Roshogolla Rohoshyo... the curious case of the Bengali Odisha rasgulla GI tag tussle

The excellent rasgullas that I had at the non-Bengali owned Sree Khrishna Sweets
in central Kolkata in my last trip to the city


Bengal was recently awarded the GI (geographical identity) tag rights on the rasgulla. Odisha plans to apply for the same. There has been a debate between the states over the last couple of years on who has invented this sweet. This post of mine is a light-hearted reflection on the issue without taking a stand on the issue of where the rasgulla was invented. The title is a tribute to the Bengali Pujo Barshiki storie.

I got a call yesterday afternoon from Damini, a journalist with The Indian Express.

It turned out that she wanted to talk to me about rasgulla, the sweet that we Bengalis know of as Roshogolla. Why? Apparently Bengal had won the tussle with Odisha on who gets the GI rights over the sweet. 

GI as in Glycemic Index? Well, not in this case though the worlds of diabetes and rasgulla are not that far removed.

GI also stands for Geographical Identity apparently. It links an item with a region from where it is said to have originated. An example from the food world would be the haleem which has been given a GI link with Hyderabad.

So what is the issue with Bengal getting GI rights over the rasgulla? You've always known of the rasgulla as the quintessential Bengali sweet you say? Yes, machher jhol (the o mispronounced as the 'a' in ball by non-Bengalis), Rabindra Sangeet (there too the a is pronounced as o in oar and not a in all) and the roshogolla are the top three cliches  that non-Bengalis associate Bengalis with.

The sweetshops of Mumbai all have a section proudly labelled as 'Bengali sweets', where the rasgulla is omni-present. Not the soft and cherubic, sponge rasgulla, that Bengal dotes on. These are rubber bullets which can be very well used for crowd control and are a blot on the name of rasgulla. The Odiyas are most welcome to take credit for this as far as I am concerned.

These Mumbai sweetshops have done as much disservice to rasgullas as the suburban Udupi joints of Mumbai have done to dosas with their offer of razor sharp, jaw hurting, dosas topped with processed cheese, mushroom, and/ or, the toxic red mess known as 'Schezwan sauce', and a sambar that is so sweet that it can be offered as dessert. One day, some South Indian state should take up the matter and sue them is what I feel but I digress. Rant over.

The fun started when the Odiyas claimed to be the originators of the rasgulla too. From what I gather, they say that it has been offered in the Puri temple as bhog for centuries, an therefore staked a claim for the GI rights on the sweet. The Bengalis countered and said that the brown coloured 'Pahala' rasgullas of Odisha are different from the white, soft, rasgullas of Bengal.

The Odiyas and Bengalis are both peace loving people and there hence there was no need for the rubber bullets rasgullas of Mumbai for crowd control when the dispute arose. Instead, folks from both sides did write long, eloquent and emotional posts on the subject on social media to express their rage. Both sides then went peacefully to the nanny, sorry I meant the government, to mediate and the verdict came out yesterday. The verdict went to Bengal with the authorities possibly deciding that the KC Das' ancestor, Nabin Chandra Dasm having invented rasagolla story held more calorific weight than the Odiyas and their pahala rasagolla claim. The GI tag for rasgullas was given to Bengal yesterday according to reports that I have read. I have attached a few links on these reports at the end of the post.

There was much jubilation on social media among my fellow Bengalis on this issues. I must admit though that being at the other end of the country and far from Kolkata, I viewed this issue a bit dispassionately, though I had grown up on stories  of how my father used to make rasgullas in UK and rasmalai for my annaprashan in Kolkata. A huge rasgulla related  treat during my schooldays was when my mother would send me to Gaurango Mishtanna Bhandar at the Bansdroni bus stop, but not to Porichoto Mishtanna Bhandar opposite it, or Gayen Misthanna Bhandar down the lane (Kolkata has more sweet shops than people), with a few coins to buy rasgullas. They cost 50 p each when I was in high school in the late 80s and early 90s. She would then put them between slices of bread for my brother and me to have as roshogolla sandwiches as a weekend treat. I later came across rasgullas in Mumbai, first from Lalan Mishra, and then Sweet Bengal, which I was sort of OK with. I no longer crave for rasgullas and rarely have them.

Rasgulla from Joyguru Sweets near my granny's house


The only exception being the rasgullas that Didu, my granny calls for, when I visit her in Kolkata. These are from Joyguru Sweets at Jayasree Club. It might as we be called a 'shop with no name' as it is not famous at all. My granny told me yesterday with a smile, when I told her about the GI issue, that these rasgullas are the sweetest of them all and that she prefers them to the ones from more 'naam kora dokans' (famous shops). I forget my diabetes and GI concerns and chomp on these rasgullas when I am at my granny's because they are both very sweet and I love them both.

My maternal grandparents used to go to Puri on holidays a lot as my late grandfather loved the sea and this was his favourite holiday destination. Since Didu (granny) at 90 is the oldest person I knowI asked her if she'd seen rasgullas in Puri.

She first said no and said that she'd see goja and Khaaja and pantua and chhana something (chhana poda I told her) and then, she racked her memories and added, "yes, there would be guys who would come to guest house carrying baskets of rasgulla." Obviously, rasgullas were not the first association with Puri for granny.

Didu, incidentally knows how to make rasgullas. She would make them in Delhi along with pantua. Milk was in abundance in Delhi and of good quality, unlike what they found when they moved to Kolkata in the late 1970s after my grandpa retired. In Kolkata hardly anyone made sweets or rasgullas at home. Milk was scarce but sweet shops were not and with the prices of sweets being so reasonable, people happily depended on the parar mishtir dokan rather than make sweets at home.

Which was my point when the IE journalist asked me about my take on the rasgulla and its origins

I told her that I had read about Chitrita Banerjee's hypotheses on the Portuguese connection that led to the invention of chhana and rasgulla. When new to Kolkata, we had gone to the home of the KC Das family once during Durga Puja as my dad knew them. I was told then that this was the family whose ancestors had invented the rasgulla and I was most impressed even though I was just 8 years old then. Over the last couple of years, I have read about the Odiya claims too. 

What I told the journalist though, is that a lot of Indian food history stories are unsubstantiated and are a matter of conjecture as very little is written down. Even the authenticity of our recipes come down to the issue of 'my grandmother was a better cook than yours'. So I could not, with any level of authority, talk about the origins of rasgulla.

What I do know for sure is that if it is anyone who has put the rasagulla in a place where its origins could be of such importance, then it is would be the people of Bengal. It is the most famous of Bengali sweets and possibly of India too, thanks initially to the tinned rasgullas which travellers would travel with once upon a time.

The roshogolla is a part of our culture, our folklore and the Bengali DNA. We have grown up on stories of rasgulla eating competitions,  where experts would know well enough to squeeze out the syrup. Rasgulla was a must in all wedding feasts in Kolkata, the shondesh and ice cream could be negotiable. It's what kept the city on the move. I remember classmates coming to school with roshogolla and slices of bread in their tiffin boxes. Then there was this elderly mashi (lady) who told  her  son, who would be out on the roads on work for a sales job, to stop at a sweet shop in between to have a rasgulla or two in between. "Gives energy, is hygienic (so what if the sweet shop was covered with flies) and not expensive too." Bhaars (earthen pots) full of roshogolla would be the standard treat ('khawa' would be the hint) to celebrate everything good that happened in life...a good exam result (only first class first would do), getting a job (a government job of course), a birth in the family, one's favourite football team winning the derby or when one lost a bet for that matter. Diabetes be damned, what could be 'healthier' that cottage cheese boiled in sugar syrup right?  There was this time in college when one of our classmates had jaundice. Her folks allowed her to have rasgullas from the local shop, boiled again at home of course. Bengal, you could say, ran on roshogollas from what I remember from my childhood days in Kolkata. 

I consciously said, 'people of Bengal' in the paragraph above and not Bengalis. There are non-bengali owned sweetshops such as Ganguram, whose founder had come to Kolkata from UP, and now the big Haldiram outlets, which collectively sell more rasgullas than all Bengali sweet shops out together perhaps. Food writer Sangeeta Khanna wryly commented on my Instagram feed that there are people in Bikaner who claim that the rasgulla was invented there!

What I feel is that while food history stories make for great appetisers and conversation starters, one should not get too trapped in them. We often debate about whether the rolls of Kolkata were genuinely invented in Nizam's and about which of Wajid Ali Shah's many cooks first  popped in a potato into the biryani and whether it was done to add a touch of exotica to the dish or to save money. 

All of this banter on history is fine, but I do hope that there are new dishes being created in Kolkata and elsewhere which become as legendary and as much a part of our lives and cultural and social fabric as these legendary dishes have become. We will have a rather limited menu to choose from otherwise if we live only in the past, and that's not just in the context of food of course. And of course, food should unite and not divide, though I am sure that the rasgullas tussle between Bengal and Odisha was done in good spirits. Or, so I hope.


Update 17/11/17 This is what Dr Sudipta Chakravarty, a Bengali who lives in Jaipur and posted this tweeted:

@Roflindian: ‘Rasogollas are like Subhash Chandra Bose. Born in Orissa but known worldwide as Bengali.’

There could be a twist to the story though. It seems that there is an argument now that the white, spongy, sweet that we know has actually got a 'Bengal rasgulla' GI tag and that the Odisha government might apply for the GI tag for their brownish pahala rasgulla. 

Well, more the merrier, if you ask me though, that's shifting the goal posts a bit.

Till then perhaps our Odiya neighbours and us can sit over some tea and their excellent chhhena poda sweets and decide on an acceptable English spelling for the word rasgulla of which many versions exist.

The sweet smell of victory. I bought these rojoni gondhas
(tube roses) from the flower seller in our lane at Bandra. The
newspaper wrapping was done by him.
This is not a political statement 


Appendix:

1. Rohohsyo means mystery
2. Kolkata is not spelt asKolkatta
3. Kolkata is pronounced - Koal (Koala bear)- kaata and not call-katta
4. No rasgullas were eaten during the writing of this article


Please also read:

1. The story of Lallan Misra and his rasgullas in Mumbai
2. My Ganguram story
3. Rasgulla with granny
4. The Indian Express story on rasgullas where I was quoted

Sources referred to
1. A Telegraph report explaining what is GI Tag
3. There can't be a Bengali food history story where Pritha Sen doesn't have a say. This is her article in the Mumbai Mirror listing the various theories about the origins of rasgulla
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