food fight

Who deserves credit for the rasgulla? Bengalis, Odiyas...or the Portuguese?

A fierce turf war has broken out over whether the rasgulla was invented in Bengal or Odisha.

There are many important, even vital things that Bengal claims to have contributed to India. Number-1-all-time-best Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore, Indian nationalism and the bottom line of the WellSpring Pharmaceutical Corporation (makers of Gelusil antacid) all owe their existence to Bengal. But more than anything else, however, Bengal has touched India via a soft, pearly white globe of cheese, dipped in thick sugar syrup.

The rasgulla, ladies and gents, is as Bengali as Communism. However, just like some reactionaries claim foreign origin for Marx babu, an extra-Bengali source is being claimed for the rasgulla. Odisha (earlier Orissa and even earlier Kalinga) has staked a Geographical Indication claim on the confectionery.

Odiya claim

This bold assertion rests on the fact that the Jagannath Temple in Puri uses rasgullas as prasad during the Rath Yatra. Laxmidhar Pujapanda, public relations officer of the temple, is quoted by the Times of India arguing: "Rasgulla has been part of Rath Yatra rituals ever since the Jagannath temple came into existence in the 12th century."

Unfortunately, this claim doesn’t have much by way of backing. The Chhapan Bhog (ritual offering to Lord Krishna) of the temple does not mention the rasgulla and there is nothing to say that the tradition of offering the sweetmeat didn’t originate sometime in the recent past.

There is also the fact that, as noted food historian KT Achaya points out, cheese was taboo in Hinduism since the act of splitting milk was seen as profane. A logical extension from the sacred status that milk held in the religion. Offering up a sweet made of cheese (in this case cottage cheese or chhana) as a Brahmanical offering in the 12th century seems highly unlikely.

The real cheese

In fact, before the 17th century, there are no references to cheese in India at all. As food writer and historian Chitra Banerji says, “It is notable that in all the myths about the young Krishna [a later incarnation of Vishnu], who was bought up by foster parents among the dairy farmers of Brindaban [in the state of Uttar Pradesh] there are thousands of references to milk, butter, ghee and yoghurt, but none to chhana.”

Not only in mythology, chhana (cottage cheese, the base used in the rasgulla), is conspicuously absent even in medieval Indian history. Banerji has studied the medieval Hindu reformer Chaitanya’s food habits and while he seemed to have a great fondness for sweets, including dairy-based ones, there is no mention of sweets with chhana as a base. In medieval Bengal, in fact, the sandesh was made out of khoa, or condensed milk solids. Only later did it come to use cheese.

How then did Bengalis come by cheese?

In medieval India, if you lived by the coast, very often the most impactful power wasn’t the Mughal emperor far out in Delhi or even your local king. Instead, the very distant Portugal might have been more important to you.

Portuguese India

Sealed off from the land route to Asia by the powerful Arabs, the Portuguese turned this adversity into profit and poured all their energies into the sea with the aim of becoming a major naval power.

In 1498, Vasco Da Gama “discovered” India via a route the Arabs had been using for at least two millennia before him. The Portuguese, though, meant business and their superior naval firepower soon displaced the Arabs from India’s west coast. Not long after, the Iberians had the entire Indian coast at their disposal, from Chittagong in Bengal to Bombay (as they named it) in the Konkan.

These Portuguese newcomers had a massive influence on India’s coastal cultures. Though mostly forgotten now, this age is quiescently preserved in the languages that came into contact with Portuguese. Since this was the first European power India experienced on a large scale, a large number of Western concepts use Portuguese loans. Both Bengali and Marathi, for example, use the Portuguese word pao for western-style bread. Marathi borrowed the Portuguese name for a new, brown tuber imported from South America: batata. Almari (almirah), chaabi (key), girja (church), istri (iron) and Ingrej (English) are all words that the Bengalis took from the Portuguese. Even “harmad” a Bengali slang word meaning “ruffian”, comes from the word “armada”, referring to the poor reputation of the Portuguese sailors who mostly came up the riverine Bengal delta as pirates and raiders.

Another significant addition was made in cuisine. The Portuguese loved their fresh cottage cheese, which they made by adding citric acid to boiled milk. KT Acharya writes: “This routine technique may have lifted the Aryan taboo on deliberate milk curdling and given the traditional Bengali moira [confectioner] a new material to work with.”

The three cheeses of Bengal

This link to the Portuguese has another strong source: Francois Bernier. Bernier, a Frenchman, was the personal physician to the Mughal price Dara Shikoh and he left behind a highly influential record of his travels in India. He mentions that “Bengal likewise is celebrated for its sweetmeats, especially in places inhabited by the Portuguese, who are skillful in the art of preparing them and with whom they are an article of considerable trade”.

The Portuguese, in all, ended up introducing three types of acid-curdled cheeses to Bengal. One is obviously the basic chhana, milk split with citric acid, consumed fresh. The second is the incredibly tasty smoked Bandel Cheese, an Anglo-Indian favourite which is still available in a few shops in the British-era New Market of Kolkata. The third is today called the Dhakai Paneer. Food writer Kalyan Karmakar explains that Dhakai Paneer has “nothing to do with ‘paneer’” and is “more like a tight feta”. It is now only found in Dhaka.


Bandel Cheese discs
Courtesy: Shoaib Daniyal


Chhana, of course, also spread to North India, where it was compressed into blocks and given the Persian name for cheese – “paneer” (a name that Turkish also borrowed).

Now how this chhana was fashioned into the rasgulla is the bone of contention. While we can be pretty sure the Jagannath temple story is not true (given that there was no cheese in India before the Portuguese), who first thought of forging this stuff into those small heavenly little globes is not known.

The Steve Jobs of rasgulla

Maybe it was invented in Bengal and taken to Odisha. Maybe Odiya cooks, very common in rich Bengali households, bought it to Bengal. Given the lack of records, it is impossible to tell.

However, one thing is more certain: the modern method of rasgulla preparation owes its genesis to a Bengali gentlemen from Kolkata called Nobin Chandra Das. He basically boiled the chhana balls in the syrup, making it spongier and, more importantly, from the point of view of commerce, gave it a longer shelf life.

It is this Nobin Chandra Das rasgulla that spread throughout India. While Das is often credited as the inventor of the rasgulla, a title that many Odiyas take great umbrage to, at the very least he is to the confectionary what Steve Jobs was to the smartphone. Even if Das didn’t invent the original rasgulla, it was he who tweaked it and took it to market, making it the popular sweet that we all love.

Given this history, and also the fact that it is now almost a pan-India food, any Geographical Indication claims that Odisha might make on the rasgulla would be just a little unfair.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.