Ambrosio orbium!!

Like America, Rossogolla too has had many claimants to its discovery. No doubt, there must have been many forms of Rossogolla prevalent in Eastern India for hundreds of years. The confectioners of Odisha, for example, have always put forward a very vocal claim to have invented this sweet non-pareil. Cyberspace is filled with rival claims and claimants...and sometimes the battle does get a bit ugly.

However, leaving aside parochial sentiments and emotions, an objective assessment of history reveals some startling facts that are interesting as well as sobering. While extolling the virtues of milk and milk products, classical Hindu religious texts specifically mention curdled milk as something unfit for consumption. They especially forbid any offerings to the gods made from curdled milk products - "chhena/ chhana" as it is called in most parts of India. In fact, the word "chhena" itself is a corruption of the Sanskrit word "chhinna" - meaning torn or broken. Curdled milk was "torn/broken" milk - not something suitable to be served up to the pantheon of gods. As such, it is highly unlikely that Rossogolla, made from pure chhena, would have been considered a respectable culinary creation till about hundred and fifty years ago - when the Dutch colonists in eastern India first started spreading the art of making cottage cheese from curdled milk.

When we examine the so called proto-Rossogolla of Odisha, we find what is more correctly known as the "Kheermohan". Yes, it is round and yes it is sweet - but the similarity with the Rossogolla almost ends there. First and foremost, the recipe of Kheermohan is not quite standardised - it varies widely from village to village and even from confectioner to confectioner within the same village. While some stick to cottage cheese ("chhena"), some add semolina and some even go to the extent of committing sacrilege by adding refined flour ("maida"). Also, Kheermohan is not boiled in sugar syrup as the royal rossogolla, it is merely immersed in it to soak in the juice.

There are claims from some Odisha scholars that this primitive form of Rossogolla achieves sanctity due to its inclusion for many centuries in the list of offerings to the image of the lord of the Universe - the great Jagannath of Puri. However, the official website of the Jagannath temple lists the items offered to the deity, and neither Rossogolla nor Kheermohan find any place in the document. Another source that invalidates this claim is the contemporary primary biography of the famous 16th century Bhakti saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the "Chaitanya Charitamrita". It lists the items in the banquets served to him and in the Mahaprasad of Jagannath in minute detail and here too, the Kheermohan does not find any place. And of course, on the contrary, there are several anecdotes of the great modern scion of Odisha, the legendary Biju Patnaik, relishing the rossogollas of Kolkata whenever he had the opportunity!

There are some ancient Indian texts which mention cottage cheese or "chhena". However one must clearly understand that the “chhena” manufactured in those days was a coarse and granular variety and had low binding capacity. It was made by using natural fruit extracts or citric and ascorbic acid from natural fruit extracts.This type of “chenna” cannot be worked on to compact into any regular and firm shape for the purpose of sweetmaking, leave alone making Rossogolla. This is because of a documented technological issue - lactic acid (extracted from whey) used to curdle milk now was introduced to India in the late 18th century by Dutch and Portuguese colonists (along with acetic acid) - and it is this method that creates the fine, smooth modern "chhena" with high binding capacity - which is now the staple raw material for Bengali confectioners.

The only verifiable historical facts come from 19th century Calcutta (or Kolkata as the new monicker goes). Sometime in 1868, a confectioner in the city precinct of Bagbazar, Nobin Chandra Das, manufactured the first documented Rossogolla in his small sweet shop. Nobin's experimentations in confectionery, as evident from the detailed extant documentation, was deeply rooted in experimental science. Despite synthesizing the superior variety of “Chhena” using Dutch and Portuguese technology, confectioners all across Bengal and beyond were unable to bind it into a firm form because clumps of “Chhena” in boiling sugar syrup would either turn into quite unappetising brownish burnt clumps or disintegrate into fragments instead of  retaining a proper defined shape. The technology of reverse osmosis (commercialised in the early 1820s) did the trick for Nobin Chandra Das when he experimentally devised a method to utilize reverse osmosis in making a unique sweet that has made him and his progeny blessed amongst the gastronomes of the world.

Lacking the miracle-working modern marketing machinery of today, poor Nobin Chandra had to wait for the grace of Heaven for his creation's fame to spread. And then, the miracle happened! Rai Bahadur Bhagwan Das Bagla, a plutocrat of the times, travelling with his family in his fancy landau,chanced upon Nobin's shop at the moment when his young son was thirsty and sought a drink of water. The great man's carriage stopped outside Nobin's humble outlet and Nobin was asked for some water for the child. As per the custom of the times, Nobin offered up a glass of water, along with a sweet - the new-born Rossogolla. The child was delighted, his father impressed...and the rest, as they say, is history. It is also a fact that Nobin went on to create quite a few more delectable sweets, but such is the irony of history that very few would today remember him as the creator of anything other than the Rossogolla. Like the city in which it was born (and with apologies to Rudyard Kipling) it was chance directed, chance created....which went on to become the legendary Sweet of Joy today!

Over the next hundred years, the fame of Rossogolla spread far and wide. As Nobin's family made the most of their new-found celebrity status and as his descendants established the now flourishing company of K.C.Das, the Rossogolla was being served at the Viceregal palace and state banquets, at humble Bengali homes and carted all over British India in earthenware pots covered with sal leaves as gourmets from across the country demanded, and got, their share of the ambrosial orbs. Every confectioner in every locality in the country's cities and villages started making this the flagship offering of their wares, for alas, this was in the days before patents and such like devices were quite unknown to India.

Today, the Rossogolla has achieved the status of a confectionery of national identity and recall - it would be no exaggeration to label it thus as the National Sweet of India!

And Nobin Chandra Das - the humble "moira" (confectioner) of Kolkata, remains immortalized in folklore with the doggerel:

"Bagbazar's Nobin Das

Rossogolla's Columbus"