The Telegraph
Sunday , October 17 , 2010
Since 1st March, 1999
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So sweet

It is Vijaya Dashami today — a day when it is customary to offer sweets to your friends and relatives. But Bengalis are looking beyond the traditional sandesh and rosogolla on festive occasions. And to cater to the changing tastes, sweet shops have introduced a range of innovative sweets.

“Innovation is the need of the hour and so we have experimented with our products,” says Pranab Nandi, owner of Girish Chandra Dey and Nakur Chandra Nandy, a 167-year-old sweetmeat shop in Calcutta. Popularly known as Nakur, the shop has come up with a variety of inventive chocolate sweets such as chocoball, Black Forest, chocorice ball and so on. It has also introduced a sandesh with liquid chocolate filling — similar to the ones with nalen gur filling!

It’s not just sandesh that goes by the Western name and flavour of Black Forest. Other influences have also crept into Bengali sweets. Traditionally made from chhana (cottage cheese), many of these sweets are now being made with kheer — which is widely used in north and west India.

“When we were young, we did not find sweets made of kheer. Most shops only sold chhana sweets. The first blend that I found in the shops in my childhood was peda. Later, there were items like kheer kadam, khirer gujiya, mishti singara and a host of other sweets made out of combining kheer, maida and chhana,” says Samir Chakrabarti, a 70-year-old foodie.

So why are Bengali sweet shops mixing and matching and coming up with so many novel concoctions?

Part of the reason is the obviously changing tastes and the growing popularity of Western confectionery such as cakes and pastries and also of north Indian sweets such as gulab jamun, kaju barfi, son papri and so on.

Says Soumyajit Modak, son of the owner of Putiram, a 150-year-old sweetmeat shop in north Calcutta, “Undoubtedly, tastes have undergone a sea change. Today we have a mixed bag of customers who demand a lot more than traditional sweets.”

At Putiram, for instance, the sale of son papri and abar khabo (a sandesh flavoured with saffron and pista) — sweets that are influenced by north Indian confections — often outstrips that of the more common sandesh and rosogolla. Putiram also makes such items as khirer chop, kaju barfi and darbesh. “Kaju, or any kind of dry fruit, has never been used in traditional Bengali sweets. But these are well received by Bengalis and there is a demand for them throughout the year,” says Modak.

Pratap Nag, co-owner of Bhim Chandra Nag, a sweet shop set up in 1826, has another take on the fact that Bengali sweets now use more of kheer. “We do not get good chhana and milk nowadays, so it is difficult to maintain the same quality of chhana sweets as before. In fact, nowadays, you don’t even get good chhana sweet-makers. So new items made with kheer are being introduced not only because of changing tastes but also because of the changing quality of ingredients and sweet-makers.”

This is not to say, however, that Bengalis have forsaken their traditional mishtis altogether. “The present generation has different tastes — not only in sweets but also in what it wears, the music it listens to and the movies it watches,” acknowledges food writer Nondon Bagchi. “But the thing about Calcutta is that it has always accepted new things without letting go of the old. Everything co-exists peacefully. Nowadays people are experimenting with such western stuff as chocolates and ice creams in our sweets. But in the winter season, I would still look out for such typically Bengali delicacies as matarshutir kochuri and phulkopir singara.

What is interesting is that it is not just Bengali sweet-makers who are experimenting with different tastes. The trend extends to north Indian sweet-sellers in Calcutta as well, who are fusing Bengali elements into their confectionery. Says Prabhu Shankar Agarwal, chairman, Haldiram Bhujiawala Ltd, “For a Bengali foodie, sweets are a passion and creativity and innovation is something they always go for.”

Agarwal took care to incorporate the local flavour in his sweets. “For example, our kaju barfi is made to suit the taste of Bengalis in Calcutta — with more sweet!” In fact, this festive season, Haldiram has launched several new varieties of sweets with a mix of typically Bengali chhana and north Indian dry fruits.

Totally non-traditional or north Indian style sweets have never been a hit with Bengalis, admits Lalit Gupta, director, Gupta Brothers, a chain of sweet and savoury stores in Calcutta. “A Bengali foodie is averse to a 360 degree change in his food habit. So north Indian sweets are not that popular in Calcutta. We mostly sell kheer mohan, rajbhog, amriti, khaja, etc. We had to introduce chhana sweets to draw Bengali customers,” he says.

Still, the new and the innovative is always a hit, says Gupta. So Gupta Brothers has experimented with fruits like mango and pineapple in its chhana sweets and added a whiff of butterscotch and ice cream to its chhanar payesh.

Clearly, when it comes to sweets, Bengalis are looking beyond the traditional. And loving it too.

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