The Sweet Renaissance :
It was a humble beginning. In a tiny, obscure corner of Bagbazar in North Kolkata, Nobin Chandra set up a sweet shop in 1866, but the last thing he wanted was to run a mere sales counter. The passion to create something of his very own haunted him. His ambition was to create a completely original sweet, that would bring new excitement to the Bengali palate. There was in him an intense desire to create a sweetmeat that was never there before... the ultimate delicacy. He toiled for months, armed with imagination, skill and tenacity, and sometime in the year 1868, his labours paid off. He made small balls of casein (cottage cheese) and boiled them in hot sugar syrup. The result was a succulent, spongy sweet with a unique, distinctive taste. Nobin Das christened it the “Rossogolla” and a legend was born.
It was an amazing innovation, carving for Nobin Chandra a place in legend and history where he has been lodged securely since then. Connoisseurs of sweets fondly remember him as “Nobinmoira, the Columbus of Rossogolla” a sobriquet coined half in jest and half in admiration. Highbrow Bengalis, who till then had used the word “moira” or confectioner disparagingly, came to lace it with reverence when linking it with Nobin Chandra’s name. The legendary “Nobinmoira” was born out of and sustained by a deep and abiding love: the love a Bengali has for his sweets.
Nobin Chandra’s ancestors were sugar merchants of considerable social standing. Hailing originally from the district of Burdwan, the Dases had made Kolkata their home for eight generations by now Their house on a horseshoe bend on the river Ganges in Sutanotty (now Bagbazar), was well known even a century ago. Being respectable and prosperous sugar merchants, the family did not take kindly to Nobin Chandra’s decision to be a sweetmeat seller. His family itself disdainfully referred to him as a “moira.” Little did they imagine that history would transform their contempt into lasting adulation. But he put up with the ignominy without protest. Later, Nobin Chandra sought to vindicate his position by referring to the Puranas which first equated sweetmeat makers to the Brahmins in social status and later on to the ‘Kshatriyas' after being enrolled as soldiers under ‘Kartabiryarjun'. He published a booklet in this connection.
By 1846, when Nobin Chandra was born, their traditional business had ceased to flourish. Nobin Chandra's father died three months before his birth. The only property that he inherited, besides his dwelling, was a plot of land. In 1864, left with little provision to complete his education, he sold this to establish a sweetmeat shop at Jorasanko in Kolkata at his mother's instance, in partnership with his relatives. Due to mismanagement, this venture was not very successful. Recovering from his shock, he managed to collect some money and started a new venture with another shop in Bagbazar in 1866. Most sweetmeats made then were either “Sondesh” (a delicacy exclusively for the affluent), or sweets made of “dal” (lentils) or flour from various grains. Choices were limited. Lovers of sweets yearned for novelty. Moreover, in those days, sweetmeat shops used to depend on credit sales. However, Nobin Chandra had no resources to offer credit to his customers. Consequently, his shop became a rendezvous for old, retired men and unemployed youths. Its attraction, the unsold sweets which they would enjoy at the end of the day. However, they encouraged Nobin Chandra to introduce a sweet different from the customary sondesh - a soft, succulent sweet as against the dry and hard texture of sondesh. It was at this opportune moment that he struggled towards this end, but every time he tried to boil the casein balls in sugar syrup they disintegrated. At last, he discovered the presence of an enzyme in the casein to which he ascribed a vernacular terminology that played the trick. Nobin Chandra finally succeeded in creating the soft, spongy and syrupy “Rossogolla” for the discerning Bengali palate.
It was the ultimate delicacy. In the absence of advertising as we know
it today, it took its time to become popular. Nobin Chandra waited patiently
until Fortune smiled on him at last. One fine morning, a magnificent landau
came to a halt at his shop. A wealthy timber merchant, Raibahadur Bhagwandas
Bagla was in the carriage with his family. One of Bhagwandas’s children
was thirsty, and the carriage had stopped in search of a drink of water.
Nobin Chandra offered his usual hospitality. The little boy was given
water to drink along with “Rossogolla”. The child was delighted
with this unique delicacy and offered his father a share. The father was
equally ecstatic, and immediately bought a large quantity for his family
and friends. This unorthodox ‘word of mouthful’ proved immensely
useful. Nobin Chandra and his “Rossogolla” became famous in no time. Contrary to the advice of his friends and admirers to take out patents, he taught the intricacies of Rossogolla-making to numerous sweetmeat makers. He believed that his creation could only gain popularity if available in all sweet shops across the country.
Nobin Chandra was a thoroughly unorthodox “moira,” far ahead of his time. After he acquired the art of making rossogolla, he diverted his attention to the perfection of sondesh. From the granular and course varieties then in vogue, he succeeded in making it into a smooth paste and named it “Kastura”. He was the first traditional Bengali confectioner to incorporate natural fruit pulp in his creations and Bengalis of the succeeding generations have blessed the creator of the “Aata (custard apple) Sondesh” and “Kathaal (jackfruit) Sondesh.” Another curious example of his creative expression was the way he transformed the broken or crumbled balls of casein left over from the process of making “Rossogolla". He mixed these crumbs with “kheer” and added pistachios, raisins and saffron to make a unique kind of “Sondesh”. He christened it “Baikuntha Bhog,” truly a creation fit to be served at Vaikunth, the abode of the great god Vishnu.