Sweetmeats occupy an important place in the diet of Babgalis and at their social ceremonies. It is an ancient custom among Hindus to distribute sweets at pujas. Sweets are also distributed at the end of Muslim milads. Traditionally, the Bangalis distribute sweets as a good will and good wish among neighbours and relatives on a variety of occasions such as births, engagements, weddings, success in examinations etc. Because Bangali sweets are made from curd, they form an important part of the daily diet. The sweetmeat industry has flourished because of its close links with social and religious ceremonies. Competition and changing tastes have helped to create many new sweets, and today this industry has grown not only within the country but also spread abroad.
In ancient times, sweets grew around the cultivation of rice paddy and sugar cane. Bangalis entertained guests with gud (sugar candy), made from sugarcane, palm or date juice. A variety of sweets were made by mixing gud with coconut and chida (flattened rice) or mudi (puffed rice). Several other dishes and cakes were made by adding gud to dishes made with milk and unboiled rice flour or broken rice grains. Sweets were also made from powdered pulses, to which coconut and gud were added. These traditional sweets continue to be made at home.
In addition to home-made sweets, Bangalis also buy sweetmeats prepared by moyra, or sweetmeat makers. Unlike northern Indian and Pakistani sweetmeats which are made of ksir (thickened milk), Bangali sweetmeats are made from curdled milk. The discovery of the process of curdling milk dates back to the Middle Ages. This discovery revolutionized the sweet culture of Bangalis. Since the 16th century, Bangali sweets were used in abundance by the Vaishvavas as they were vegetarian. Various methods are used to make sweets attractive and tasty. For instance, cassia leaves, cardamom powder, raisins, cashew nuts and orange rind are used for flavour, variety, and decoration. Different colours are also used. Various moulds are used to give attractive designs and shapes to sweets, especially sandesh (sandesh), a form of sweetened cottage cheese.
Rasagolla (literally ball in sugar syrup) was first made by Haradhan Maira, a confectioner of Phulia, during the Bengal renaissance. These white cottage cheese balls in sugar syrup created a revolution in the sweetmeat industry and set the trend for the main sweets of today. Nabinchandra Roy of Bagbazar, Kolkata, was the first to make 'sponge' rasagolla in 1868. Several other sweets such as rajbhog, rasmalai, ksirmohan, raskadamba, danadar and chhanar mudki are transformations of rasagolla. The names of many historical personalities are associated with this industry. A kind of brown sweet is called ladycanny, in honour of Lady Canning, wife of Lord Canning (1856-1962), a governor general of India. A darker version of ladycanny is known as kalojam (literally blackberry).
Different regions are renowned for different kinds of sweets. In West Bengal, Krishnanagar was famous for sarbhaja and sarpuriya, Burdwan for sitabhog and mihidana, Midnapore for babarshah, Birbhum for morabba, Maldah for raskadamba and Jalpaiguri for chhanchi dai. In Bangladesh today, Porabari in tangail is famous for chamcham, muktagachha in mymensingh for manda, comilla for pyada and rasmalai, faridpur for malaikari, natore for kanchagolla and dhaka for amrti, jilipi and pranhara.
Porabari chamcham goes back about 150 years. The modern version of this sweet was inspired by Raja Ramgore of Balia district in Uttar Pradesh. It was further modernised by his grandson, Matilal Gore. This oval-shaped sweet is brownish in colour and of a denser texture than either rasagolla or ladycanny. It can also be preserved longer than these two sweets. Granules of mawa or dried milk is sprinkled over chamcham. Muktagachha is known for its manda, a kind of soft sandesh.
Pyada is made of thickened milk and sugar. Rasmalai is a kind of rasagolla, but the cottage cheese 'balls' are smaller in size and cylindrical rather than round. Instead of floating in sugar syrup, the 'balls' float in thickened milk. Rasmalai is also made in Dhaka and rangpur, but the cottage cheese balls are round like rasagolla. The word malai is derived from the Persian balai, which means cream of milk. Rasmalai is light almond in colour. The malaikari of Faridpur is a kind of flattened rasagolla, covered with thick cream or khir. Natore's kanchagolla is a kind of rasagolla made by soaking curd in thick sugar syrup, which is later strained through a sieve. Raskadam of rajshahi is a dry round sweet, made of curd mixed with mawa. It is covered with tiny white beads of sugar and resembles the kadam flower, common in Rajshahi and Maldah and a recurrent image in vaisnava literature, folklore and ballads.
Bogra Dai is a specially rich, sweet yoghurt from Bogra. In the past, during the dry season, large temporary cowsheds and buffalo sheds used to be erected in pastures in North Bengal. Around these sheds grew a flourishing yoghurt industry. These sheds were called bathan or bhawa which gave rise to the famous bhawaiya songs. To make yoghurt at these bathans, farmers used to boil milk and render it down to one-fourth its original quantity. This is why Bogra yoghurt is almost like khir. Rasagolla of savar is also famous. Overcooking gives it the colour of burnt clay but it is very soft and delicious to eat.
Two old specialties of Dhaka are sweet and crisp amrti and jilipi. Powdered pulses and flour are made into a batter. The deft hands of the sweetmeat maker twirl the fine stream of batter into hot oil. The fried amrti and jilipi are then soaked in sugar syrup. Dhaka is also famous for pranhara (literally, losing one's heart), which is a soft sandesh, made by mixing mawa and essence with curd.
The oldest makers of sweetmeats in Dhaka are Maranchand and Sons. Their fame has travelled beyond the borders of Bangladesh. After the death of their founder, the quality of their products suffered but they are still among the best known sweetmeat makers. Other well known sweetmeat makers are Alauddin Sweetmeat, Muslim Sweetmeat, Vikrampur Mishtanna Bhandar, Banaful, Jadavghosh and Mohanchand. [Mahmud Nasir Jahangiri]