In Kolkata, India, a city famous for its sweet tooth, the rosogolla — also known as rasgulla — is the most basic of sweets.
Ros means syrup. Golla means ball. It’s a simple white spongy ball, made of chhena, an Indian version of cottage cheese, dunked in syrup. Classy enough to be served at weddings, innocuous enough to be served to invalids, you can never go wrong with a rosogolla. Like a white shirt, it’s a classic. There are showier Indian sweets, filled with pistachios and saffron, covered with silver foil and rose petals. But the humble rosogolla is the only one with its own biopic.
On Dec. 21, the Bengali film Rosogolla will hit movie theatres in India. The trailer has all the ingredients of a crowd-pleaser: the winsome village belle, the dancing girl, the starry-eyed poor confectioner with big dreams and bigger odds against him, and lots and lots of sweets — all against the stately backdrop of 19th century Calcutta (now Kolkata) under British rule. It describes itself as the “bittersweet” birth story of Bengal’s “most loved culinary invention.”
And yet, the rosogolla actually has its own version of a birther controversy. It’s been the ball of contention between two neighboring states, West Bengal – whose capital is Kolkata [formerly Calcutta] — and Odisha, both staking a claim to it. Odisha contends that a version of the rosogolla has been offered to the Goddess Lakshmi in its temple in Puri for centuries.
Citing this claim, in 2015, the state petitioned the Indian government to recognize Odisha as the birthplace of rosogolla. Alas, its bid was rejected.
As Haripada Bhowmik, a rosogolla historian (yes, there is one now) in Kolkata explains, the curdled cowmilk which is used to make chhena was regarded as spoiled by Hindus and therefore was traditionally never part of the offerings to gods. The Odisha offering wasmade from thickened milk, he says — still round, still sweet, but a different ball game altogether than what most Indians think of as rosogolla.
Where Odisha failed, Bengal triumphed – eventually managing to wrest a Bengal Rosogolla geographical Indication for itself. Only sparkling wine produced from grapes in the Champagne region of Francecan be called champagne. Only tea from bushes in India’s Darjeeling hills can be called Darjeeling tea. And now, when the Indian dessert is exported, only products that follow the official geographical Indication recipe can be called Bengal Rosogolla.
Elated, the state government declared that starting this year, everyNovember 14 — the day the verdict came down in 2017 — would be observed as Rosogolla Day. The film is hoping to cash in on the newfound interest in an old sweet.
Food historian Pushpesh Pant is not sure what the geographical indicator will achieve. “Ingredients can have a GI indicator, like Parma cheese, but a GI indicator for a recipe is tricky,” he says. “Recipes travel, evolve and change. Even in the same city, it varies from household to household.”
That’s true of the rosogolla. In Kolkata every sweet shop, hole-in-the-wall or big chain specializes in its own variant. At the rosogolla festival in Kolkata to celebrate Rosogolla Day, there are pots of rosogollas in every color of the rainbow. Saikat Pal, the proprietor of Batai Sweets, around since 1923, rattles off the flavors: strawberry, pineapple, mint, blackcurrant, chocolate, coffee — even red chili, which is sweet with a little bit of kick.
“We started the red chili in 2013,” he says. “People love it. It’s sweet but spicy.” I sample it. It does have a kick, but it’s definitely not my grandmother’s rosogolla.But Pal says,”We have had to bring in flavors to attract children.” His favorite is the strawberry, though he likes the occasional chili one.
If nothing else, the great rosogolla controversy has forced people to examine the history of a sweet long taken for granted. Some food historians claim that the Portuguese, with their love for cheese, introduced Indians to curdled milk during centuries of colonial presence on the subcontinent, and thus deserve a cameo in the rosogolla’s story.
But Pant counters, “It’s highly unlikely that with our rich dairy tradition, Indians did not know about curdled milk. The problem is we tend to focus on the last 500 years of culinary history and ignore the 2,500 years before it.”
Historian Bhowmik says the rosogolla might have had different forebears — some dense, some crumbly — but a man named Nobin Chandra Das deserves the credit for the spongy white version that’s now world famous. His experiments to make it perfectly spongy got him fired from his job at a sweet shop because the owners thought he was wasting too much chhena.
In 1864, Das set up his own small shop in Kolkata. “In 1868, the modern sponge rosogolla was born,” says Bhowmik. “We are celebrating its 150 years.”
Das is hailed as the “Columbus of Rosogolla” and Rosogolla, the film, tells his story. “I have found a book from 1888 where the recipe for the rosogolla was first printed,” says Bhowmik.
One day a businessman came to Das’ shop and requested water for his son. The confectioner offered him a rosogolla as well. The son loved it so much, the father bought out the entire stock. That was the beginning of the rosogolla’s fame.
Rosogolla and Kolkata are now so tightly bound, a hand-written sign at the Kolkata airport warns passengers that a clay pot filled with the city’s most famous sweet cannot be carried in hand luggage. GI tag or not, it still falls afoul of the liquids ban. Thankfully you can carry rosogollas in a can in your checked baggage. Nobin’s son, Keshab Chandra Das, was a science student who was coaxed into the family business. But his science training came in handy. Around 1930, he devised a way to vacuum pack the rosogolla so it could travel abroad. K.C. Das sweet shops are still going strong selling tins of rosogollas — immigrant nostalgia in a can.
The legend of the rosogolla clearly has plenty of juice left in it, and the sweet has never been short of admirers. Bhowmik says the 19th century Bengali mystic, Ramakrishna Paramahansa, once bit into a rosogolla and was transported into an immediate trance. When he came out of it, he said that a burst of syrup just hit the perfect spot of instant bliss.
It is such moments of unadulterated, spongy ecstasy that fuel the passion for the rosogolla and explain why so many are determined that it gets its just desserts. The Rosogolla wars are over for now, and Bengal gets its Rosogolla Day every November 14th. Ironically, that also happens to be World Diabetes Day.
Sandip Roy is a journalist based in Kolkata and author of the novel Don’t Let Him Know. His Dispatches from Kolkata air every week on public radio station KALW 91.7FM in San Francisco.