Thursday, October 30, 2008

Visiting K.C. Das

The morning after Kali Puja, the atmosphere is even thicker with the air-borne particulate from what must have been tens of thousands fireworks and crackers that blew up last night. It’s a little ironic that the city has banned smoking just about everywhere but in your home. I’d hard enough to imagine what the lungs of a non-smoking Kolkatan look like, the smokers must be in dire state indeed. But I don’t have much time to ponder the public health concerns from nicotine in the developing world. My crash course in Indian desserts is about to accelerate.

Today I made an appointment with K.C. Das, or to be more precise with Dhiman Das, one of the partners in this venerable institution. K.C. Das is like Vienna’s Demel, an urban icon that people like to grouse about: “It’s not as good as it used to be….you can find better sandeshrossogolla…at (and they fill in the name of their favorite sweetmaker).” But it’s on every list of the city’s best confectioners. The company’s sweet-making facilities and offices are located in Baghbazar, an old neighborhood in Kolkata’s north end where many of the city’s most famous sweetshops are located. Not that I’m allowed to visit the factory—I’m quickly whisked off to the Das family home where I wait in a dim old-fashioned parlor hung with modern art and religious icons.

Dhiman Das is meticulously polite but only modestly forthcoming. He tells me the family legend about the invention of rossogolla, the shop’s claim to fame. The way he tells the story, his great, great, grandfather Nobin Chandra Das created what is now one of India’s favorite desserts through a process of trial and error. He was looking to create a sweet moister that plain old sandesh, something that would quench thirst as well as the sweet tooth.

I saw rossogolla being made later in the day at a local neighborhood sweetshop. You can see the setup in the picture below. Presumably the arrangement in the K.C.Das kitchens is a little more up-to-date but the process is much the same.

To make rossogolla you take chhana (fresh cow’s milk curd cheese) and knead it to the correct consistency, then you stir in a little maidam (wheat flour) and make balls of about an inch (or a little more?) in diameter. These are then boiled in syrup, drained and placed in cool syrup. In the process, they blow up to more than twice their diameter, become lighter and bouncier.

There are numerous variations (mango rossogolla anyone?) but one of the classics, apparently created by Nobin Chandra’s son, is rossomalai (rosso refers to syrup and malai to milk). This is made exactly the same way as rossogolla except that in this case it is soaked in a milk-based and saffron-tinted syrup. The result is creamy, delicate and almost like a really good ile flottante, but much less insipid. Dhiman Das tells me all the Westerners like it the best.

As we sit, he sets a feast of sweets before me, not only the famous rossogolla and rossomalai, but also a whole assortment of sandesh: plain, stuffed, light and airy as well as dense and chewy. There are also a whole series of new inventions where rossogolla is sandwiched with sandesh. I’m not entirely convinced by these. I think the textures detract from each other. Still it is all very educational.

Dhiman Das sends me home with two big cans of rossogolla. They’ve been canning these since the thirties. We’ll have to see what the folks back home have to say about it.

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