Slicing through the great Odisha Bengal rasgulla/ roshogolla debate

The Odiya rasgulla

Last month, 29th July 2019, to be precise is when the Odia rasgulla got the GI tag. The Bengali version, Banglar rasogola as they put it, was awarded the same on 14th November 2017. Which, coincidentally, happens to be Children's Day in India too!

The two incidents added more fodder to the fight between the two states on the origins of this sweet. The registry even had to step in after Bengal got it first, saying that this was not a statement on the origins of the sweet. The Odias were rather miffed. They traced their rasgulla heritage back to the 12th century when the Jagannath Temple was built.

The Bengali rasgulla tradition, on the other hand, officially goes back to just the latter half of the 19th century and is ascribed to a Kolkata based sweet maker named Nabin Chandra Das, whose descendants run KC Das today. It is said that the chhaana making tradition, where milk was split to make a form of cheese, was introduced to Bengal by the Portuguese. The idea of making the rasgulla (and other sweets such as the shondesh, pantua, chomchom etc) would be home grown though. Whether the inspiration for making the roshogolla (the Bengali way of pronouncing it)  came from Odia cooks who worked in Bengali households at that time is a matter of conjecture. It could even have beeen someone from Bengal who went to Puri back then, had the rasgulla there and come back with the idea of masking rasgolas with chhana, if you ask me. Given our love for both eating and travel, the early bhojon bilashi and bhromon bilashi Bangalis would have reached there much earlier than today's food and travel bloggers after all. Let me quickly point out that what I just said is a result of some good old daydreaming on my part and that is all.

Many articles have been written on this topic over the last couple of years. Rasgulla sales have gone up too I am sure. I will not be surprised if the Haldirams and the Brijwasis of the world went laughing to the bank in the process instead of any of us Bengalis or Odias. Those guys do know how to do business way better than we do.

I have contributed to a few of these rasgulla debate pieces too and occasionally have given bytes for articles written on the subject. There was one point at which my rasgulla narrative would get a bit hazy though I admit. This is because is that I had not tasted the rasgulla of Puri or Odisha as far 'as I know'.

Let me explain what I meant by that last part of this sentence.  I had gone to Puri when I was 8 years old with my parents. I remember having the khaja and the mishti pulao in the prasad of the temple. I loved both. I do not remember having had rasgullas then. Interestingly, I do remember having had rasgullas during the same period (80,81) at the house of the family that runs KC Das. My father knew them and took me there with him during the Durga Pujas if memory serves me right. My father is no more, so I cannot do a fact check for you on this I am afraid.

Therefore, while I had learnt that the rasgullas of Odisha and Bengal are different from each other, I could not speak from personal experience as to how it was so. That made me uncomfortable. I do not like to conclude on the topic without personal experience.

There's Amit Patnaik

Then thing changed last weekend. No, I did not go to Odisha, though I plan to do so again someday. Here's what happened.

I met my friend Amit Patnaik, whom you might know from my Murugan idli exploration tales in Chennai, Old Delhi chhole bhatoora and bedmi puri breakfast at Shiv and Shyam Sweets in old Delhi and my Delhi Sadar Bazar Delhi meaty outings at Ashok and Ashok and Sardar meatwala, at Delhi once again.

I met him this time at the Food Super Stars Academy at Delhi. The academy is helmed by Vir Sanghvi, who coincidentally had written on the Odisha Bengal rasgulla 'war' recently in his column in the Hindustan Times.

Amit is Odia and like me, has lived outside of his home state for large parts of his life. His mother, a home chef, recently partnered with chef Vikramjit Roy to present a very well received Odia food pop up lunch at Whiskey Samba.

Amit came up to me while I was having breakfast at the hotel with his characteristic big smile and a tiffin box on. He told me that his mother had gone home recently and had brought back rasgullas from Bhubaneswar. He had most kindly brought a box full of them for me to try. I did so immediately even though we were at the breakfast buffet of the hotel, as did my younger brother who was with me then.

My brother has travelled to the interiors of Odisha on work and praised the variety of novel sweets that he has had in the small shops that dotted the roads of Odisha. "For more interesting than the rasgulla," said.

The rasgulla Amit brought us had a slight reddish tinge. Lalche as we say in Bengal. Akin to the way rasgullas in Bengal look in winter when nolen gur (jaggery) and not sugar is used to sweeten them. Not the snow white ones that you see through the rest of the year in Kolkata. The Odia ones have this colour as they are caramelised from what I gather. That seemed to give it an inherent smokiness and the taste of the ones I tried was very different from the gurer roshogolla of Bengal which it resembled in appearance. Closer to the classic white ones if at all.

Odiya rasgulla slices

The main difference between the Odia and Bengali rasgulla  lies in the texture I realised once I sliced through the rasgullas Amit had got. The ones in Kolkata are spongy and often hollow inside. The Odisha one that Amit gave me was denser that what I have had in Kolkata, with no hole in the centre. It is not that all Kolkata rasgullas are hollow at the care and spongy. The ones available in the parar dokans in the outskirts of the city, small neighbourhood shops, such as Ma Tara near my granny's are not always so though. Those are solid all through but a lot softer than the Odia ones that I had thanks to Amit.

Do take into account the fact that I have the ones at my granny's fresh, while the ones I had from Odisha were a day old. I did bring the rest of the box back to Mumbai and took some pictures for you to see and sliced one for you too to see.

I am not any wiser on the impact of the Odisha on the creation of the rasgolla of Bengal at the end of this exercise, but what I can tell you is that the two are not replicas of each other.

Just as the biryani of Lucknow today, the city from where the Awadhi biryani of Kolkata is said to have originated, is different from that of the Shiraz's, Aminia's and Alia's of the world.

Yes, in my scheme of things, you get all answers in a plate of biryani.

There was one more 'discovery' when I went to Delhi this time. I looked at the welcome amenities in my room at the Sheraton Delhi and squealed 'nimki'  when I saw it there, and gobbled up this childhood favourite snack of mine from Kolkata which my grandmother used to make. Chef Gaurav Lavania (in the pic above), whom I know from ITC Sonar in Kolkata and who is now the executive chef of the ITC Sheraton, Delhi, later told me that it was the 'shakarpara' of Delhi and not nimki. A snack popular in the city and that one gets a jaggery version too. What I had was a part of the Dehlavi (of Delhi) Local Love offer from ITC Hotels, he explained.

(Update: Keka De points out that the chef possibly said namakpara as Shakarpara is the sweet version. She could be right as I’ve seen sweet shakarpara in sweet shops in Mumbai).

And yet, barring the absent kalo jeere (Nigella seeds) that would embed her's, these were the nimki of my granny! Similar to what one get as nimki in the stores of Kolkata today.

Is the the time to start another battle I wondered. That of who invented the nimki?

Or should just accept that we are a far more harmonious and homogeneous a country, than we credit ourselves to be? 

Time to call a truce?

Update : This is what my brother, Siddhartha, had to say on the topic after reading this. His work takes him to parts of India that I am yet to experience.


My Previous articles on the rasgulla debate:
Finely Chopped

Vir Sanghvi: HT Rude Food
Kunal Vijayakar: HT


Keka said…
Very interesting!
I believe the Oriya rasgulla is the "thhasha" version, grainier and denser than the Kolkata version. The Kolkata version, according to me, is the smoother sponge - though I have had variations in South Kolkata where the sweetness was stronger and the texture dense, possibly because of the laal chini used. The gurer roshogolla in Kolkata is also considerably lighter.
Though, frankly speaking, I haven't had the opportunity to taste the Oriya rasgulla with particular attention! For us a trip to Puri or Bhubaneshwar was more about the Chhena Poro and the crispy goja!
Coming to Nimki (and goja), the salted version is the Namakpara and the sweet one is the Shakarpara. Though I would still say, the thin chhoto nimki with kalo jeere (made by my ma's pishi, Dodo) is still a favourite!
Kalyan Karmakar said…
@Keka thank you so much for your comment and for reading. I have made a little changes basis that :)
Sangeeta said…
I am an Odia and I was expecting something sour here, but this made me really happy. Btw, it's pronounced "rasa-golla" (raw-saw-go-laa).
I am a food history enthusiast and am presently planning to write on the history of certain food items.
Your blog inspires me a lot. Thank you.
Kalyan Karmakar said…
@kiku thanks so much for your kind words and the clarification on the pronunciation too. Sour? That would do the sweet world of rasgullas a disservice
Sangeeta said…
@kalyan I was apprehensive at first. But after reading, my apprehension vanished. It was a sweet read.
Kalyan Karmakar said…
@kiku thanks so much for your kind words and the clarification on the pronunciation too. Sour? That would do the sweet world of rasgullas a disservice :)
Kalyan Karmakar said…
@sangeets so glad to hear that :)