The story goes that it was on the order of Edward Barber, an indigo planter at Khirpai, now a municipal town in West Bengal, in the early 19th century, that a sweetmeat-maker, Paran Ata, came up with Babarsha, produced primarily by mixing coarsely ground wheat with flour and sugar.
Then there is the famous Ledikeni, a sort of dry Gulab Jamun but with Chhana (a variation of cottage cheese) as its base, which was named after Lady Canning, wife of Lord Canning, the governor general of India in the mid 19th Century. A derivative of Ledikeni is the Langcha, which made Saktigarh (near Burdwan) famous.
The genesis of the Mihidana — which resembles Boondi but tastes infinitely better, again because it has Chhana along with Besan — can also be traced back to the British era. Maharaja Mahtab Chand, an additional member of the governor-general’s legislative council, invited Sir William Grey, governor of Bengal, and two judges from Calcutta to Burdwan in 1968. It was in their honour that the recipe for Mihidana was introduced.
The history of Bengali sweets is replete with examples of innovation such as this going back 300 years, but sadly the variety has been dwindling of late. There were over 200 different Bengali sweets on record in the 19th century, but now there are hardly 70 left.
Robin Ghosh, who has been an evangelist for Bengal’s dessert industry, pointed out in a paper on the subject how the Manohara, which was developed by a master moira (sweet-maker) for the Nawabs of Murshidabad, then capital of Bengal, in the early 18th century, has now almost disappeared in its original form.
“It was near our ancestral zamindari, close to the 360 year-old Kiriteswari temple (that the Manohara was born). It’s basically a variety of Sandesh encased in a shapely glass container. You may still get the Manohara, but gone is the charm of that delicacy.”
Roots of the Rosogolla
The best known Bengali sweet, the Rosogolla, is also the result of innovation. The sweet actually has its roots in Orissa, but it was a confectioner in Kolkata, Nobin Chandra Das, who simplified the recipe in 1846 to produce the Rosogolla in its spongy form that we are familiar with today. The KC Das outlets all over the country, famous for their Rosogollas, are named after Nobin-moira’s son.
Despite its rich legacy, however, a decline in both the variety and quality of Bengali sweets appears inevitable as there is little impetus to innovate or even maintain the standards of old.
Ghosh attributes it to the lack of organisation in the industry; there is little use of technology to increase the shelf-life of sweets or the tools of modern marketing to leverage the popularity of the product. More worrisome is the absence of norms to ensure hygienic conditions of sweet-making.
The abundance of sugarcane in Bengal combined with the Bengali’s sweet tooth and creative mind led to the refinement of the art of sweet-making in Bengal. It would be a pity if this too were to give way to the onslaught of icecreams and brownies — or even sweets that are only Bengali in name.