Inside India's Regional Dessert Feud

Where's rasgulla actually from? Well, it's complicated.

by Mayukh Sen
Nov 17 2017, 7:00pm

Photo via Pixabay user gillnisha.

“For me, as an Odiya, we have always thought of rasgulla as ours,” Swayampurna Mishra, a food writer from the Indian state of Odisha, tells me. “Rasgulla has always been a part of my life, my childhood. I can still taste, quite vividly in fact, the taste of the rasgulla that my parents got for us on their way back from work.”

The rasgulla is a small clump of perfection: a sphere of unripened curd cheese cooked in cardamom sugar syrup. When it’s pulled out from its vat, it’s saturated with juice. The residue sticks to your hands, but it's frankly worth it; the taste is pretty divine.

Where’s it from? Well, that's complicated.

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Tribal affection for rasgulla runs deep along state lines. Consider the fact that, over the past two years, two neighboring states in India, West Bengal and Odisha, have both laid claim to being the rasgulla's birthplace.

It's a tussle that began in September of 2015, when Odisha's Science and Technology Minister Pradip Kumar Panigrahi claimed to have found evidence that the rasgulla had emerged in Odisha over 600 years ago, challenging popular consensus that Bengali confectioner Nabin Chandra Das had created the dessert within West Bengal in 1868.

After a formal inquiry from the country's Geographical Indications registry, the agency declared a winner on Tuesday: West Bengal. Some were joyous, particularly in West Bengal; even the state’s Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, took to Twitter to express her utter glee at the news. Others, particularly quite a few people in the losing state, weren't exactly too pleased with the outcome.

"Rasgulla is very much woven intrinsically into the fabric of Bengali lives,” Bengali London-based food writer Mallika Basu tells me. Like many Bengalis, Basu has had long-held, deep love for the dessert. But she feels this conflict may a particularly bizarre manifestation of the recent desire to speak about the foods of India with greater regional specificity.

“[For some Indians], calling a food their own becomes bigger than the sum of its parts, and, rather, symbolic of cultural pride and regional heritage,” Basu insists to me. “On the subject of belonging, this harps back to the very fact that there is no such thing as Indian food. There is only the food of India.”

Besides, there's something especially difficult about documenting foodways when there's not always textual record to attest to claims of origin. “The argument cannot be settled in practice because rasgulla's first use was probably never recorded textually," Krishnendu Ray, the chair of the Nutrition and Food Studies Department at New York University, explains to me. "In general, exaggerated claims of originality to any everyday food is usually a successful marketing gimmick. Never more than that.”

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Ray straddles both states—his mother is from Odisha while his father is from West Bengal, and he’d lived in both growing up; as such, he doesn't really have a horse in this race. He likens rasgulla to pasta, foodstuffs thought to have originated within Italy and China, respectively; toggling back and forth between the two when trying to pin down where, exactly, it originated is only so constructive an exercise.

“It is an invented quarrel based on the very recent assumption that things can only belong to one people, nation or ethnicity,” he says of the struggle billowing around rasgulla. “Most things are not that selective. Only human beings are.”