Come winter, a man carrying a dekchi full of Joynagarer Moa would visit our north Kolkata home when I was a child. The taste and aroma of the delicious moa remain fresh, even though many winters have passed.
Pheriwallahs selling these winter treats are long gone and their cries can no longer be heard. Now, Joynagarer Moa is sold in almost every grocery shop, sweet shop and at makeshift stalls selling gur products that spring up during the season. The moa comes packed in colourful paper boxed tied with fancy ribbons.
Joynagarer Moa is a puffed rice (khoi) ball held together with liquid date palm jaggery (nolen gur) and ghee and mixed with khoya, cashew nut, raisins and pista. Nolen gur is available only in the winter months, thus making the moa a seasonal delicacy. The puffed rice (khoi) comes from Kanakchur paddy cultivated only in the Joynagar region, thus making the moa geographically unique. Joynagarer Moa received the Geographical Identification (GI) tag in 2015.
The authentic Joynagarer Moa, however, is sold only in a handful of shops in the region of its origin.
A Moa shop at Joynagar Station
Joynagar is a village located in the South 24 Parganas and is connected by the Joynagar-Majilpur station on the Sealdah South-Lakshmikantapur/Namkhana line. During winter, Joynagar and neighbouring villages like Baharu and Dakshin Barasat churn out thousands of Joynagarer Moas to cater to the market in Kolkata and beyond.
Its humble beginning
Makeshift moa stalls on the streets of Baharu
Legend has it that long, long ago, a farmer from Baharu once mixed khoi from kanakchur dhaan with nolen gur and turned them into balls. He fed it to the local zamindar, who was delighted. He advised the farmer to sell it in the local markets. This marked the beginning of the amazing journey of the moa, but the name and the brand evolved much later.
Shyamsundar Sweets is one of the oldest sweet shops in Baharu
Shyamsundar Sweets is one of the oldest sweet shops in Baharu that sells the authentic Joynagarer Moa. The shop came up in 1978 under the patronage of Gopal Chandra Ghosh and is at present run by his two sons Ranjit and Bablu. They churn out about 10,000 pieces of moa every day. Skilled and unskilled workers are recruited during winter months to keep the supply chain running.
Start of the branding
Shri Krishna Mistanna Bhandar, Majilpur
About a century ago two youths, Purnachandra Ghosh (Purna) and Nityagopal Sarkar (Buchki), of Joynagar followed the same recipe as the farmer of Baharu and started selling the item in local winter markets. It soon started gaining popularity and came to be known as Buchkir Moa, which was later transformed into Joynagarer Moa.
Photos of Purnachandra Ghosh (Purna) (left) and Nityagopal Sarkar (Buchki) (right) at Shri Krishna Mistanna Bhandar
In 1929, they came up with a shop, named it Shri Krishna Mistanna Bhandar, which is still in operation and is still run by the descendants of Purnachandra Ghosh. This happens to be the oldest running moa shop of the region and was the first to brand the legendary sweet.
Adding the technology edge
Maa Kali Sweets, Joynagar
The short shelf-life of Joynagarer Moa has always been a problem. If temperatures are low, it can last for a maximum of four days. Refrigeration spoils the taste, so a proper scientific package was needed to extend the shelf life. Maa Kali Sweets was the first to introduce a vacuum package for Joynagarer Moa, increasing the shelf life to two weeks. They have also come up with a lab for quality control of the moa.
Vacuum-packaged Joynagarer Moa
Started by Khokon Das in 1990 Maa Kali Sweets at present has two outlets in Joynagar. Although the shop is relatively new, the Das family has a long connection with the south Bengal delicacy. The legacy started with Khokon’s grandfather who used to sell his moa in Kolkata. His Joynagar train ticket confirmed his geographical location and acted as an informal GI tag. Today Khokon has started the lab, where the raw material goes to a scientific screening before being used for manufacturing. The final product also goes through a quality control test, maintaining the guidelines of food safety. Maa Kali Sweets has also come up with innovations like diabetic moa, chocolate moa and moa cake.
Difficulties and road ahead
Production unit of Shyamsundar Mistanna Bhandar, Baharu
Although the shelf-life problem has been solved to a certain extent, many others remain. The decrease of date palm trees has created a shortfall in the supply of nolen gur. The cutting of trees needs specialised skilled workers called seuli. Sadly, many of them are leaving the state for greener pastures. Also there has been a drop in the quality of the kanakchur paddy.
But the silver lining is that the new generation is picking up the skills. Ritwick Ghosh of Shyamsundar Sweets, Bahuru, has just completed his BCA and joined the family business. He wants to pick up the skill hands-on and plans to do an MBA. He thinks the degree will help him develop and grow his ancestral business. On the other hand, Khokon’s son Rajesh Das is a CA and wants to mix technology with tradition. He is also looking into newer business avenues and is planning to turn Joynagarer Moa into a global brand.