Bengal has a long-standing love affair with rasgullas- the spongy balls of ricotta soaked in sugar syrup. However, many have stepped down due to health concerns. Sugary treats with Portuguese roots have been passed down through family recipes for generations. In Bengal and Kolkata today, it is not exactly the most popular sweet. In other words, the rosogolla isn’t off the table. Yet, there is a definite split regarding whether to serve these sugary cheese balls at home or when entertaining guests. Many people, in fact, avoid it.
Syrup with high sugar content is causing problems for people trying to control their blood sugar levels, not the spongy balls. Nearly 12 percent of Bengal’s population suffers from diabetes, based on the National Urban Diabetes Survey. In the districts of Howrah, Burdwan, and Kolkata, there is a high prevalence of diabetes, according to a study at IIT Kanpur. ‘Sweets are bad for your health in any amount. Bengali sweets laced with sugar syrup are the most dangerous. The fact that people are trying their best to avoid rosogollas and raj-bhogs is a good thing because of their high sugar content,’ says Dr. Mahua Sikdar, a top diabetologist in Kolkata.
In the city and other parts of the state, sweet preferences are changing since there is more awareness, says Dr. Sikdar. Other than one or two big sweet stores, the rest won’t showcase rosogollas as one of their best offerings. Food is becoming more conscious. In short, rosogollas are being seen as unhealthy. According to Mintel India’s recent research, 22 percent of Indians are concerned about their health, especially after the first two waves of the Covid-19 pandemic. Diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity are the three main concerns. In 2020, approximately 62 percent reported eating healthier foods. In 2020, 35 percent of consumers reported actively reducing consumption of unhealthy ingredients in their food compared with 2019.
In Bengal where sweets play such a large role, shops remained open from 12 noon to 4 pm during the pandemic in March 2020. State officials said the decision was made with shopkeepers’ sentiments in mind. The city of Kolkata alone has more than 14,000 sweet shops. Big stores have machines that can produce thousands of pieces per minute. It is estimated that Bengal’s sweets industry is worth 15,000 crores, while India’s total sweet market (including confectionery and fast foods) is worth over 1 lakh crores.
The Bengali rosogolla tryst is unique. Slowly but surely, the sweet is disappearing from stores in Kolkata and other parts of the state. In contrast, Bengalis take immense pride in claiming that the rosogolla was invented by one Nobin Chandra Das at his Baghbazar residence in northern Kolkata. In Odisha, they dispute this vociferously, pointing to rosogollas offered at the temple of Lord Jagannath in Puri in the 12th century as evidence of their experimentation with cottage cheese dumplings. During his annual nine-day-long Rath Yatra, Lord Jagannath presents rosogollas to his consort, Goddess Lakshmi.
One of Bengal’s top food experts, Pritha Sen, says both states are fiercely protective of their own brand of rosogolla. A rosogolla cannot be compared with Sandesh, like comparing Starbucks with College Street Coffee House. Bengal was the first state to get the GI tag for its brand of rosogollas in 2017, then Odisha in 2019. GI is a distinctive sign used on a product generally owned collectively and can be used to distinguish goods based on their geography and unique characteristics. ‘The Bengali mind has moved on from Rosogolla. Healthy people want to avoid it… This syrup is sticky, unlike a Sandesh (a cheese and jaggery-based sweet, generally shaped like a carrom board striker), which you can handle with tissue paper. There are some great experiments in Bengal’s sweet culture, but not in rosogollas,’ says Sen. This is a pity because, for a long time, Bengal’s rosogollas were India’s sweet signature.
Bengalis have never liked to experiment too much with rosogollas, so it hasn’t changed much in 150 years. Maggi rosogollas, as well as black currant, strawberry and green apple-flavored rosogollas have not proved popular with Bengalis. Rosogolla stories are fascinating. Former Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi once walked into a Bengal stall at the Delhi Trade Fair and enjoyed rosogollas with Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega. Old Delhi’s Mukherjee family even exported rosogollas to Latin American nations. Dhiman Das, great-grandson of K.C Das says, ‘I agree that rosogollas are no longer on people’s minds, but there is still a substantial section of people in Bengal who swear by them alone’. Dhiman is the executive director of KC Das Group, which markets rosogolla in its trademark red-colored sealed tin boxes. ‘Rosagolla is nothing more than nostalgia. Sugar syrup is not something people want to handle’, said Abhijit Sen, caterer.
Thousands of rosogollas were served in earthen pots at Bengali weddings, and the groom’s and bride’s sides would compete to eat the most rosogollas. But today, nobody at a wedding caterer will serve rosogollas. Neither India nor abroad have ever seen a cheese ball like that before, says Das. Sarada Charan Das, his grandfather, worked at Rajabazar Science College under Dr. C.V. Raman. In British-ruled India, Sarada Charan Das created the first steam machine for sweets in 1945. In less than ten minutes, his company can produce over 8,000 rosogollas using momo-making machines from South Korea.
One of the top sweet chains in Bengal, Balaram Mullick Radharaman Mullick, said it would be wrong to completely disregard rosogollas. Sudip Mullick, the company’s head, observed that rosogollas were slipping off the map and has made a few changes. ‘We have greatly reduced the sugar content. Rosogollas come in different varieties. There was a big buzz with Rosegollas’s GI tag, but then there was Odisha’s. Thus, exclusivity was absent. We have to start experimenting and keep the interest levels high’, Mullick says.
In Delhi, there are those who remember Vajpayee and Advani’s love of rosogollas. They both had unique ways of eating them. Atul Vajpayee would consume rosogollas with full syrup while Advani would eat just one, cutting them up into between six and eight pieces. Rosagollas are no longer given as gifts by Bengali politicians, who are typically very protective of the sweets produced in their state.
Rather than rosogollas, Girish Chandra Dey and Nakur Chandra Nandy say they prefer the hard-baked Sandesh, a popular sweet in north Kolkata. ‘Rosogolla didn’t appeal to our forefathers,’ says Prajesh Nandy, whose shop offers sweets named after cricketers Saurav Ganguly and Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar. Despite the big divide, the tradition of rosogollas continues. The rosogolla is considered to be a slice of civilization for Nitai Ghosh, the owner of Chittaranjan Sweets, which produces them. ‘Hundreds of people come to our stores to buy rosogollas, but they don’t check the sugar content’, he said.