Sticky Sweet Success
Afternoon arrives at KC Das with a strange mix of chaos and resignation. From the probashi (non-resident) Bengali teenager curiously dismantling the tricky layers of a lobongo lotika to the weary office-goer listlessly swallowing luchi and chholar daal with practiced frequency, the ground floor of the Esplanade sweet shop is a delectable collage of Kolkata stereotypes. The modest glass counter is abuzz with Bengali impatience with queues, but the spread seems a tad austere in the context of the noisy customers trying to place their order first.
The sweet shop, which has recently completed 75 years, has a fast depleting array of rosogolla, pantua, a smattering of sandesh, malpoa and other Bengali staples, on display. It's a story of traditional whites, ochre and an occasional deep fry-brown. "We don't believe in hybrid sweets. We have a heritage of our own, which we are happy exhibiting," says Dhiman Das, 39, director of the KC Das chain of sweet shops, explaining the absence of Western elements like butterscotch or a raspberry in their products.
The quiet pride and dismissal of competition is not unaccounted for. KC Das will probably always be known for giving India its rosogolla, a sweet almost synonymous with Bengal and all things Bengali. While Bollywood might have turned mishti doi into the unlikely star of Bengali sweet-dom, it was sandesh (the soft white dry sweetmeat made from chhena) that ruled the regional dessert scene till the late 19th century. Until a 22-year-old man, nearly jobless after his first sweet shop shut down, pinned his hopes on little balls of chhena dipped in sugar syrup to tug at the roots of the Bengali palate. Kolkata was still Calcutta, divided into three small villages — Sutanuti, Kolikata and Gobindopur. Nobin Chandra Das opened a second shop at what was then Sutanuti, now Baghbazar in north Kolkata. After several trials, rosogolla — a round spongy ball of chhena dipped in sugary syrup — came into being in 1868. Das, the story goes, would serve them free to customers. "You know how we are. We wouldn't take to things easily," laughs Dhiman, as he talks of his great-great-grandfather.
It was to the credit of a Marwari businessman that the rosogolla became popular. Raibahadur Bhagwan Das Bagla stopped by Das's shop and his young son wanted water. "He was served a rosogolla alongside. They were so delighted by the new sweet that they ordered several kilos of it," says Das. Home-ground dismissal dealt with, there was no turning back.
The brand, however, derives its name from Nobin Chandra's son Krishna Chandra. "Nobin Chandra was an unorthodox moira (sweetmaker) and his son took after him. KC Das and one of his sons introduced another Bengali favourite, the roshomalai (small rosogollas dipped in thickened flavoured milk)," says Dhiman. What was probably more interesting was the introduction of vacuum packing in the Indian food manufacturing industry. "The first batch of rosogollas were canned in 1930. It was the first and only canned dessert available then," he adds. A feat that probably turned the rosogolla into the most-used marker of Bengali culture. "It ensured the sweet traveled outside Kolkata and India, giving people from various ethnicities a taste of our culture," says Dhiman.
The 1965 Milk Trade Control order in Bengal hit the brand hard, and it closed down for three years before reopening in Bangalore in 1972. Several branches and a factory-turned-research lab later, KC Das is a name to reckon with. The near-empty counters before dusk tell a story born of habit and brand recall. One of the few Bengali brand stories that didn't fall prey to tales of Marx-chanters and dharna lovers.