Why we wouldn’t have had the roshogolla and sandesh if not for the Portuguese

When talking of Bengali cuisine, the fondness for fish and the topping of roshgullah and sandesh are two things that strikes one’s imagination most instantly. While the former is a product of geographical positioning, the latter is a result of a historical accident.

Written by Adrija Roychowdhury | New Delhi | Updated: August 11, 2017 5:35 pm
When talking of Bengali cuisine, the fondness for fish and the topping of roshgullah and sandesh are two things that strikes one’s imagination most instantly. While the former is a product of geographical positioning, the latter is a result of a historical accident. A lesser known aspect of Portuguese influence on Indian culture is that related to the technique of making sweets among Bengalis. (Wikimedia Commons)

When Vasco da Gama landed on the southern coast of India in 1498, he laid the foundation of a trade route that would go on to define India’s destiny for centuries to come. The Portuguese trading and imperial interests that followed Vasco da Gama, would soon establish a thriving empire with its capital first located in Cochin, Kerala, and then later being shifted to Goa. However, the imperial appetite of the Portuguese were hardly satisfied with their growing presence in the West coast of India. When in the middle of the 15th century, a fleet of ships commanded by João da Silveira reached the coast of Bengal, the long cherished Portuguese dream of an empire in the East was finally at the threshold of being fulfilled.

By 1528, the Portuguese were given permission to establish factories and custom houses in the port of Chittagong and the settlement soon grew into the most prominent Eurasian port on the Bay of Bengal. The Portuguese presence in Bengal was no meagre accomplishment. They are noted to be the pioneers of European commerce in this part of India, paving the way for the Dutch, British and French to follow. Writer Joaquim Joseph A. Campos in his celebrated work, “History of the Portuguese in Bengal,” notes that “the Portuguese at the beginning of the 17th century occupied a position in Bengal, comparable to that of the British in the middle of the 18th century.”

When talking of Bengali cuisine, the fondness for fish and the topping of roshgullah and sandesh are two things that strikes one’s imagination most instantly. While the former is a product of geographical positioning, the latter is a result of a historical accident. A painting indicating the battle between the Portuguese and the Mughals in Karnaphuli River in 1666. (Wikimedia Commons)

Given the strong presence of the Portuguese in Bengal, it would be unsurprising to note the extent of influence they had on Bengali culture, particularly pertaining to linguistics and cuisine. The Portuguese are noted to be the ones who introduced Christianity in Bengal and the first type-printed works in the Bengali language were documents based on Catechism. Incidentally, a number of Indian languages contain words of Portuguese descent, particularly those associated with trade, Christianity and the names of articles commonly imported from Europe.

When talking of Bengali cuisine, the fondness for fish and the topping of roshgullah and sandesh are two things that strikes one’s imagination most instantly. While the former is a product of geographical positioning, the latter is a result of a historical accident. Incidentally, a number of Indian languages contain words of Portuguese descent, particularly those associated with trade, Christianity and the names of articles commonly imported from Europe.

A lesser known aspect of Portuguese influence on Indian culture is that related to the technique of making sweets among Bengalis. When talking of Bengali cuisine, the fondness for fish and the topping of roshgullah and sandesh are two things that strikes one’s imagination most instantly. While the former is a product of geographical positioning, the latter is a result of a historical accident.

The cheesy factor

Chhana or cheese — which is the basic ingredient in sandesh and roshogolla — produced by deliberately splitting milk by adding citric acid is in fact completely missing as an ingredient in desserts beyond East India. Food historian Chitrita Banerjee in her work, “Eating culture: exploring the food and culture of the land of spices” mentions that prior to the 18th century, there is no documented evidence of chhana anywhere in India.

Most desserts made around India have traditionally used ingredients like flour, semolina, coconut, but never chhana. Even in Bengal before the 18th century, sweet products generally were made out of evaporated milk or kheer. Part of the reasoning behind the omission of chhana is that Hindu religious tradition prohibited the deliberate spoiling of milk through adding of acid. Till date, food offerings made to Hindu Gods and Goddesses never include paneer (another kind of indigenous cheese that was made popular through the Turkish conquests).

Strangely, however, from the 18th century on, Bengal seems to have made an exception to this Hindu tradition. This is where the Portuguese connection comes in. Banerjee refers to an article found in a journal from 1921 called “The Indo-Portuguese Review”. The writer talking about the Portuguese interaction with Bengalis claims: “Indians were tied to the Portuguese with tender ties of love. What better than love to break down taboos and inhibitions and arouse the urge to experiment, taste and enlarge the boundaries of the senses?”

When talking of Bengali cuisine, the fondness for fish and the topping of roshgullah and sandesh are two things that strikes one’s imagination most instantly. While the former is a product of geographical positioning, the latter is a result of a historical accident. Chhana or cheese — which is the basic ingredient in sandesh and roshogolla — produced by deliberately splitting milk by adding citric acid is in fact completely missing as an ingredient in desserts beyond East India. (Wikimedia Commons)

Banerjee accounts that there are two reasons why cheese as an ingredient for sweet making was made popular by the Portuguese. First, historically the Portuguese were “skillful confectioners” who must have come across as an inspiration to Bengali culinary masters. Second reason being the marital alliances the Portuguese indulged in during their stay in Bengal, particularly with Bengali Muslim and low caste women, among whom many happened to be hereditary cooks and confectioners. The French physician and traveller, Francois Bernier who lived in India between 1659 to 1666 noted in his work that “Bengal likewise is celebrated for its sweetmeats, especially in places inhabited by the Portuguese, who are skillful in the art of preparing them and with whom they are an article of considerable trade.”

While Portuguese cheese happened to redefine dessert making in Bengal and neighbouring Odisha, it is quite strange as to why it never entered the culinary ensemble of the West coast of India, the region most identified with Portuguese presence in India. While the cuisines of Kerala and Goa more than anywhere else has strong connections with the Portuguese palate, use of cheese in desserts definitely does not feature anywhere. The reason behind this omission is hard to explain. What is certain though is the fact that Indians would definitely not have their roshogolla without the Portuguese making the country their home.

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  1. R
    Ram
    Aug 12, 2017 at 5:23 am
    so everytime a article on rasgolla comes on national media it's a bengali guy trying to justify why it's a bengali sweet and not odia in a classic victorian diplomatic style. this time you linked it to portugal so odia people cant ascertain it's roots in puri Jagannath temple. well tried mr. swift propaganda.
    Reply
    1. A
      Amrit Bhattacharya
      Aug 12, 2017 at 11:54 am
      Mr Ram the propoganda is in the article. She has tried to go 5000 kilometers to deny credit to Oriya invention. Rasogolla originaly is from Orissa. Orissa is a powerhouse of sweets that India will disocover more and more going forward.
      Reply
    2. M
      MyTake
      Aug 12, 2017 at 3:47 am
      Why this lady is wasting her time on something imaginary and bizarre? Do that have Rosogollas in Portuguese to start with? Nincom stink tanks!
      Reply
      1. A
        Amrit Bhattacharya
        Aug 12, 2017 at 1:15 am
        correction: portuguese came to Eastern India
        Reply
        1. A
          Amrit Bhattacharya
          Aug 12, 2017 at 1:11 am
          the author should have given credit to the neighbouring state Orissa for chenna. kheer mohon and chenna poda are delicacy with recorded history for kheer mohan is since around 1200 which is long before the portuguese came to India. lets appreciate our own people also. recently GOI have GI tag for rasgulla to Orissa and still Indian express publishes such articles. i am from Bengal and before we give credit to Portugal we need to thank Orissa for rasgulla.
          Reply
          1. A
            Amrit Bhattacharya
            Aug 12, 2017 at 1:16 am
            correction: long before the portuguese came to eastern India
            Reply
            1. P
              pa
              Aug 12, 2017 at 4:05 am
              true, although I can believe that there may be Hindu cultural beliefs against splitting of milk, I find it difficult to believe that changed because of the Portuguese. If that was true, Portuguese cuisine in Goa, Bombay and Kerala would have featured chhena delicacies. and even if Hindus adopted a lot of things from other cultures, offering the same to Gods is a different thing altogether. and the less said of Chitra Divakaruni's food writing, the better. She would find tooth and nail to disprove Orrisa's contribution to some popular Bengali delicacies.
          2. A
            arc
            Aug 11, 2017 at 11:52 pm
            So all these centuries brahmins and other sundry vegetarians have been eating a Christian product? Great.
            Reply
            1. R
              rocky
              Aug 11, 2017 at 10:09 pm
              Well, any society gains something from the colonizer. The question is "was colonization a net gain or a loss". I would say that our country was looted, pillaged and enslaved by various colonizer just because we became so divided and peaceful. No ther country in the world has suffered so much for so long. The need of the hour now is to unite and become strong militarily and economically.
              Reply
              1. J
                Jay Smith
                Aug 11, 2017 at 9:57 pm
                One paneer is a portuguese invention. two has the writer seen what benevolent Portuguese did to natives i.e. Indians. Why don't these people still living in the Colonial mindset go to Portugal to see how racist they are even today.
                Reply
                1. A
                  aniket
                  Aug 11, 2017 at 7:08 pm
                  So what the stupid author is implying is that its good that Portuguese ruled Indians...
                  Reply
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