The sweetmeat culture of Kolkata is undergoing an antiseptic change
A Basu | 31 May, 2011
The sweetmeat culture of Kolkata is undergoing an antiseptic change
A moira (confectioner) made his young son sit at his shop while he took his afternoon snooze. After a while, a cocky lad who had been cheated by the moira comes to the shop and befriends the son. “What’s your name? Mine is Maachi (fly),” says the lad. “What do you want?”asks the moira’s son. Maachi, in the meantime, busies himself by picking up a couple of sweets and munching on them with relish. The son starts shouting. When his father asks him what the matter is, he says, “Maachi is eating all the sweets.” His father tells him to shoo them away. But Maachi doesn’t budge. After he has had his fill, he places two sweets in the son’s hands and takes off. The moira comes out to find all his sweets gone and turns on his son with rage.
So goes a story by Gopal Bhand (Gopal Bhand was a court jester in the kingdom of Maharaja Krishnachandra in 19th century Bengal and his stories are legendary) on how Maachi plots his revenge based on the simple fact of life that sweets attract flies. But that may perhaps not be possible anymore. In the trendy air-conditioned sweetmeat shops coming up in Kolkata, replacing traditional small corner shops that churned out the best sweets in this part of the globe, flies are as alien as a hot green chilli. A typical sweetmeat shop in Kolkata would invariably be situated in a dingy corner of a street, where much of the space would be taken up by wood and glass showcases. Big aluminium trays would hold rows of the delectable sandesh, while juicy round rosogollas would peep out of a sea of white syrup in tubs. Ants and flies had their fill, as did humans, of these divinely delectable sweets. Invariably, the rear end of the shops would double as factories where karigars sat rubbing large mounds of chena (cottage cheese) on huge wooden plates, turning them into soft, mouth-watering sandesh. There would be the kadapaker jalbhara talshansh, which when bitten into would disintegrate into granular bits with thick sugar syrup or jaggery syrup, depending on the season, coursing down the insides of the throat. Or the rosogollas, which when popped into the mouth would squirt so much syrup that it would roll down the two corners of the mouth to meet at the chin and drip below.
Come 21st century, these traditional sweet destinations are disappearing as fast as open spaces and water bodies, all of which are happy hunting ground for land sharks looking for some real estate development. The glass-enclosed, ant-ridden showcases in neighbourhood shops are being replaced by gleaming aluminium and glass racks with insect repellents that make the entire shop as antiseptic as a hospital ward. Gone are the factories at the back of the shop. Instead, floorspace is being bought to accommodate imported kneaders and robots that churn out chocolate sandesh, strawberry rosogollas, orange cream sandesh and what have you. Traditional Bengali sweets and their shops are metamorphosing into all-glass, air-conditioned eateries with rows of green and red pan sandesh, yellow and green badam and pista barfi, white and pink malai chamchams, pink strawberry doi and yellow aam doi. Savouries take up an entire section where cocktail samosas, cocktail kachoris, dhoklas and paneer pakodas are packed in plastic containers, ready to fly off the shelves. Paneer burgers and sandwiches find place with rosogollas and kanchagollas, vying for attention.
Take, for example, Mahaprabhu Mistanna Bhandar on Dover Lane. Placed strategically on a crossing, this barely 350 sq ft shop, lit with tubelights, overlooked a largely residential, middle-class Bengali neighbourhood in the 1980s and 1990s. Rows of hot rosogollas in aluminum tubs lined the showcase, as did white square sandesh in various sizes. There would hardly be a total of ten varieties of sweets on offer, including the ones in syrup. A dark, fat middle-aged man would sit swatting flies at the counter and looking desultorily at the road.
Circa 2011, Mahaprabhu Mistanna Bhandar has metamorphosed into a swank over-1,000 sq ft air-conditioned shop. Rows of gleaming steel and glass showcases lined with a total variety of over 100 sweets and savouries tempt the connoisseur. Says Mahaprabhu’s proprietor PC Ghora, “The realtor wanted to develop the building where my shop was located. I had two shop spaces. He made me an offer that I couldn’t resist and promised rehabilitation in the new building. I agreed. I had nothing to lose. And once I had this swank floorspace to myself, I invested in a large showroom with enough staff
and a variety of sweets and savouries to attract both Bengali and non-Bengali customers. I have also arranged for a couple of tables for customers to sit and enjoy their sweets.” And attracted they are with some mind-boggling variety. If there is the traditional chanar payesh, rabdi, rasamalai, indrani, there is also the kaju strawberry, kaju diamond, kaju surya, kaju paan, kaju nantun. Mahaprabhu Mistanna offers 15 items of cashewnut sweets. And who are
the buyers? According to Ghora, “Bengalis demand the barfi items and non-Bengalis want the Bengali-style singara, radhaballavi, cholar daal, chamcham.” Add to that the bread paneer sandwich, the paneer cutlet, vegetable pop, bread cutlet, and you have the young and hip making a beeline for the tables. Witnessing Mahaprabhu’s metamorphosis with awe and some amount of dismay, one was galvanised into seeking out other traditional sweetmeat shops that Kolkata is known for. And one was amazed to find that, as with all other things, there was a clear north-south divide in the evolution of sweetmeat shops and sweets in Kolkata.
While the north continues to be the bastion of everything traditional, the south has led the evolution of modern supermarket confectioners offering customers comfort and mind-boggling variety.
One is reassured to find one of the oldest sweetshop, Bhim Chandra Nag, on Nirmal Chandra Street in central Calcutta, as it was. Established in 1826, the shop’s frontal façade is dominated by the green board with its name in bold Bengali script in white. The shop is airy with large wooden doors that fold and open out onto the sidewalk. Inside, the shop is dominated by the showcase. It is here that tradition and modernity coexist. Aam sandesh, ice-cream sandesh, chocolate sandesh along with kanchagolla and jal bhara talshansh vie for space. Three to four aides pack in the sweets and attend to customers, while the fifth generation of the Nag family, Pradip Nag, with his neatly-trimmed goatee and crisp white cotton shirt, stands at the cash counter. “The last time this shop was renovated was some 70 years back,” says Pradip, handing out change to a customer. It’s early afternoon on a sweltering summer day and a steady trickle of customers keeps everyone at Bhim Chandra Nag on his toes.
The 1,000 sq ft shop with an adjacent factory doesn’t look ancient, but it isn’t overly modern either. Light pink tiles on the wall with matching marble top tall counters impart a sense of hygiene and cleanliness. Ancient pictures of Sir Asutosh Mukherjee along with Parag Chandra Nag and Bhim Chandra Nag, the father-son duo who founded the shop, adorn the walls. It is said that Sir Mukherjee, the then vice-chancellor of Calcutta University, would stop by the shop each day on his way to the university to buy sandesh. With that kind of legacy and goodwill, Bhim Chandra Nag neither has to invest in air conditioners nor large shop floors. “Air conditioning is bad for sandesh, it dries up,” says Pradip. Besides, a large amount of space is left unattended at the shop. “We used to have chairs and tables there for customers to sit and eat. But we’ve done away with that because it was very bothersome,” says Pradip.
However, innovation is always a must for the sweetmeat industry, feels Pradip. And he, too, has added his own creations to Bhim Nag’s repertoire. So if there is the Dilkhush, a saffron, pistachio, chena, khowa sandesh that has been selling for the past 50 years, there is also the Alfonso mango sandesh made with the pulp of fresh Alfonso mango. “The Alfonso mango sandesh, the Butterscotch sandesh (made with butterscotch pulp), the green mango sandesh with the flavour of raw mangoes, are additions that have been made in the past few years,” says Pradip. “These too sell as much as the traditional kanchagollas or ratabi sandesh,” he adds. The size, shape, colour, texture and flavour are all decided by him or his father. The green mango sandesh, for example, is a raw green colour, with the chocolate sandesh right beside it in deep brown. There is a lot of yellow and pink too in the Bhim Nag sandesh, as they use a lot of saffron and strawberry in their sweets. But the Nags haven’t been very innovative with the shapes of their sandesh, most being square pieces or, at the most, heart-shaped.
Further down north, right beside Hedua, on Ramdulal Sarkar Lane, stands another of Kolkata’s old and famous sweetshops, Girish Chandra Dey & Nakur Chandra Nandy. On a wet summer evening, the bright CFL lamp on the whitewashed portico over the sidewalk beckons the visitor. The lamp throws light over the old signboard proclaiming the Nakur shop. A green iron grille separates the shopfront from milling customers.
Inside the 1,000 sq ft shop, the aluminium glass showcase is placed in a well where aides hand out sweets in white cardboard boxes to the regular clientele. The rest of the shop is taken up with huge wooden boards where karigars in thin gamchas and vests vigorously rub stupendous mounds of fresh chena. Presiding over them is Prashanta Nandy, a 40-something, fair fellow in a tattered vest and pyjamas, the current proprietor of the Nakur business, having inherited it from his paternal grandfather’s maternal grandfather, Girish Chandra Dey. “The last time we changed the structure of the shop was about 70 years ago. Prior to that, the shop was made of red bricks with a hay ceiling,” says Nandy. Later, it was turned into a regular brick and mortar structure with iron pillars, all of which are painted a bright green. The grille, says Nandy, was an addition during the Naxal days.
“We haven’t felt any need to modernise our shop or the way we make our sweets. Quality is the last word in sweet-making and so long as we maintain our quality, we need not fear anything,” says Nandy with a huge dose of smugness. What about technology and machines? “Oh, we still believe in making our sandesh with our own hands. Last week, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee took packets of sandesh made by these karigars with their own hands for the Rashtrapati and the Pradhan Mantri,” he says.
But innovation in varieties has not escaped Nakur’s shop either. So there is Black Forest sandesh and rice ball chocolate sandesh, white chocolate sandesh and chocolate malai roll. However, these sell much less than the traditional jalbhara talshansh, admits Nandy, though he refuses steadfastly to give any figures. Girish Chandra Dey & Nakur Chandra Nandy has, however, also ventured out of its Ramdulal Sarkar Street outlet and opened counters at Spencer’s supermarkets to bring its famous offerings to the denizens of south Kolkata.
However, the oldest south Kolkata sweetmeat shop that opened in 1885 on a narrow bylane in front of Jagubabur Bazaar, Balaram Mullick and Radharaman Mullick, has evolved into swank sweet ‘boutiques’, as owner Sudip Mullick calls them. Not only have it modernised its dingy workshop-cum-sales counter into air-conditioned, huge boutiques that gleam with glass and chrome and are equipped with LCD screens beaming pictures of their factory, but it has also opened a chain of their boutiques on Park Street and Ballygunge Phanri. “We keep the air-conditioning at a level that doesn’t take away the moistness of the sandesh. We have had to work a lot on getting the right temperature,” says Mullick, a hotel management graduate who has done a stint of training with Oberoi Grand.
Mullick brings to the trade a lot of what he has learnt in hotel management—customer comfort and satisfaction, hygiene and professionalism. Balaram Mullick, too, has had its share of celebrated clientele, from Sir Asutosh Mukherjee to Netaji and Uttam Kumar. “I have heard that sweets from our shop were delivered to their houses,” says Mullick. The shop made its name selling what is called makha, the main raw material that goes into the making of sandesh.
“Twenty-five years ago, my father Pradeep Mullick started selling this raw material after liquefying it a bit. It was sold hot and was a huge hit,” he says. Makha is sold by the kg and is a mound of cooked sandesh. It feels granular and bears the taste of unadulterated chena that has been cooked hot and mixed with sugar or gur.
Apart from the modernisation drive that took place in 2003-04, the Mullicks keep innovating and adding to their vast array of offerings. “We started aam doi that became a huge hit, and the baked rosogolla along with the rosogolla flambe with rum,” says Mullick. The last variety is gurer rosogolla, a sweet that has evolved in the last decade or so, which is shallow fried in butter. Dark rum is poured over it and it is lit to form the flambe. It is then finished with fresh cream. For Rs 20 apiece, the sweet smells of smoked rum and has a thin hard coating that gives the rosogolla a crunchy taste. Apart from this, chocolate fudge sandesh, chanapoda (a speciality from Orissa), watermelon sandesh and mango gelato sandesh fill the racks at Balaram’s. Mullick has plans to open outlets in Kankurgachi and Kasba before venturing out of Kolkata to Mumbai.
The Bengali sweet is no longer the same, and Maachi would do well to think of some other mode of revenge.