Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home   |  Volume 6, Issue 15, Tuesday, April 12, 2011




Sweet mystique

It is amazing… how some things so little can speak so much? Sweets are engrained deeply in our culture and heritage, and without them, numerous festivals and celebrations would not be complete. A pack of sweets does not only represent a kind of delicacy, but it goes beyond food; it can represent a territory, an emotion, a culture, history and celebration. Sweets are distributed to celebrate a birth, good results, an impending wedding, winning an election, etc. Sweets are also part of all religious activities including the ones that mourn a death.

Have you ever thought about what it takes for the final product to be made? While it is fine being content just to sit down and munch on a couple of sweets, it's also wonderful to go behind the scenes, into the kitchen, and have a look at the interesting process of making sweets. And even that is not the complete picture. All sweets have stories of their own: some extremely complicated, some quite simple, some proud of its rich history and origin and, some completely blank and confused, whose history has just faded with the flow of time.

But no matter what kind of sweets we are talking about, all of them have something or other to say. And on that note, we begin…

Few sweets deserve and get as much praise as roshogolla. With its rich history and amazing taste, roshogolla easily scores as one of the top favourites of Bangladeshi (and Indian) people.

It is widely believed that the sweetmeat originated from the Indian state of Orissa. Having remained a traditional and popular Oriya dish for hundreds of years, the recipe eventually caught on to West Bengal, the neighbour of Orissa.

However, the real journey of roshogolla started in around 1868, when the sweet was seriously considered for commercialisation. And one man changed the fate of this sweetmeat forever. Nobin Chandra Das- known as “Roshgolla's Columbus”- modified the recipe to stretch the shelf life and expiry date of the sweet.

In the pursuit of making the sweet less perishable, the sweet got tougher and spongier. Many food critics argue that this reduced the taste of the original roshogollas. However, his strategy worked, and roshogolla started tasting commercial success. His son, K. C. Das, reinforced the success further by canning roshogollas (commonly known as sponge roshogollas), which made the item widely distributed.

In Bangladesh, roshogolla of Barisal is famous.

Roshogollas are basically round spongy balls of pure cottage cheese dipped in hot sugar syrup. A bit of flour is usually added to keep the ball from breaking up.

Roshogolla, given its great taste and popularity, is one of the best-selling sweets. But one occasion that is heavily dependent on roshogolla is Hindu festivals. The sweet is offered to many deities of Hindu religion after prayer or religious festival. This norm has existed for more than three hundred years.

Rosh Malai
This is one of the most admired desserts in Bangladesh. Rosh malai has been here for several decades, with no sign of giving up the position of being one of the most amazing sweets ever produced.

Rosh malai is brownish or creamy in colour (in certain places, it is white). Rosh malai are smaller or elongated versions of roshgollas swimming in a thick gravy of sweet, thickened milk.

The process of making rosh malai starts with mixing chhana and shuji to form many small marble-shaped (or cylindrical) balls. Then, these are released in the sheera, made from heating sugar with a little amount of water. On the other hand, milk is heated till it becomes very dense and forms brownish colour. Then, we take those balls out of the liquid, squeeze them to get rid of the sheera, and put them in the milk. After several hours, rosh malai is ready to eat. It is served cold or normal temperature.

Rosh malai is sold either in hari (clay pot) or in plastic boxes. The most popular rosh malai comes from the district of Comilla, and the oldest rosh malai producer in town is Matree Bhandar. Comilla has earned the goodwill to produce the finest rosh malai there ever can be. Hence, do try it out when you are in that area. However, be aware of fakes. There is an incredible number of stores claiming to part of Matree Bhandar, and even more stores around the country who have “Comilla” in their name. Try to avoid those to save for the real pleasure. Matree Bhandar has only one retail outlet.

Desperately trying to make more out of the already successful market, rosh malai producers have come up with many variants to broaden their horizon. For example, there is special rosh malai, diabetic rosh malai for diabetics.

Malai Chop and Shor Puria
An amazing thing about food is that a little variation can make a lot of difference; it can result in an entirely separate item. Such is the case with malai chop. Malai chop, which are also brownish in colour, are disc-shaped pieces- much like potato chop- that remain dipped in syrup. Other than its shape and size, the recipe and everything else follows the same things as that of rosh malai.

Another variation is called shor puria. It is the same as malai chop, except that the sweet is bigger- much like the shape of puri. The 'puri' is cut in four pieces and soaked in dense milk. Then, the pieces are mixed with shor (milk cream), giving shor puria a whitish colour.

Pora Barir Chomchom
Although not as popular as the first two, chomchom nevertheless is indeed an extremely sweet but tasty, dry sweetmeat. It is reddish or brownish in colour, with mawa (dried milk) sprinkled on the top. The contemporary version of this sweet has been developed by Raja Ramgore in Uttar Pradesh in India. Further evolution took place in the hands of his grandson, Matilal Gore. This sweet has a more dense texture than roshogolla and is also more perishable.

To make chomchom, we take chhana, sugar, shuji and moida to mix them together and turn into oval or long shapes. Meanwhile, sugar and water are heated; when it boils, the pieces are released into it and heated until the colour turns reddish or brownish. After cooling off, mawa is sprinkled all over. Then, chomchom is ready to serve.

Chomchom of Porabari, a district in Tangail, is legendary. Porabarir's chomchom has an experience of over one hundred and fifty years to be proud of. Chomchom is found in most of the stores of Dhaka and rest of the country.

Muktagachhar Monda
Monda is a special type of shondesh. It is usually slightly oval-shaped and brownish in colour. To make monda, chhana is first smoothened and then mixed with sugar. The mixture is then heated. After some time, milk is added. When the solution has become dense, it is taken out of the stove and cooled off. Then, with hands, the monda is given its shape and size. Finally, nuts are added in each monda for greater taste. It is then ready to serve.

Muktagachha, located in Mymensingh, is famous for monda. The monda of Muktagachha has a very interesting history. Long, long ago, there lived a man named Gopal. His financial condition was very shabby, and he desperately worked to make ends meet. And one night, while he was sleeping, he dreamt the recipe of a monda. And, in his dream, he was commanded not to disclose the recipe to anyone else. Gopal, bewildered the next morning, decided to try it out. He and his family made the first batch and realised the 'goldmine' they could create. And that was the start.

Today, several generations later, people flock to Muktagachha to taste their unique monda. A sculpture of Gopal sits on the shop, reminding the customers of its origin and rich heritage. Even today, the recipe of Muktaghaccha's monda remains a secret, with a few family members making the monda in a highly restricted area. The monda is a bit crunchy, triangular in shape and served wrapped in a paper.

Bogra Doi
Doi (yoghurt) is widely used as a dessert, and is a popular gift when visiting friends and family. It is also a chief ingredient of many foods and drinks, such as lassi.

Here's the general recipe of doi. Milk is heated until it becomes half of what it was and the colour has turned reddish due to the increased density. Then, sugar is added and the solution is left to cool off. When the solution is lukewarm, a little amount of doi previously saved or bought from the shop is mixed. The whole thing is then covered with a heavy cloth, such as a blanket and stored in a warm place. After several hours, the yoghurt is ready. It is then poured in pots made of clay, sometimes with beautiful designs on them.

But what makes doi from Bogra so special and unique? Its taste and texture, mainly. Bogra doi is sweeter, thicker and redder. It is also highly perishable; it can keep fresh almost for a month without any kind of refrigeration or preservative. Bogra doi first gained its fame in the 1960s, when it was served and made for a Nawab family in that area. This led to mass sale and commercialisation, which resulted in packing the yoghurt in small 'hari's (clayed pots).

But yoghurts have a long past, at least five thousand and four hundred years old. To illustrate, an extremely old writing mentioned that some nomadic tribes knew how to “thicken the milk into a substance with an agreeable acidity”.

There is a huge list of health benefits of consuming yoghurt. Yoghurt is rich in protein, calcium, riboflavin and vitamins. The food also helps to alleviate diarrhoea. Yoghurt has helps in keeping good gums. Also, people who are lactose-intolerant can have yoghurt without facing the effects they experience having milk.

Chhana Mukhi
This is dry, sugar-coated Bengali sweetmeat, typically in the shape of cubes. It is a bit spongy to taste. In wedding ceremonies, chhana mukhi is usually served in a huge plate or tray along with other sweets. Comilla's chhana mukhi is very famous.

To prepare chhana mukhi, milk is converted to chhana (by applying vinegar, lemon juice, etc). Then, the chhana is put on a cloth, wrapped up and hung to drain out the water. Once dry, a huge ball- much like a football, is formed. The ball is then taken out of the cloth and cut into small cubes or squares. Meanwhile, a dense sheera is made and cooled off to a moderate temperature. The cubes of chhana are then released and stirred. The pieces get soaked in the sweet solution and also get sugar-coated.

Lal Mohan and Kalo Jaam
In the Bangladeshi and Indian world of sweets, these two very similar kinds of sweets have rooted themselves a very high position for a long time. No matter how oblivious one is to sweets, it is quite impossible not to come across these delicacies. They are used in various occasions- in times of dispersing good news, celebrating any occasion, wedding ceremonies, religious festivals, etc. Lal mohan and kalo jaam are found in all sweet shops throughout the country. One does not need to have a reason to eat them, though! They are a very common delicacy.

The sweets have a soft exterior with an even softer interior. The recipes of lal mohan and kalo jaam are almost the same. Cottage cheese, flour, ghee or butter oil, and sugar are mixed and given shape. Then, the pieces are fried. Afterwards, the pieces are soaked in syrup so that they get soaked and absorb the sweetness.

What is the difference between kalo jaam and lal mohan then? Lal mohan is separated from its twin sister, kalo jaam, in an earlier stage of frying. Lal mohan is fried less -- it is brownish in colour. Kalo jaam is fried more -- it is black in colour. This degree of frying also brings the difference in taste. And, (traditionally) kalo jaam is shaped long and cylindrical whilst lal mohan is round or oval.

Paera refers to a kind of dry, thick semi-soft sweetmeat that is round, oval or wheel-shaped. This is a very popular kind of sweet among South Asians, especially with children. In Bangladesh, paera is best made in Khulna and Kushtia.

To make paera, milk powder and sugar has to be mixed. Meanwhile, a dense sheera is prepared. When the sheera starts to boil, the mixture of milk powder and sugar is released in the pan of sheera. When it become very sticky, the heat is turned off and is left to cool off. Afterwards, little bits of the mixture are taken in the palms to flatten it and make it into a final product.

Kacha Chhana
Kacha chhana is the source of numerous sweets. It is the basic ingredient without which many sweets could not have been made. But kacha chhana is itself a delicacy, and is found in many sweet shops. But how is kacha chhana made? This item requires a lot of milk. In order to prepare 1 kg of kacha chhana, one needs 5kg of milk! The milk is heated, and when it starts to boil, lemon juice or vinegar is added. Thus, the water of the milk gets separated and chhana is formed. We finally extract the chhana out of the liquid.

Buffalo Curd
Buffalo curd is a famous delicacy, popular in many countries of South Asia, such as Nepal, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan and of course, Bangladesh. This traditional and nutritious product is made from the milk of buffalo. The curd of buffalo is entirely different from that of the cow. The curd is considered better than that of cows, since the fat content in milk is much higher in case of buffaloes.

This makes buffalo curd thicker. Buffalo curd is made by curdling the milk through fermentation. Buffalo curds have greater nutritional value than cow milk.

Buffalo milk is prepared by filtering and boiling the milk. The scum is then removed. After it has cooled, a small amount of curd is added and mixed. The mixture is transferred to clay pots and sealed for several hours before it is ready.

Jilapi is perhaps on of the most well-known sweets in entire South Asia, and in many other parts of the world. In the holy month of Ramadan, it is impossible to walk on a street and not come across one of the uncountable iftar shops making and selling jilapi.

And making jilapi seems to be a very complicated business. After all, the sweet itself looks so complicated! So, here's the recipe for you. First, make dough of flour and water. After keeping it one or two hours, apply baking powder and store for another couple of hours or so. Then, take a cloth and wrap up the dough with it; but before you do, pierce a very narrow hole on it. Then, heat some oil on a pan. Now comes the tricky and fun part of the process. Hold the cloth carefully and squeeze out the semi-solid dough onto the pan, moving your hands randomly yet cautiously, so that the 'jilapi's form a pretzel shape. Fry the 'jilapi's till they form reddish orange colour. Once you're done with it, dip the 'jilapi's on sheera, so that they soak the liquid in. Remember the amazing burst of a sweetened liquid when you bite a jilapi? Yeah, that pleasure is the courtesy of the sheera that was fed to the jilapi.

Jilapi is widely consumed, with different names and versions to reflect cultural differences. For example, in Persia, it is known as “Zoolbia”, in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon it is called “Zalabia”; “Jeri” in Nepal, “Zlebia” in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. And the sweet is very old too; one of the earliest references dates back to a cookbook written back in the thirteenth century. Our country has also eaten jilapi since time immemorial. Chalk Bazaar iftar Market, the traditional iftar market situated in Old Town which has been arranged numerous decades ago, shows just that. The shops have been selling jilapi since then, in many shapes and sizes.

And shape and size do matter. There are many types of jilapi, depending on the flavor, shape, size, etc. For example, there are small 'jilapi's with very few strands, there are 'shahi jilapi's, bigger and fried longer, and of course there are incredibly huge 'jilapi's weighing one whole kilogram!

Shondesh is made using milk, chhana and sugar or jaggery. These three items are heated and continuously stirred. As the distinctive aroma of shondesh comes out, we put the mixture in a tray and let it cool. Then, with a knife, the whole piece is cut in squares, or, with the help of a dice, we can cut to make the shondesh in a predetermined shape and design.

The shondesh market is overloaded with variants. To survive in the cutthroat competition, sweet shops have come up with innovative variations of the original shondesh, such as “ovaltine shondesh”, “love shondesh”, “cake shondesh”, etc. The best shondesh sweets made in Bangladesh are in Narail and Dhaka.

This dry sweetmeat is brownish in colour and shaped like a disc. The sweetmeat is a popular item for dessert, for its crumbly, flaky exterior and a moist, sweet inside.

To make balushai, moida, ghee/butter oil are mixed. Then baking powder is applied. After that, we pour some water to make dough. Then, the mixture is cut into pieces. Each piece is taken in the palms and flattened to a certain extent. Then the pieces are heated. They are then poured in heated oil, where they get deep fried. We have to fry until the colour turns reddish or brownish. After this episode, put those pieces in sheera for sweetening. After getting fully soaked, take the balushai out of the sheera. Your balushai is now ready.

Laddu is a round-shaped, dry sweetmeat popular in South Asia. The sweet is distributed among friends and family when good news is given or during celebrations (e.g. birth of a child, marriage, etc). The sweet is also used as “proshad” at Hindu religious festivals.

There are many kinds of laddu. Bundia and mawa laddu are very popular in our country. To make bundia laddu, mix chickpeas powder with water and stir. Then take a pan and heat oil and cut the mixture in tiny parts and pour them on the pan and fry till they turn brownish. Afterwards, pick those from the pan and soak it in sheera. After having been completely soaked, take those marbles out, round a few of them to make one laddu. On the other hand, if we want to make mawa laddu, we simply have to mix mawa powder when rounding up those tiny balls to make the laddu. There are many other types of laddu e.g. Motichur laddu, narikel-er-laddu (coconut laddu) etc.

Pitha, an invention of Bangladesh, is a form of cake made from rice or wheat flour. Pitha is not always sweet, but there are some types that are. It is mainly eaten during winter, especially during the mornings. Although they do not strictly fall under the category of sweets, some of the sweet 'pithas' are worth mentioning.

Dudh puli is a type of pitha where the brownish cakes are kept soaked in sweetened milk. To prepare dudh puli, roti (chapatti) is made from flour or rice powder. Khejurer gur (date jaggery) is added in the middle of each roti. The roti is then folded and the ends are closed in such a way that the khejur gur is trapped inside. Then, the pieces are deep-fried. Milk and sugar are heated to form dense sheera. The cakes are put in the sheera, and your dish is ready.

We could also do the same thing with chitoi pitha. We put the chitoi pitha on the sheera. After seven or eight hours of soaking, the chitoi pitha is ready to serve, in a bowl where the cakes are dipped in that sheera.

Nokshi pitha is very popular pitha in our country. Nokshi comes from the word 'noksha', which means design. To make this item, roti is first made. Then, a pin is used to make various designs on the surface of the roti, sometimes the shape of the cake itself is also designed, e.g. like a heart or a star. The cakes are then deep dried to make nokshi pitha.

Another form of pitha is 'she-oi'. To prepare that, make a dough of boiled water, salt and rice powder in the stove. When it's done, take it out of the pan and shape the dough into a ball. Then, smoothen the dough so that there are no lumps. Tear the dough in tiny pieces, and take each piece to elongate it in a manner so that the two ends of the piece are narrow while the body is thick. Khejur rosh is taken in a pan to heat. The pieces are then dipped and cooked to form she-oi.

Rabri and Khirsha
Rabri is a form of sweetened condensed milk consumed as a dessert. Milk is heated and stirred for a very long time until it becomes dense to form a pinkish colour. Then, nuts, sugar spices, etc are added for flavour. It is allowed to cool off- or even chilled- before it is served. Khirsha is a similar item. Milk is heated and stirred until it forms a brownish colour. Rice powder and sugar are added for flavour and aroma. Khirsha is relatively less sweet than rabri.

By M H Haider
Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed



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