In the last decade of the 19th century, the food aficionado Bipradas Mukhopadhyay compiled what was then regarded as the definitive list of Bengali sweetmeat recipes. Mishtanna Pak (cooking of sweets), Mukhopadhyay’s two-volume magnum opus, goes into copious details while giving instructions on preparing sweetmeats, many of which are obscure today. It lists more than 25 varieties of the sandesh. But Mukhopadhyay — whose more famous work, Pak Pranali, has been described by the sociologist Krishnendu Ray as the first truly popular modern Bengali cookbook — is way less effusive about the rosogolla. It finds a mention only in the discussion on sugar syrups.
“Rosogolla is prepared by mixing one ser (equivalent to 933 grammes) chhana (cottage cheese) with one ser sugar syrup. Small amounts of cardamom and rose water are added. One ser rosogolla requires four times of its quantity of syrup so that the chhana balls can float easily. The sugar syrup should be prepared very carefully so as to prevent it from becoming concentrated. The chhana should be fresh and absolutely free from moisture. It should be kneaded properly to squeeze the water out of it,” notes the Mishtanna Pak. The West Bengal government cited this discussion in the 19th century cookbook as evidence for rosogalla’s origin in the state when it applied to the Registrar of Intellectual Properties for the Geographical Index (GI) tag for the sweetmeat.
By most accounts, the Bengali passion for sweetmeats made from chhana is less than three centuries old. Food writer Chitrita Banerjee believes that confectioners in the state may have been trained by Portuguese colonists in the use of cottage cheese. “But even into the mid-19th century there is no mention of the sandesh or rosogolla,” Banerji writes in her classic, Life and Food in Bengal. She believes that these sweets were probably devised by professional sweat-makers during the latter half of the 19th century. However, it’s also well-known that in about a century, the two sweets had become emblematic of gastronomy, so much so that a ban on chhana sweets in 1965 by West Bengal’s then chief minister, Prafulla Chandra Sen — to deal with a milk shortage — evoked strong protests from Calcutta’s confectioners. According to contemporary accounts, the artisans employed by the confectioners did not know how to make sweets other than sandesh and rosogolla.
In their recent gastronomic kerfuffle with foodies from neighbouring Odisha, Bengali rosogolla buffs often extol the skills of these sweetmeat artisans. Crafting a spongy rosogolla does require dexterity. “The chhana balls should be soft but firm enough so that they are not broken while coming in contact with each other,” cautions the Mishtanna Pak. “Judicious addition of different agents in measured quantity is a major responsibility of the experienced artisans,” notes the West Bengal government’s GI application. It likens the role of the artisan to the conductor of an orchestra, “who knows how to direct it to a flawless conclusion”.
Bengal’s upper-caste sweet aficionados have, however, had an ambivalent attitude to the sweet meat artisan, the moira. According to Banerji, tradition pictures the moira as a “huge immobile mountain of flesh sitting in front of his stove or in front of a huge platter which he manipulates with the ease of long practice. He is utterly oblivious to all else in the world and so satiated with his products that he never touches them himself.” Other accounts are at odds with such benign imagery. Historian Utsa Ray writes that confectioners, who generally belonged to the lower castes, were “an object of disgust for the middle-class”. She quotes a petition to the Bengal government in the mid-19th century which describes moiras as “men more concerned with their own interests than the health and lives of their buyers”. Moiras were also accused of being “dirty and unhygienic,” by R.C. Day, a physician writing in the 1920s.
It was one such moira who is credited in numerous accounts as the creator of the rosogolla — as the Bengalis know it. According to the Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, “The story goes that Nobin Moira belonged to a family of gur traders that had fallen on bad times. After at least one false start, he opened a shop in the Bagbazaar district of North Kolkata. Two kinds of sweets were popular at that time, sandesh and sweets made of lentils. An account written much later notes that patrons were bored and demanded something different. So Nobin came up with the rosogolla.”
But like most items, pinpointing rosogolla’s origins is a difficult — and as the Odisha-West Bengal contest over the sweetmeat shows — and fraught endeavour. Even in Bengal, there are several accounts about the rosogolla’s origin. Food historian Pranab Ray believes that the sweet was introduced a few years before Nobin Moira’s creation by a confectioner who traded his wares in front of the Calcutta High Court. An early 20th century account, Nadia Kahini, quoted by Utsa Ray claims a rather fortuitous origin for the syrupy sponge balls: “Rosogolla is not more than 50/60 years old. Haradhan Moira used to make sweets for the landlord. His little daughter was crying. In order to pacify her, Haradhan dropped some cottage cheese in the sugar syrup that was boiling on the stove. The result was a fine product. The zamindars named it rosogolla.”
In her work on American cheese-making, anthropologist Heather Paxson argues that cheese artisans have a tradition of inventing. The different, and contesting, accounts of rosogolla’s origins testify to such ingenuity — of Bengal’s moiras and Odisha’s sweet makers. But a GI tag runs counter to inventiveness. It binds artisanal production to strict standards of authenticity — and origin. A 2006 paper by trade economist Ben Shephard argued that the strict GI standards were making it difficult for French wine-makers to cater to tastes of “New World Consumers”. It will be a pity if such a fate befell Nobin Moira’s successors.