My parents never had any faith in my abilities in mathematics. I have vivid memories of the anxious plea my mother would issue before examinations — please do not get a rosogolla. That, I thought, was patently unfair. Granted, I was no mathematics wizard. But it wasn’t just their condescension that riled me. Their metaphor was also offensive towards gastronomical sensibilities. It was unthinkable that rosogolla and mathematics be mentioned in the same breath.
My love for the sugar syrup-dipped, cottage cheese balls can be traced to severe lactose intolerance as a child. Chhena sprinkled with sugar and accompanied by a mashed banana was my grandmother’s way to keep up my nutrient supply. My parents’ comments were, then, an affront to a primal emotion.
The rosogolla was the first sweet of my life. It was the star draw in confectionaries in the predominantly Punjabi neighbourhood in Delhi that I grew up in. I sometimes sneaked into the backyards of these sweet shops to marvel at the halwais kneading lumps of cheese into dumplings, and dropping them into large vats of sugar syrup, where they would bask, while the stupor of another batch of sweetmeats was being broken by squeezing out the extra syrup through muslin strainers.
At times, I would implore grandma to do the same. She would smile and shake her head but sometimes, she would head to the sweet shop and ask for the mini variety. Back at home, she would squeeze out a little syrup from the tiny rosogollas. Soon the house would be redolent with the aromas of cardamom and thickening milk. It was a signal that grandma was making rosogolla’r payesh.
Much later, I learnt that the Bengali love for cottage cheese sweets is only a little more than three centuries old. In Eating India: Exploring A Nation’s Cuisine (2007), food historian Chitrita Banerji writes that there is no documented evidence prior to the 18th century of chhena being used for sweets. “Once the Portuguese had settled around the Bay of Bengal and the Bengalis discovered that they were very fond of fresh cottage cheese, some enterprising person must have welcomed the economic opportunity of making cheese,” she writes. But for a long time, I associated rosogollas with north Indian halwais. Not all my relatives were willing to indulge such childish ignorance.
Long before Bengalis began their prestige war against Odisha over the rosogolla, they were seething at “impostors” from north India who had made a commercial success of their favourite sweet. Over time, I understood the differences in rosogolla from different regions. At places, the spongy goodness oozes nolen gur (date-palm jaggery). Some think it a sacrilege to add spices, others like a mild cardamom flavouring. Some like the rosogolla a little warm. Yet others prefer the aroma of cool earthen pots.
To be fair to my parents, they would never think of offending such sensibilities when there were no extenuating circumstances, like a mathematics examination. And perhaps, with time, I did give them hope. So much so that they promised me pots of rosogollas if I got more than 90 per cent in my board examinations. Although this came to nought, I did get a pot of rosogollas for my effort.