month of winter, one month after aghran) because the sap becomes thicker with cold weather. Nolen gur goes on till falgun (the first month of spring) when the weather starts becoming hot again. So it is produced from the middle of aghran till the end of falgun (about three and a half months). But we buy the very early batch, with that fishy smell, which lasts fifteen to twenty-one days. The gur which is made in magh lasts for four months without any preservation system.

For Bengalis the month of Poush (the first month of winter in Bengali calendar) is the month for feasting, and travelling. Nolen gur is associated with all of this. Festivities as happen in the month of Poush, because in this month crops ripen and are brought home. So sweets during this season are made of nolen gur.  Now the girls don’t make these pithe-s, because they have been educated,   their clothes, lives and thinking have changed. Most importantly, the preparation system has changed, especially the fire – everybody cooks in gas oven, microwave oven, induction oven, but when it comes to pithe, the ones make in the fire using wood and cow dung cakes taste so much better. Because the smell of burning cow dung adds to the flavour of the pithe.

 

I.D.: Are you making pithe in your store?

P.K.M.:  Yes, we are. I have introduced them purely for business purpose when I realised that Bengali women have stopped making them at home. I am, by the way, very new to the family business. I was handling some other business and came to join this after my father passed away in 2004. Since then, I have wanted to change the dimension of this business, and that’s why I am introducing different kind of household sweets like pithe. But with pithe, there are several complications like what kind of rice it is made of. In Bengal there is a fine difference between sheddho chaal (parboiled rice) and atope chaal (sun dried rice), the former is considered to be impure and not fit to prepare foods which will be served to the household gods. So I don’t use sheddho chaal to prepare pithe, which can be made with kheer, flour, milk and atope chaal. I stick to this, because our shop is 178-year-old and customers trust us blindly and know they can serve our sweets, fresh and pure, as an offering to their gods.  I make gokul pithe and patishapta mainly. I have newly introduced lau-er Payesh (finely grated tender bottle gourd, cooked in sweetened, reduced milk) with nolen gur. Gurer rasogolla (nolen gur syrup is used instead of sugar syrup) used to be there but was discontinued and I re-introduced it. It is a costly product. We make it in the original process, not in the adapted process where the sugar-boiled product is laced with nolen gur. I can’t disclose the process of course for business reasons. But it is very different from every other gurer rasogolla available in the market.

 

I.D.: Can you tell us in more detail how is it different?

P.K.M.:  Very different, from the beginning to the end. See, artificial flavour and natural flavour are different. When you eat, you will automatically understand. For artificial flavours, say synthetic mango flavour will travel from your tongue, as you gulp, to the base of your tongue. But if real mango flavour is used, even after you are done eating, gulped it down, it will remain in your mouth. So, for real nolen gur, if you don’t eat anything afterwards, the taste will remain on your tongue for three hours. Because your taste buds connected with your brain cells in such a way that they will keep it like this.  

 

I.D.: Is another nolen gur product monda?

P.K.M.:  Yes. we do it only in Krishnanagar now. Made with nolen gur and chhana, it has been there for very long time. So monda, shawrpuria, shawrbhaja have been there from the beginning. Then after mill sugar was introduced – rasogolla, pantua, sandesh of different kinds, chamcham (sausage-shaped chhana sweets with a sugar coating) have also been continuing. So the new sandesh I have been trying to introduce, are made with natural fruit extracts, like in bhaiphonta (an autumn household festival in Bengal) this year, I tried it with strawberry, adding strawberry paste to the chhana paste. It turned out so much better than artificial strawberry flavour. Now I want to do, after pesta rasogolla (Pistachio Rasogolla), jaamer rasogolla (rasogolla with the flavour of jaam).

 

I.D.: Which season you want to introduce it?

P.K.M.:  In summer, jaam is a summer fruit. God has created nature in such manner that every season has its fruits, and food, everything is easily available. They all have medicinal value. Even sweets have medicinal value. They are accused of causing obesity with their content, which is not right. Sweets have their own contributions. We have rejected it in the modern age to keep up with our health and glamour. Especially girls have given up entirely on sweets. Instead they are eating street food like paapri chaat, roll, thinking that would not harm them. But those are more harmful – oily foods cause more obesity.

 

I.D.: You mentioned sweets which you want to introduce. Can you mention some sweets of your shop which have been discontinued?

P.K.M.:  There are many, most for the lack of artisans and lack of time. Say, lawbongolotika, (a fried sweet made of flour and kheer). Because I am not convinced about the quality of flour from mills now, it can’t give the same taste as the flour from mills before.