There are a few things no Bengali home in Kolkata is complete without – a green tube of Boroline antiseptic cream, a trusted phul panjika (almanac) ideally published by Gupta Press or Benimadhob Seal, bright red packets of Mukharochak chanachur and, all importantly, a bottle of Dulaler Taalmichhri, Bengal’s favourite brand of palm candy.

Made by crystallising inspissated palmyra palm SAP taal michhri – known for its cooling properties and medicinal goodness – is a pantry essential in every Bengali home. And for most Bengalis, even today, taal michhri is synonymous with the octogenarian Dulal’s.

Growing up in Kolkata in the 1990s, I was accustomed to seeing a jar of Dulaler Taalmichhri, with its canary-yellow and ink-blue label imprinted with silhouetted palmyra palm trees, in our mesh-doored pantry cabinet. Next to it inevitably were bottles of Polycrol, Aqua Ptychotis and Isabgol – all staples for dealing with the famous Bengali indigestion.

In the summers, every few days, it was essential to have mouri michhrir jal – a trusted coolant – first thing in the morning. A fistful of fennel seeds, a spice also known for its cooling properties, and a few muddy-gold lumps of Dulaler Taalmichhri was steeped in a jar of water overnight. The next morning, the cloudy concoction would be decanted into glasses and distributed among us children.

I preferred the simple michhrir jal – water sweetened with taal michhri – that awaited me on my return from school on hot days. The earthy sweetness and soft floral notes that the palm candy imparted to the drink made it a refreshing, potent energiser. But while michhrir jal was delicious, nothing could match the thrill of stealing taal michhri when the elders were not looking, and sucking on it, ideally in hiding. The jagged, hard lumps scraped against the walls of the mouth, leaving it sore, but nobody complained.

Credit: Priyadarshini Chatterjee.

Like me, Tanushree Bhowmik has fond memories of Dulaler Taalmichhri. A development professional and food researcher in Delhi, she grew up in the 1980s in Assam, where her family always stored a bottle of Dulaler Taalmichhri at home. “In the summers we had glassfuls of michhrir jal with a generous squeeze of lime.” she reminisced. It’s a tradition Bhowmik continues. In the capital’s scorching summer heat, Bhowmik still often turns to the cooling comfort of taal michhrir jal.

“Taal michhri is equally efficacious in treating cough and cold,” food blogger Sayantani Mahapatra reminded me. In fact, the brand primarily plugged its taal michhri as a remedy for phlegm and cough. An old print advertisement for it featured a mother and an infant with the catchline: Shordi o Kashite Dulaler Taalmichhri (For cold and cough, Dulaler Taalmichhri). My grandmother was an ardent believer in the magical powers of the palm candy. Whenever there was a hint of a cold or cough, she would concoct a muddy brew by boiling it down with tulsi leaves and basok pata (justicia adhatoda).

Faisal Mahmud, a journalist, remembers childhood visits to his maternal grandfather’s home in Shibpur, near Dhaka, where he was treated to lumps of Dulaler Taalmichhri. “That was my grandfather’s way of showing affection,” said Mahmud. “He was such an ardent fan of Dulaler Taalmichhri that, in the 1990s, my uncle would bring him his supply all the way from Dhaka New Market.”

But how did Dulaler Taalmichhri achieve this cult status? And how has it sustained a near-monopoly for eight decades? To answer these questions, it is important to step back to the time of its birth.

Brand building

In Bengal, where palmyra palm trees abound, taal michhri existed long before Dulal arrived on the market in the 1930s. Subhash Samajdar, in his 1975 book Banijye Bangali Shekal o Ekal, writes of Hooghly’s long legacy of producing excellent palm sugar – be it jaggery or crystallised michhri. As if that wasn’t enough, a considerable amount of palm candy was also imported to Calcutta from Ceylon, Madras and elsewhere, according to 19th century writers like Babu TN Mukerji.

At the time Dulal began its journey, the country was caught in the fervour of the Swadeshi movement. Mahatma Gandhi’s call for a boycott of foreign goods had resonated across the country. In Bengal, there was a surge in creation of homegrown brands, including some family owned.

Into this ferment arrived the Bhars. The Bhars were one of the most influential families of Rajbalhat, a small town in Bengal’s Hooghly district, not very far from Calcutta. The family had made its money in the textile business, and much of the credit for its success went to Jaharlal Bhar. In his book Hugli Jelar Itihash o Bongo Samaj, Sudhir Kumar Mitra writes about Jaharlal Bhar’s numerous philanthropic contributions towards the development of Rajbalhat. It was Jaharlal, Mitra says, who ventured into the sugar candy business and started a new enterprise under the name of his son – Dulal Chandra Bhar.

“At first, our family diversified into the business of white sugar candy that was in demand at the time,” said Dhananjoy Bhar, Dulal Chandra’s middle son, on a video call from his North Kolkata office.

Dhananjoy was describing, with visible pride, the business timeline – how it started, how it progressed. He claimed it was his father, Dulal Chandra, who “steered the business in the direction of taal michhri made from pure sweet sap of palmyra palm trees. It was also through my father’s efforts that the company got its trademark registered in 1944 under the British administration, and went on to become a popular name. Although the registered trademark number 3965 is now redundant, we print it on the label as a token of the past.”

Through the years, the process for making the palm candy has remained mostly unchanged. The palm sap is extracted between late March and early June, and “processed almost instantaneously” to prevent rapid fermentation. From there, it is transferred to quicklime-lined clay pots for year-round production.

Next comes the making of the candy. The preserved palm juice, along with a little sugar, is reduced to an exact degree to make molten palm jaggery and poured into trays. After nine days of rest, the jaggery crystallises on top and bottom, leaving a layer of liquid residue in the middle. This liquid is carefully drained out, while the michhri is cut, sundried and finally packaged. “It’s a veritable craft that requires acute precision and depends heavily on skilled labour,” said Dhananjoy. “Nine to ten litres of sap yield about a kilogram of michhri.”

Dhananjoy attributes the tal michhri’s success to the superiority of ingredients. But there is another reason why it has not lost its loyal customer base over the decades. From the beginning, its positioning as a homely remedy for cough and cold validated by Ayurvedic principles and emphasis on purity – adulteration was a recurring theme in older advertisements – cemented its appeal among tradition-bound Bengalis who were suspicious of foreign cures of ambiguous origins. Besides, the clout and financial strength of the Bhars helped trump the competition.

The brand’s place in 20th century Bengal is manifest in how filmmakers have used it as a prop to reconstruct different periods from the era – from 1940s Calcutta in Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! to the 1970s in Konkona Sen Sharma’s A Death in the Gunj.

Bitter feud

An article headlined Shonali Modoke Dhaka Heerey in Ananda Bazar Patrika’s illustrious Desh magazine in 1986 waxes rhapsodic about the nationwide popularity of Bengal’s feted palm candy, but it makes no mention of Dulal Chandra Bhar, after whom the brand was named. Instead, it places Dulal Chandra’s brother Sanatan Bhar at the centre of Dulal’s success. Alongside the article is an advertisement that warns readers about deceptive labelling that make claims to authenticity. It is possible that the ad was simply a cautionary note on cheap duplicates, but given the context, it is likely that it was rooted in a rift within the Bhar family that led to a split in its candy business.

From this distance, it is hard to ascertain what caused the fraternal tension. What is clear, though, is the fallout. In 1985, the two brothers faced off in court over the brand name, with Somnath Chatterjee, who later became the Lok Sabha Speaker, representing Dulal Chandra. The brothers were nudged to settle matters amicably through dialogue in the interest of the brand. But the rift remained unresolved and the brothers parted ways.

Since its inception Dulal Chandra’s name had been on the label of Dulaler Taalmichhri as its prostutkarok or manufacturer. This made the man synonymous with the brand. After the division, however, “it was agreed that Sanatan Bhar would continue to use the original brand name, Dulaler Taalmichhri, but could no longer use the name of Dulal Chandra Bhar as its manufacturer,” said Dhananjoy. “My father, on the other hand, rebranded his product as Dulal Chandra Bharer Talmichhri, and put his signature and photograph on the label to assert his claim to the legacy.”

Both the brands – Dulaler Taalmichhri and Dulal Chandra Bharer Talmichhri – have coexisted in the market since, each asserting its legitimacy in a battle of one-upmanship. But for the average customer, it is still Dulal Chandra Bhar’s name that remains at the heart of the palm candy story.

Tanmay Sar, co-founder of Bonghaat, an e-commerce platform that sells everything quintessentially Bengali, says there is still a significant demand for Dulaler Taalmichhri. Bong Haat sells 800-900 bottles a month on average, and not only among the Bengali community. “We recently received an order for 25 kilos of Dulal’s Talmichhri from a family in Kota,” said Sar. “But availability is a recurring problem. I wish the brand had a wider distribution network.” According to Sar, a slew of new brands of taal michhri, some of them run by rural cooperatives, are taking advantage of this gap to capture the market.

Whatever the brand, Dulal remains embedded in the Bengali psyche, not only as a nostalgic token from the past but a living tradition that connects them to their family and roots. To be sure, the younger generations might not feel the same thrill sucking on a taal michri, but its deep roots in Bengali culture keeps it relevant. When I married into a Punjabi family, a bottle of Dulal Chandra Bhar’s Talmichhri (or was it Dulaler?) was one of the first things I introduced to my new home, to add a touch of Bengaliness, and hold onto to the comfort of the familiar.

Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a food and culture writer, based in Kolkata. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Food Writings for 2022.