So far in our series, we have talked about sweets that involve reducing milk or cooking chhana in a sugar syrup. We have talked about the basic milk-based desserts like rabri and payesh, and the two heavyweights of chhana-based sweets, the sandesh and the rosogolla. It’s time to step up the game.
There is another way you can cook chhana, and that is by frying it in oil, and the most basic fried chhana dessert is the pantua. It is Bengal’s version of the gulab jamun, although the latter usually uses khoya (milk solids) instead of chhana. These golden fried balls are then dunked in a sugar syrup flavoured with rose or cardamom.
The kalojaam is similar but with a much darker, sturdier outer crust, obtained by a slower cook at a lower temperauture. Change the shape and you get similar fried sweets like the cylindrical lyangcha of Shaktigarh, very similar to the slightly more oval ledikeni, named after Lady Canning, the wife of Charles Canning, the Governor-General of India during the Sepoy Mutiny.
Shaktigarh’s lyangcha often has a small nakuldana (sugar sphere) at its core. Infact a lot of other sweets have a similar nakuldana core, two examples being the rajbhog and the golapjam. By the way, the golapjam bears greater resemblance to the gulab jamun in name and looks than does the pantua. In case of a rajbhog, the nakuldana core may be coated with cardamom powder, while rosewater and some pink colour are used for the golapjam. As the spheres cook, the nakuldana melts away leaving a hollow cavity with a note of cardamom or rose or saffron and in case of the golapjam, a lovely pink center.
Of course, the fried chhana can take numerous other shapes. Make elaborate spirals, squares or tiny marble-sized balls and you’ve got chhanar jilipi, chitrakut and nikuti, respectively. Nikuti forms a part of a regional favourite, sitabhog. The famous sitabhog of Bardhaman (or Burdwan) starts with a mixture of chhana and rice flour which is passed through a sieve directly into hot oil, where it is fried but not allowed to colour. These delicate white, rice-like strands are then dunked in a sugar syrup and served with nikuti.
The other Bardhaman delicacy, the mihidana, uses a mixture of besan (gram flour) and rice flour mixed with water. The mixture is much looser and allowed to fall through a sieve as little drops into the oil. After these are sufficiently fried, they are retrieved and dunked in syrup. Sitabhog and mihidana received the prized GI tag in 2017. Both sitabhog and mihidana are very difficult sweets to make, and require a thorough understanding of batter consistency, oil temperatures and cooking times.
A larger version of the mihidana is the bonde, called boondi elsewhere in India. While finer, mihidana-like grains are used to make the motichur ladoos, elsewhere in India, Bengal’s equivalent of the boondi ki laddoo uses much larger pearls, creating the unique darbesh. It is one of the desserts which involves clumping stuff together into a ball. There are two other similar desserts which are an absolute favourite of most Bengalis.
Naru is quite similar to brittles in the West and use an ingredient, commonly coconut (narkel) or sesame seeds (til), held together using gur or palm jaggery. The tacky mixture is cooked till stiff and rolled into balls while still hot, and allowed to set till hard and brittle. Narkel naru, a staple during Bijoya Dashami and Laskhmi pujo, is one of my absolute favourites. Another similar sweet is the mowa, which uses more down-to-earth puffed rice like the crispy muri or chewy khoi. My Dida (grandmother) always had a stash of murir mowa ready at hand, and I fondly remember eating them with relish every time I would visit her.
The famous Joynagarer Mowa, which received the GI tag in 2015 traditionally uses khoi made from a particular variety of aromatic rice called kanakchur, which gives it its iconic flavour and texture. Joynogorer mowa uses a much dilute gur-based syrup which gives it a lighter colour and a subtle flavour, followed by a coating of khoya giving it its signature appearance and texture.
We’re reaching the end of this sweet series. Next time, we bring things home with an exploration of a miscellaneous assortment of Bengali sweets, from pastry-based classics to seasonal favourites.