When Kakima first offered me gulab jamun, I was not impressed. It was my second or third day visiting India, and as Surya and I gobbled up soft slices of bright orange mango at tea time, she came into the sitting room with three, small bowls. In each dish sat a small, fried, brownish looking donut hole, floating on a puddle of syrup. Not quite as exotic as I had expected. State fair food, I thought, can find you anywhere. Where were the famed sweets dressed with silver foil? Or the carefully cooked pot of rice pudding? I fully expected to be eating cheese curds at dinner.
I’ve since revised that history and now, when I think back to that evening, I remember the calls of the cuckoo outside and the rustle of leaves from the jackfruit tree that stood near the open window. The gulab jamun was a tawny color, fried just right, and soft when I pressed the bottom of my spoon on it. The dish was warm, and when I brought it close to my mouth, I smelled roses and cardamom and sugar.
I fell in love.
After that, I asked for gulab jamun every night, and Surya was at pains to introduce me to the other famous mishti, or sweets, of Kolkata. The city produces the best sweet makers in the country, such that if you travel to other cities in India, the best sweet shops are always run by a Kolkata transplant. Bengalis themselves have an over-ambitious sweet tooth. Literally thousands of sweet shops dot the city, and each night families pick up a selection of burfi, mishti doi, and sondesh to replace the assortment that ran out that morning after breakfast.
The name gulab jamun, if translated, means “rose berry,” a nod to the purplish jamun berry that is a popular snack during the rainy season, and rosewater, the signature ingredient that flavors it. Ironically enough, the jamun fruit is believed to be a diabetes fighter. Too many gulab jamuns, on the other hand, will likely give you a heart attack.
Although no real comparison exists in the American repertoire of sweets, the gulab jamun, as I mentioned, looks like a donut hole, although lighter and more airy than cake donuts you might pick up at Dunkin’ Donuts. It is composed mostly of milk that has been boiled down to a solid state (called khoya in Hindi), mixed with flour, and deep fried to a crimson brown. Finally it takes a bath in sugar syrup flavored with the rosewater and saffron or cardamom. I like to eat it warm with a dish of vanilla ice cream.
Although gulab jamun likely has its roots in North India, its cousin, pantua, is a creation of Kolkata sweet makers, or moiras. Whereas gulab jamun is held together by a base of flour and milk solids, pantua is predominantly made from a dessert cheese called chhena.
Chhena makes all the difference, at least according to Bengalis. The Bengali tradition of making sweets from cheese (uncommon in most of India), is so revered that using flour in traditional sweet making is considered a disgrace. Might I remind you here that Bengalis have the reputation of being a bit French?
It’s hard for me to imagine such a thing as a flourless donut hole. Mind you, I’m sure the French introduced that idea centuries ago. Still, I took a particular interest in this hallmark of the pantua, and each day I ate my dessert slowly, picking it up to examine the insides and trying to find evidence of any cheese. I couldn’t. Each pantua looked to me exactly like any gulab jamun I’d eaten. In other words, like a wet donut hole. Did it taste different? I wasn’t sure. They all tasted good. And I wasn’t exactly in the habit of eating multiple pantuas and gulab jamuns at a time (The practice is not uncommon, however; Surya routinely tells me the story of the time when he ate 25 pantuas, on the spot, at someone’s wedding).
But I took a cue from Pepsi-Cola last summer and designed my own gulab jamun/pantua challenge. It was a small affair. Just six of us took part, so I can’t say that it was terribly scientific. The goal? To decide who in the city made the best gulab jamun/pantua. More importantly, to find out if there really was a difference between the two.
The gulab jamun’s origins are in Persia, where its counterpart — Luqmat Al Qadi – was made with honey. The Mughals introduced the sweet to the Indian subcontinent. These invaders from the North made a grand entrance, coming adorned in the finest, most colorful silks and keeping peacocks and tigers as pets. The royals brought a tradition of haute cuisine, too: the haute cuisine, which I imagine would rank four stars in a Michelin guide book. The royal kitchen was a department of state. It included a superintendent of cooks, a treasurer, storekeeper, clerks, tasters and, oh yeah, around 400 chefs. Some of these cooks hand fed the palace chickens each day. They served the hens rosewater and saffron, then massaged them with musk and sandalwood (chickens do, after all, have a reputation for being smelly). Others spent their days fetching the emperor’s favorite butter from a faraway town, and horticulturalists traveled from Central Asia to tend the orchards. To make gulab jamun, khansamas boiled fresh milk for hours before it reduced to the solid form used to shape the sweets. Court slaves meticulously collected thousands of rose petals, then soaked them to extract the essence.
A fraction of this obsession rubbed off on Bengalis, and me as well. So I found myself pouring over the sweet shop section of The Times of India Food Guide, trying to make a roster of contenders for the trial. I certainly couldn’t test thousands of different gulab jamuns and pantuas. I couldn’t even test the sixty or so shops listed in the book.
It came down to a mixture of the tried and true, and a soft spot for the underdog. Chittaranjan Mistanna Bhandar, an old North Kolkata sweet shop, was small but it received good reviews in the guide. And I liked the name. Banchharam crafted beautiful gulab jamuns twice the size of any other in the city. It’s become so popular in Kolkata that it now boasts branches around the city and the country. I chose Bhim Chandra Nag because it won fame a century ago when its owner presented a new, oblong-shaped pantua in honor of the then governor general’s wife, Lady Canning. Chhappan Bhog made the cut simply from reviews. The Times called its sweets, “no less then extraordinary.” I added Ganguram and Sons because it stood the test of time, Nobin Chandra Das because it is the father of the rasogolla, the precursor to the pantua, and Sandhya Sweets for its “superior quality chhena.”
Finally, I added our local, Behala shop. As a middle class neighborhood, Behala elicits laughs from Kolkata’s upper crust, and it rarely finds itself in guidebooks, food or otherwise. But I stand by my belief that the best chicken roll in Kolkata can be found in Behala, so I guessed that maybe, just maybe, a Behala pantua was waiting to be discovered.
I wasn’t surprised to find out, after the fact, that Kolkata has its own mishti challenge. The Kolkata edition of The Times of India introduced Madly Mishti in 2009. It’s a festival of fashion, music and sweets that culminates in a grand finale where celebrities hand out the reader-nominated awards. This year Madly Mishti took place in January, and Banchharam was one of the winners.
Preparing for my own competition was exhausting. Surya, our driver Sanjit, and I crisscrossed the city in the effort to collect all the sweets for our evening fête. That’s no small feat in a town known for its grueling traffic. In most cities the road to land ration is 30%. In Kolkata, it’s 4.2%. It takes at least an hour to get anywhere in the city, usually two.
So, on a Friday evening we assembled in the sitting room of the Banerjee residence. Kakima arranged the sweets for our blind taste testing. Chittaranjan Mistanna Bhandar was the hands down favorite. I was a little disappointed that our Behala shop had not won, but Chittaranjan’s small shop, tucked a block or two away from the main road, is just the kind of sweet shop I liked to frequent. When we next stopped there for a fresh supply, I asked the owner what made his so special.
“Half cheese; half khoya,” he divulged. “And a little flour.”
So was it pantua or gulab jamun? I didn’t know. More research may be required.