The rasgulla has always occupied a place of pride in the hearts and minds of Bengalis. Recent controversy regarding the place of its origin notwithstanding, it stands to no contest that it is the rasgulla from Bengal, specifically that created by Kolkata’s sweet-maker, Nobin Chandra Das, that is the version famous all over India, and even in some neighbouring countries.
It is being claimed that rasgulla has been a part of the Rath Yatra festivities in Puri ever since the Jagannath temple came into existence in the 12th century. But the argument does not hold much water.
Bengal is the home of cottage cheese
Firstly, the Chhapan Bhog (ritual offering to Lord Krishna) of the temple does not mention the rasgulla. Secondly, as the eminent food historian KT Acharya points out, cheese was taboo in Hinduism since the act of splitting milk was seen as profane. In fact, the mention of cheese with respect to cuisine in India is as recent as in the 17th century, and the its source were the Portuguese merchants and sailors, who had begun to make inroads into the trading zones so far dominated by the Arabs.
The Portuguese had an enormous influence on the entire coastal zone of the Indian subcontinent, from Chittagong in Bengal to Bombay (as they named it) in the Konkan. Cottage cheese or chhana (in Bengali) is a part of their culinary contribution.
The Portuguese loved their fresh cottage cheese, which they made by adding citric acid to boiled milk. According to KT Acharya, this routine technique may have lifted the taboo on deliberate milk curdling and given the traditional Bengali moira (confectioner) a new material to work with.
This link to the Portuguese has another strong source: Francois Bernier. The Frenchman, Bernier was the personal physician of the Mughal prince, Dara Shikoh (Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s elder brother) and he left behind a highly influential record of his travels in India. He mentions that Bengal is celebrated for its sweetmeats, especially in places inhabited by the Portuguese, who are skillful in the art of preparing them.
Cottage cheese, of course, also spread to North India, where it was compressed into blocks and given the Persian name for cheese – paneer.
From milk to chhana (thatswhathappened.wordpress.com)
The modern rasgulla
The credit for the modern method of preparing rasgulla owes its genesis to Nobin Chandra Das of Kolkata. He basically boiled balls of cottage cheese in sugar syrup, making it spongier and, more importantly, from the point of view of commerce, giving it a longer shelf life.
Nobin Chandra Das had set up a sweet shop in the Bagbazar area in 1866. But his ambition was always to create something new, and not to merely remain a sweet-seller. After countless experiments, he was finally able to create a sweet, spongy sweet which he christened ‘rasgulla’ or, as Bengalis would say, ‘rosogolla’ (‘ball of juicy sweet’).
There is a story behind the popularisation of rasgulla. It is said that once a wealthy timber merchant by the name of Raibahadur Bhagwandas Bagla was travelling in his carriage with his family. One of his children got thirsty and so the carriage was stopped, and incidentally, close to Das’ shop. Das gave the little boy water and one of his newly-created sweets, rasgulla. The child loved the sweet so much that he offered a piece to his father. The latter was equally ecstatic. He bought a large quantity for his family and friends; and, Das and his invention became famous in no time.
Nobin Chandra Das (rediff.com)
Nobin Chandra Das left his legacy to his son Krishna Chandra. In 1930, Krishna Chandra Das started his first shop, ‘Krishna Chandra Das Confectioner’ with his youngest son, Sarada Charan. Thus the brand KC Das was born. KC Das’ main outlet is located at 11A & B, Esplanade Row East. KC Das is majorly responsible for popularising the rasgulla not only in India but all over the world – Europe, North America, South America, Central America and West Asia. KC Das has also created rasgullas for diabetics.
How to make rasgulla
Below is given the method for making rasgulla. The recipe here is for 16 rasgullas.
- Cottage cheese (chhana)
- 1 tsp plain flour (maida) for dusting
- 5 cups sugar
- 1/2 cup milk
- 2 more tsp plain flour (maida)
COTTAGE CHEESE BALLS
- Divide the cottage cheese into equals parts and roll each part into a ball, taking care to see that the there are no cracks on the surface.
- Dust the back of a flat plate lightly with flour and place the rolled balls on it.
- Combine the sugar and milk with 3 cups of water in a large pan approximately 200 mm (8”) in diameter and 150 mm (6”) in height and heat while stirring continuously till the sugar dissolves.
- When the syrup comes to a boil, the impurities in the sugar will begin to float on the surface, forming a grey layer.
- Heat over a medium flame to allow the grey layer to float. Do not stir at this point as the layer will break and it will not clarify the syrup.
- After about 5 minutes, slowly drizzle 1 cup of water from the sides of the pan with the help of a ladle. The water will bring down the temperature of the sugar syrup and will not allow it to boil and break the grey layer.
- Continue to simmer the syrup over a medium flame for about 10 minutes and then gently remove the grey layer using a slotted spoon.
- Bring the syrup to boil once again and then slowly drizzle another cup of water from the sides of the pan using a ladle. Remove all the remaining impurities from the syrup, again using a slotted spoon.
- Increase the flame and boil vigorously for 1 to 2 minutes. Keep aside.
- Mix 2 teaspoons of the plain flour with 3/4 cup of water to make a flour solution. Keep aside.
HOW TO PROCEED
- Heat the sugar syrup in a deep pan over a high flame and allow it to boil vigorously.
- When it boils, sprinkle half the flour solution in the sugar syrup and then add the cottage cheese balls by upturning the plate on which they are kept. Do not touch the cheese balls at this point as they are fragile.
- When the flour solution is added, a frothy layer is formed on the surface of the syrup.
- If the frothy layer begins to subside, sprinkle the remaining half portion of the flour solution.
- After this, keep on sprinkling water (minimum 1 cup) on the surface of the sugar syurp. Ensure that the syrup froths all the time while cooking the rasgullas.
- Cook for about 15 minutes, continuously sprinkling water to enable the froth to form.
- Check if the rasgullas are cooked. This is determined by touch. If the rasgulla springs back and retains its shape when pressed, it is cooked. Another way of checking is to drop a rasgulla in a pan of cold water. If it sinks to the bottom, it is cooked.
- Remove from the fire.
- Transfer the rasgullas to a bowl along with 2 ladles of sugar syrup and 1 cup of water.
- Cool and chill for approximately 3 to 4 hours before serving.
The KC Das outlet at Esplanade, one of the most famous rasgulla shops (rediff.com)
- Always cook on a very high flame.
- The sugar syrup must froth continuously while the rasgullas are being cooked.
- The sugar syrup should fill about 1/3 of the pan.
- While rolling the cottage cheese into balls, ensure there are no cracks on the surface.
- Rasgullas expand to at least 4 times their original size.
- While sprinkling water on the syrup when the rasgullas are cooking, make sure to sprinkle a little water at a time.
- Cooking time of rasgullas vary depending on their size.
Variations of rasgulla
- Rasmalai: It consists of rasgullas where the sugar syrup is replaced by sweetened milk
- Kamalabhog: Orange extract is mixed with chhana to produce orange-coloured rasgullas smelling of fresh oranges
Rasmalai; kamalabhog (geetascuisine.com; banglaliveshopping.com)
Lead image: youtube.com/Bengali Rasgulla Recipe - Indian Vegetarian Cuisine