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Sweet and sour: The great battle over ‘Rosogolla’ origins

Rosogolla

Kolkata/Bhubaneswar (IANS): The sugary, soft, spongy balls of Indian cottage cheese, the rosogollas, have virtually unleashed a war of words between two Indian states.

Both Odisha and West Bengal have entered the fray to stake their claim to this delectable dessert and to its legacy. It’s a sweet that is identifiable with the warmth and hospitality of these two historically-rich east Indian states.

The sweet was voted as ‘national desert’ in a nationwide survey done by Mudra for Outlook magazine in 2010.

The move by the Odisha government to initiate the process of obtaining geographical indication (GI) for the age-old sweet has kicked off consternation among the grey-haired babus in Kolkata who swear by the sweet.

“Rosogolla couldn’t have been invented in Odisha 700 years ago as the very technology to process and synthesise ‘chhaina’ was taught specifically in Bengal by the Dutch and Portuguese colonists during the late 18th century,” Animikh Roy, great-great-grandson of Nobin Chandra, told IANS.

Even though many food historians believe Rosogolla was invented by Nobin Chandra Das (also known as ‘Columbus of Rosogolla’) in 1868, scholars have in the recent past cited historical evidence to claim that the sweet, in fact, originated in Odisha.
They argued that it has been part of the Rath Yatra or car festival of deities in the Jagananth temple at Puri since the temple came into existence.

“The tradition of offering Rosogolla by Lord Jagannath to Goddess Laxmi on the day of Niladri Bije (the day when the deities return to their abode after the annual Rath Yatra) is at least 300 years old indicating that it is much older than the 150-year history of the Bengali Rosogolla,” cultural historian Asit Mohanty said.

He said it has been an essential Odia sweet for ages and its origin lies in the state.
Mohanty said the sweet-making process landed through many Brahmin Odia cooks, who had come to Bengal in search of work in the middle of the nineteenth century.
Now, the Odisha state ministry of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME) is busy gathering documents to prove its point for obtaining GI status for the exquisite ‘Pahala Rasagola’ located on the National Highway No. 5 between Bhubaneswar and Cuttack.

The geographical indication (GI) identifies a product as originating from a particular location and conveys an assurance of quality and distinctiveness that is essentially attributable to the fact of its origin.

“It will take some time to get GI status for the product. We are in the process of gathering information ,” MSME secretary Panchanan Dash said when contacted.

An MSME official said the government would form a special purpose vehicle for channellising funds for the project to facilitate GI registration for the Rosogolla cluster.
However, Bengal refuses to give in.

The state government is arming up with all the necessary historical evidence compiled in collaboration with K.C. Das Pvt. Ltd., the famous sweet meat chain, founded by Nobin Chandra’s son and run by his descendants.

It has contacted the GI wing with initial arguments denying Odisha’s claims and aims to submit a detailed document later this month, Animikh Roy said.

The detailed dossier has been prepared based on three key arguments – the foundation of rosogola being ‘chhaina’, and that chhaina-based sweets were the mainstay of Bengal and the word ‘rosogolla’ was coined in Bengal and not Odisha.

According to Roy, Lord Jagannath can never be associated with Chhana based offerings as “Chhaina” (from Sanskrit ‘chinna’) indicates a torn, broken and fragmented milk product, or in other words, spoilt milk.

“Hence it was considered a blasphemy to offer sweets or anything made of ‘Chhaina’ to the gods. Rosogolla is not even mentioned in the bhog menu on the official Jagannath temple website,” Roy explained.
If anything similar was ever offered to Jagannath, it was the Kheermohona which is made out of a mixture of suji (semolina), flour and kheer (rice pudding) in boiling sugar syrup and has no similarity with the Rosogolla whatsoever, he said.

Roy said that it was a well-established fact for almost 150 years and multiple documented proofs can be shown that Nobin Chandra Das of north Kolkata’s Bagbazar invented the ‘Rosogolla’ through an experimental process.

For Michael Krondl, US culinary historian and food writer, who has his own take on Oriya/Bengali controversy in his 2011 book “Sweet Invention”, the bickering over the soft balls is “rather amusing.”

“If the question is about the sweet’s origins I think the best anyone can do is make an educated guess,” he said in an email reply.

Krondl adds: “Wouldn’t it be a lovely gesture if W. Bengal and Orissa could claim joint ownership and hold a great festival of friendship where rossogola, in all its variations and permutations would be served.”