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Sweet Divide: Why there’s no one Rasogolla even in Bengal

The GI status for the Banglar Rasogolla is actually for the rasogolla invented by confectioner NC Das in 1868, whose family expanded the business. But other big players in Kolkata prefer to stay small.

india Updated: Nov 26, 2017 13:01 IST
Arkamoy Dutta Majumdar
Arkamoy Dutta Majumdar
Hindustan Times
rasogolla,sweets,banglar rasogolla
Even within West Bengal, confectioners produce different varieties of rasogolla, but the variant for which the GI protection was granted is the one Nobin Chandra Das is said to have invented.(Shutterstock)

Nitai Chandra Ghosh is perhaps best described as a reluctant confectioner. He prides himself for having scaled down the business volume of his ancestral sweetmeat shop in north Kolkata, Chittaranjan Mistanna Bhandar, after taking its reins in 1990.

Ghosh always wanted to become a cinematographer. A “conspiracy at home” kept him from going to Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India, he says. The death of his father in 1990 put him at the helm of the business.

The same year, a new world dawned on him when he went to the US to shoot a film.

Back then, quality and consistency were not the strong suits for most Indian businesses. Though celebrated, Ghosh’s own enterprise was no different. Soon after he became the boss, he noticed that the milk that his company bought from generations of the same supplier wasn’t consistent in quality.

Stepping out of India’s command economy, Ghosh says, he was awestruck by the scale of US and European businesses. Despite staggering sales, McDonald’s burgers tasted the same across all stores. The key to it, Ghosh figured back in 1990, was its complete control over the supply chain of ingredients.

Lessons learnt, Ghosh, a fifth generation confectioner, returned to his humble store in north Kolkata and launched a mission to transform his enterprise. By 1994, against the advice of his family, he started to build from scratch his own dairy farm, 200 km from Kolkata, while knocking on the doors of scientists and several dairy research institutes.

Eventually, he managed to build a small team for his own laboratory. The aim was scientifically validate and perfect the “intuitive art” of producing sweetmeat.

Today, Chittaranjan Mistanna Bhandar is one of the most celebrated makers of rasogolla in Kolkata, and one of the few who make the sweet entirely out of milk produced, procured and despatched in keeping with its own stringent standards.

The key to expanding the market for the sweet is creating long-life variants. Only a handful of confectioners have successfully managed to put it cans, starting with KC Das, the company named after Nobin Chandra Das’ son.

What materialised from Ghosh’s attempt to take control of the supply chain of milk was a 100-acre farm which supports nearby dairy farmers with fodder and other inputs, including knowhow in animal husbandry. From a controlled ecosystem, he now sources 2,000-2,500 litres of milk a day, and transports it to Kolkata in his own refrigerated trucks.

When it comes to milk for rasogolla, the fodder is one of the key determinants of quality, claims Ghosh.

Back in his father’s time, Chittaranjan Mistanna Bhandar consumed much more milk than it does now. But in the bargain, Ghosh has achieved consistency. And he still runs his business out of one store tucked in a lane in north Kolkata and refuses to expand because he isn’t sure he can maintain consistency.

Small Is Beautiful

For many Bengali family-owned enterprises, punching below their weight is a badge of honour. The excuse is the same: they would happily pass up opportunities to expand if quality and consistency are thought to be at stake.

But with the Indian patent authorities now recognising the uniqueness of Banglar Rasogolla (literally Bengal’s Rasogolla) and granting it protection with a Geographical Indication (GI) tag, will the outlook change?

The state government of West Bengal is encouraging confectioners to expand. It is even willing to help seek out new markets, leveraging the GI recognition of Banglar Rasogolla. The idea is to build an identifiable mark of a premium product, which will add heft to businesses, says Nandini Chakravorty, secretary in the department of food processing.

The GI Battle

West Bengal upped the ante in the battle for GI protection only in 2015 after Odisha announced it was going to apply for protection from the patent authorities for its own variant of rasogolla. Odisha’s application never made it to the patent office in Chennai—West Bengal’s trophy has left lawmakers and officers in Bhubaneswar red-faced.

In the past two years, the two states have fought a farcical battle over the origins of rasogolla. There is incontrovertible historical evidence that a variant of the sweet was offered to Lord Jagannath at the Puri temple from 800 years ago, Odisha claimed. But Bengalis do not recognise it as rasogolla at all. The variant that it claims to be the real stuff is the rasogolla “invented” in 1868 by storied confectioner Nobin Chandra Das.

To be sure, the GI protection secured by West Bengal for Banglar Rasogolla is not a verdict on its ancestry—the inflamed sentiments notwithstanding, it is only recognition of the uniqueness of the variant which Das developed through four years of experiments.

Much like the most copied Bengal master Jamini Roy, Nobin Chandra Das never kept his rasogolla formula a secret. (Malay Karmakar)

Even within West Bengal, confectioners produce different varieties of rasogolla, but the variant for which the GI protection was granted is the one Das is said to have invented. Through generations, his descendants have expanded the market for the sweet, and even recently, a scion of the family, Dhiman Das, played a key role in West Bengal stealing the thunder from first mover Odisha.

“Smooth and delicate” feel in the mouth are the key differentiators for Banglar Rasogolla, the state had said in its GI application, borrowing from the Das family’s formula. It is made out of pure cottage cheese derived from curdling of milk. The cottage cheese is delicately kneaded into balls and dipped into syrup with sugar concentration of 30-40%.

In Ghosh’s eyes, the osmosis that follows—or the chemical process in which the tender balls get soaked in syrup and rise to float when ready—is not a shade less mystical than sculptor Ramkinkar Baij’s charcoal sketches in his office. But for Dhiman Das, a collector of Jamini Roy’s paintings, it’s all about adhering to an evolved process.

Much like the most copied Bengal master Roy, Nobin Chandra Das never kept his formula a secret. After he had perfected the rasogolla in 1868 and built an enterprise on its strength, he would invite other confectioners into his workshop to learn the art of making it. “He had tutored many, perhaps at the cost of expanding his own business,” says Dhiman Das.

Roy, too, took the same approach: in the end, he taught so many followers that a new school of art emerged named after him. But excessive copying and faking undermined the commercial value of Roy’s own works in the art market. But the same is not true for Nobin Chandra Das’ rasogolla.

For West Bengal’s confectioners, adopting the inventor’s formula is not going to be difficult, but will it earn them a premium, asks Roopen Roy, former managing director of Deloitte Consulting.

GI for Darjeeling tea acts like air cover in a battlefront: it makes sure that tea produced in only 87 tea estates of Darjeeling can stake claim to the goodwill. And within that playing field, each estate seeks value for itself on the strength of its own crop, says Roy, who now runs his own consultancy, Sumantrana (literally Good Advice).

But rasogolla and tea are different. Whereas tea has an international market, the sweet is consumed only by the Indian diaspora. The “addressable market” is small, and may contract further because of this charged battle of pride between the states over GI, says the veteran consultant, referring to Odisha’s resolution to seek GI protection for Jagannath Rasgulla.

The Way Ahead

But the key to expanding the market for the sweet is creating long-life variants. Only a handful of confectioners have successfully managed to put it cans, starting with KC Das, the company named after Nobin Chandra Das’ son. From 1930, KC Das has been selling the canned variant and business has expanded so much outside the state that the firm now has 16 stores in Bengaluru compared with only five in Kolkata, says Dhiman Das.

But Ghosh wouldn’t walk that path: in his view, rasogolla can be preserved in pristine condition only within cold chains. So, for his Chittaranjan Mistanna Bhandar, there is no question of looking beyond the current market, at least in the foreseeable future. He deplores mechanisation, and says he will never share his secret milk-curdling formula.

KC Das, on the other hand, has grown on the strength of mechanisation. The firm has standardised the process of making long-life rasogolla, and gets them produced under its supervision at the milk processing unit of Red Cow Dairy, a firm privately owned by a veteran dairy technologist. Under the arrangement, cottage cheese is derived within two hours of milking—that is the key to producing long-life rasogolla, according to Dhiman Das.

In the billing of government officers in Kolkata, Banglar Rasogolla has enough meat to milk, but confectioners, even growth hungry ones, want proof.

First Published: Nov 25, 2017 19:59 IST