Lakshmi Puja is over, and whatever Pujo fever we could have mustered this year is now slowly dying down. It is time to conclude our series on Bengali food with the final instalment of the mishti series, where we take a look at a variety of flour-based delicacies, which can be broadly divided into those made using pastry and those made using a batter.
Frying a sweet dough and dunking it in syrup is a common theme across a lot of Bengali sweets. While pantua and sitabhog use chhana and mihidana uses besan, the goja uses a dough made with maida or refined flour kneaded with ghee, water, salt and some cardamom. The chunks of sugar-soaked fried dough fall apart along the seams of the craggy dough giving it its distinct texture. The jibhe goja aka the famous khaja from Puri’s Jagannath Temple uses thinner sheets of pastry that are fried till crisp, producing an entirely different texture. The lobongo lotika takes things a step further, filling a khaja-style pastry dough with a kheer filling before sealing it with a piece of clove or lobongo.
Then there are the batter-based sweets. These use a pancake-like batter which undergo the same “fry in oil then soak in syrup” drill as the rest. Although these are popular elsewhere in India too, they are very popular in Bengal as well. One of my personal favourites is the malpua, our equivalent of the western pancake, with a soft center and a crisp frilly edge. While jilipis (aka jalebis) use a flour-based batter, amritis (aka imartis) use one made of urad dal. Imartis are much chewier and intricately piped than a jalebi. Like funnel cakes in the West, these are very popular fairground snacks, best enjoyed warm. Jilipi with shingara (samosas) is a favourite sweet-shop breakfast of many Bengalis, especially in the winters.
During the rice harvest season at the end of the Bengali month of Poush (Poush or Makar Sankranti) in the winter, households all over Bengal use rice flour from the new winter harvest to make a variety of dishes collectively called pithas (or pithes if you are a Ghoti). Pithas can be savoury or sweet. Savoury pithas include the chitoi pitha and chit ruti pitha, which remind me of the Keralan Appam and Idiyappam, respectively. That being said, most pithas tend to be sweet. Unlike the sweets described so far (with a few exceptions like the payesh), the art of sweetmaking is most relegated to the expert sweetmaker or moira. Making pitha, on the other hand, is an entirely domestic affair.
Every winter, the mothers and grandmothers of most Bengali households make pitha. For our upstairs Bangladeshi neighbours back in Kolkata, making pitha was an annual tradition, and every winter we were served a huge platter filled to the brim with crepe-like patishapta filled with a coconut-jaggery or kheer filling, dumpling-like puli pithas, which may be steamed or poached in milk (doodh puli), and the fried, syrup-soaked gokul pithas. The variety is enormous and staggering. Apart from rice flour, two common ingredient in a lot of sweet pithas are coconut and khejur gur, or jaggery made from date palm sap. This is different from aankh er gur, or jaggery made from sugarcane, which has a far less complex flavour.
Khejur gur can be of two varieties, the second fetch of juice producing Jiren gur, and the highly prized first fetch producing Nolen gur, an ingredient that for me defines Bengal in the winters. It is Bengal’s equivalent of extra virgin olive oil, except that you can’t chug EVOO straight out of a bottle. Although it has how become a year-round ingredient, nolen gur is at its best during the winters, where it seems to find its way into everything from traditional pithes and sandesh to slightly less conventional ice-creams and crème brûlées, to outrageously inventive cocktails and pork ribs (barbecue sauce has molasses, so it makes perfect sense). Pujo might be over, but we still have the winters to look forward to, full of an assortment of pithas and nolen gur based treats, among other things.
From sandesh to rosogolla, Shatkigarer lyangcha to Joynogorer mowa, chilled nolen gurer payesh to warm malpuas, the world of Bengali sweets is immense and awe-inspiring. We’ve merely scratched the surface here, and here is a lot, lot more to this incredible realm of sweetmaking which is no less than an artform.