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Bengali Food on the Web The article has been republished from, The official site of Calcutta Municipal Corporation. Visit there for information about Calcutta.
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  Sweet Talk of Calcutta

Ashoke Kumar Mukhopadhyay

The 19th century renaissance in Bengal brought about a dramatic change in the customs, culture and education of Bengalis in Calcutta. During this century, Bengalis experienced a change in their food habits too. Bread-eating got the honour of a ‘progressive activity’ to many enlightened Bengalis! People of Bengal are sweet lovers, and have always been known for their particular weakness for sweets. Bengal has indeed always been famous for its creativity in sweet making and its artistic presentation. It is commonly believed that Bengal, which was previously known as Gour Banga, got its name for its abundant production of gur (molasses).

During the days of the cultural rebirth of Bengal in the 19th century, Calcuttans witnessed the birth of several sweetmeat shops. The ‘artists’ of those sweetmeat ‘institutions’ experimented and created delicious sweets from chhanna. Eminent personalities of the city were overwhelmed by these creations. Four famous ‘establishments’ of sweets grew up in the heart of Calcutta during this period, which have overcome family feuds and social barriers to continue to this day. These are Bhim Nag, K.C.Das, Dwarik Ghosh and Ganguram.

Chhanna was invented out of sheet necessity. During those days, milkmen in Bengal were left with plenty of unsold milk, from which was produced butter, cream and other milk products. But frequently the unsold milk would turn sour and form chhanna

(Casein). To make this casein palatable, molasses and sugar were mixed with it. A paste was thus formed. This uneven, soft paste called makha was the precursor of today’s sandesh. In the earlier days the sweetmeat shops of Calcutta used to sell the makka sandesh. Today’s range and variety were missing then. We get an interesting account of the Calcuttan’s food habits in a book titled Old Stories and Customs of Calcutta by Mahendranath Dutta( 1869-1956), younger brother of Swami Vivekananda. For breakfast, he says, they often had, among other things, fried flour products like gaja and zelabi. It is interesting to note that a marriage feast would not be complete without sweets like khaza and motichur. Neither rabri nor rossogolla – the present day delicacies, had been invented then. In the latter part of the 19th century, rossogolla made its debut in the Calcutta market. At the same time, two particular brands of sandesh- amsendesh and kamranga sandesh – came into existence. Previously, Peneti’s gupo sandesh had made its mark in the market.

Entered Paran Chandra Nag, a sweetmeat artist from village Janai in Hooghly district, in search of work .By that time, Bowbazar and Baithakkhana areas had turned into busy centres. Lalbazar and Dalhousie were nearby. In 1826, Paran Chandra set up a small shack for selling sweets in the Bowbazar area. That small shack braved the elements and hardships of the passing years, and still stands near the crowed Bowbazar- College Street crossing, on Nirmal Chandra Street. It is none other the famous sweetmeat shop of Bhim Nag.

Paran Chandra died at the age of 48. At that time, Bhim was a mere boy of 17. But, even at that young age, Bhim Nag had learned the secrets of trade from his father. He mastered the art of sandesh making by the correct mix of sugar and flour. He pioneered the creation of attractively designed sandesh in Calcutta. The business

Flourished and his products, glowing in publicity and fame, became esteemed household names. Eminent personalities like Rani Rashmoni and Raja Rammohun Roy became his patrons.

Aged Haradhan Nag is the great grandson of Nabin Chandra Nag. According to him, Rani Rashmoni used to buy large amounts of sweets from Bhim Nag. It is said that she bought 28 maunds of sandesh from Bhim Nag for celebration of the foundation day of Bhabatarini temple. Haradhanbabu adds that whenever Rani Rashmoni went to Dakshineswar, she invariably carried two big packets of Bhim Nag sweets – one for Bhabatarini ( the goddess Kali) and the other for Ramakrishna who loved Bhim Nag products and distributed them among his disciples. It is also said that he specially kept away a few pieces for his favorite disciple Naren (Swami Vivekananda).

Another eminent personality specially associated with Bhim Nag is Sir Ashutosh Mookherjee. We can almost visualise a familiar scene: on a hot summer afternoon, in the early part of the 20th century, a horse-drawn carriage stops in front of a small sweetmeat shop in Bowbazar. Seated in the carriage is Sir Ashutosh on his way from the High Court to the Calcutta University. He orders two packets of sandesh for himself and his mother. When the packets arrive, he can hardly wait for his share and finishes it right away! Indeed so close were his links that, as Haradhan Nag informs, a certain variety was christened Ashu bhog after this eminent patron. This variety is rarely made these days. When Motilal Nehru visited Calcutta in 1927-28, a sumptuous feast was arranged in his honour. On this auspicious occasion, Bhim Nag presented the delicious Nehru sandesh.

In those days, as many as 40 to 45 types of sandesh were daily displayed in Bhim Nag’s shop. At present, they display about 18 to 20 types at their showroom. The more popular among these are" abar khabo’ dilkhosh, rose cream’, basanta bahar, badsha bhog and paradise, the first three types having been created many years back. Haradhanbabu claims that Bhim Nag has given birth to our now familiar Ledikeni. During the birthday celebration of Lady Canning a special sweet dish was ordered to be made in her honour. After much thought and hard work was discovered a certain succulent variety resembling the rossogolla, only that it was deep fried in ghee to attain a deep rich brown colour, giving it a new look and taste. It was named Ledikeni in honour of Lady Canning.

The Special procedure of making sandesh has not been put in writing by Bhim Nag. The secret has passed down through the generations from Bhim Nag to son Asutosh, on to Manicklal, and eventually to Haradhan Nag: from the early 19th century to the end of the 20th century. Bhim Nag has been favoured by other famous customers like J.C.Bose, Meghnad Saha, P.C., Ray and Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy. Eminent or not, Bhim Nag still enjoys the patronage of all sections of Calcuttans who, in spite of the rising costs, cannot help but flock to the shop to taste their delicious ware.

After sandesh, confectioners of Calcutta turned to the invention of some syrupy sweets. The year 1868 ushered in a revolution in the realm of sweets of Calcutta. A very tiny shop at Baghbazar presented rossogolla: its creator a poor Bengali, Nobin Chandra Das by name. He was hardly 22 or 23 then popular and Nobin Das a famous name. People in Baghbazar used to cap verses: Baghbazarer Nobin Das / rossogollar Columbus (Nabin Das of Baghbazar is the Columbus of rossogolla.)

But Nobin Das was not a confectioner; His predecessors were connected with the sugar trade. He was the only son, and his father died soon after his birth. His childhood passed in adverse circumstances which accounted for his poor education. The only property that he inherited, besides his dwelling, was a plot of land. He sold this to finance a new business enterprise in partnership with his relatives. Due to mismanagement, the business flopped. Recovering from his shock, he managed to collect some money and open a sweetmeat shop at Baghbazar. In those days, sweetmeat shops used to depend on credit sales. However, Nobin Chandra had no resources to offer credit to his customers. As a result, his shop became a rendezvous for old, retired men and unemployed youths. Its attraction, the unsold sweets which they would enjoy at the end of the day. However, they encouraged Nobin Chandra to introduce a sweet different from the customary sandesh - a soft, succulent sweet as against the dry and hard texture of sandesh. He struggled towards this end, but every time he tried to boil the casein balls in syrup they disintegrated.

At last, he discovered the presence of an enzyme in the casein to which he ascribed a vernacular terminology that played the trick. He finally managed to create the rossogolla.

When he acquired the knowledge of making rossogolla, he diverted his attention to the perfection of sandesh. From the granular and course varieties then in vogue, he succeeded in making it into a smooth paste. It was Bhagwandas Bagla, a wealthy timber merchant, who popularised the rossogolla among Bengalis. Nobin Chandra had no vanity, and claimed nothing for his achievement. Contrary to the advice of his friends and admirers to take out patents, he taught the intricacies of rossogolla-making to numerous sweetmeat makers. Nobin Chandra broke away from his family trade, and was branded as moira. But he put up with the ignominy without protest. Later, he sought to vindicate his position by referring to the Puranas which first equated sweetmeat makers to the Brahmins in social status and later on to the ‘Kshatriyas after being enrolled as soldiers under ‘Kartabiriarjun’. He published a booklet in this connection.

Krishna Chandra Das (commonly known as K.C.Das) was the only son of Nabin Das. Krishna Chandra invented rosomalai and created a flutter. With a view to popularising rosomalai, K.C.Das opened a separate shop in his own name at Jorasanko in 1930. His youngest son, Saradacharan, joined hands. Together they started a factory of sweetmeats at 3 Ramakrishna Lane, Baghbazar. Saradacharan tried to expand the business further. Shops were opened at Esplanade East and Chittaranjan Avenue. In 1965, with the promulgation of sweetmeat Control Order. Nobin Chandra’s Shop closed down. Fortunately, K.C.Das at Esplanade East escaped the decree as it sold items other than sweets.

Of the traditional sweetmeat houses in Calcutta, probably K.C.Das alone has applied modern technology in production process. This has definitely increased their productivity as also efficiency. The workshop has become hygienic. Narendranath Das, the present managing director of K.C.Das enterprise and the son of Saradacharan, reminisced sweet memories: Dr. Pashupati Bhattacharya, a renowned medical practitioner of Baghbazar, would invariably buy Nobin Das’ rossogolla before visiting Rabindranath Tagore. One day the rossogolla stock was exhausted in Nobin Das’ shop when Dr. Bhattacharya arrived. He had to purchase from an adjoining shop. Rabindranath felt the difference and asked him to bring rossogolla from Nobin’s only.

Today rossogolla from Calcutta has become so famous that foreigners cannot resist the temptation of having them at banquets too.

Though Bhim Nag was famous for its sandesh and Nobin Das for rossogolla, yet it is the 104-year-old house of Dwarik Ghosh that has created a deep impression amongst Calcuttans for almost all its products. They introduced the concept of modern marketing to promote their products in the city. Dwarik became a household name within a short period. Instead of promoting only the sandesh or rossogolla, their endeavour was to improve the corporate image of the organization. Once Rabindranath Tagore , while praising the culinary ability of Bonophool’s wife Lila Devi said, " There were two creators of taste, in Bengal. First is Dwarik and the second is Rabindranath Tagore ". He wondered if Lila Devi would like to have the third position!

Dwarik Ghosh first came to Calcutta probably in search of a job in a sweetmeat shop. He hailed from a village Nijabalia in Howrah. Ramanath Ghosh and Kalisundari Devi had two daughters and four sons – Gostha, Dwarik, Binbode and Suren; Dwarik was born in 1865. He set up his shop at 77, Shyampukur Street in North Calcutta 20 years later. Since its inception, Dwrik Ghosh opened his second shop at Shyambazar. He died in 1926. Dwrik had two daughters, Nalini and Mrinalini, and three sons – Gyanendranath, Nishikanta and Abalakanta. It was Nishikanta who was responsible for the expansion of the Dwarik Empire in Calcutta. Another eight shops were opened by 1938 in Shyambazar, Hatibagan, Bhowanipore, Entally, New Market, CustomHouse, Sealdah and Hari Ghosh Street. Six more shops came up in the span of the next ten years – Gariahat, Baghbazar, Dalhousie, Assembly, Wellesley and Lake Market. In the 1940s, there was a time when 15 shops of this house were doing roaring business in the city, employing around 1000 people. Dwarik’s Sealdah branch was opened on August 11, 1938. On this occasion, they released a pamphlet calling themselves ‘Bangla O Bangalir brihattam mistanna pratisthan’ ( the largest sweetmeat house of Bengal and Bengalis). Interestingly, to substantiate this claim, they printed their annual sales figures, purchase of raw materials data etc. on the reverse of the pamphlet. The house recorded maximum sale aggregating Rs. 20 talks in no time. Then came the government control on sugar and taxes on sweets. The downfall of Dwarik began. At present, the three sons of Gyanendranath – Madanmohan, Gorachand and Gopinath – are controlling the Shyambazar, Entally and Lalbazar shops. Gobindalal, son of Nishikanta, is in charge of the shops at Bhowanipore and Tollygunge. Ilabanta, the son of Abalakanta, is running the shops at Hatibagan and Grey Street . Besides, there are two more shops of Dwarik at Behala and Sakherbazar. These are run by the son of Nalini, the eldest daughter of Dwarik. In all, there are nine shops of Dwarik in Calcutta at present.

In those days, Dwarik’s advertisement had also a very catchy slogan: nalen gur sandesh and fulkapi singara were called ‘Shiter sanjibani’ and ‘ritubhede ruchibhed’. Some of the old people still remember the cinema slide where the wife insists that her husband take more saying, "Please take more. These are Dwarik’s food. You’ll never fall sick".

Almost all the traditional sweetmeat houses of Calcutta are now bearing an impression of age. The exhaustion of old age seems to have gripped them all.

Another age-old sweets shop, Ganguram, also 104 years old, is still going strong. Ganguram Charusia established a small shop near Manicktala 104 years ago. This has now become Ganguram and Sons at Vivekenanda Road.

In those days, a tiny sweetmeat shop existed on the land owned by Raja Kamalaprasad Mukherji. The shop was located near Manicktala. Ganguram Chaurasia was an employee there, carrying sweets to the Rajnbari, He was liked by the Raja’s family. It was decided by the government to build a road in front of the shop. Eventually the shop was evicted. Ganguram was, however, allotted a small plot of land by the Raja. He set up a small sweets shop in 1885. Thus started Ganguram & Sons, now a very popular name in Calcutta. In the quality of curd, particularly, Ganguram has had no match

Ramjee Chaurasia, Ganguram’s grandson, recalls : Ganguram used to prepare excellent curd, but his eyesight was poor. One day, a beggar came to him and asked for food. He ordered that the beggar be given some curd. The latter prescribed medicine for his eyes. After a few minutes, when an employee from the kitchen came out with some curd, he was astonished to find no one except Ganguram! Family members opine that the curd of the Vivekananda Road branch is the best as it is from here that Ganguram offered the curd to the beggar considered to be Narayan, the God.

Ramjee Chaurasia informs that there are 10 branches of Ganguram in Calcutta at present.

Though established in 1885, Ganguram’s expansion took place from 1955 when his grandson Shankarlal Chaurasia took over. Ganguram then became the cultural ambassador of Calcutta. They had the privilege of catering to Queen Elizabeth, Bulganin, Krushchev and Chou en Lai. Bulganin was charmed by Ganguram’s cham cham. It was subsequently re-christened ‘Bulganin Cham Cham’. Ganguram now prepares 40 to 45 items daily. Of these, curd, rabri and cham cham are very popular. Ramjeebhai’s hobby is to prepare new items. He introduced sandesh cake in Calcutta. During the course of an experiment, he also invented the latest craze, Indrani. Ramjeebhai once decided to mix essence with curd, the result – 2500 cups of essence curd. But Satyen Roy , a renowned artist, pointed out that this might lead buyers to think that the curd was being adulterated. Now what could be done with those 2000-odd cups of curd? Thus Indrani was born.

The sweetmeat industry of Calcutta, evolved through the hands of Bhim Nag , Nobin Das, Dwarik Ghosh and Ganguram, received a severe jolt in 1965 when the P.C.Sen ministry restricted sweetmeat production under a control order. The reason obviously was the shortage of milk supply. Later on, the restrictions were lifted. In West Bengal, about 25 lakhs people depend directly or indirectly on the sweetmeat industry for their livelihood. There are about 50,000 sweetmeat sellers in the state.

In Calcutta alone, their number will be around 8,000.

We are celebrating the tercentenary of Calcutta. Many research projects on the city are coming up every day. But these eminent creators of sweets, a part and parcel of the cultural heritage of Calcutta, are yet to get their due recognition. They are looked down upon as moiras. Can we not christen a road in the name of Dwarik Ghosh or build a statue of Nobin Das? We should and must honour the efforts of these artists who set up a cultural tradition in Calcutta which is still maintained.

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