The Sweet Kitchen book review: A tribute to the mishti-loving Bengali heart

Book Blurb: Sweets play a central role in all festivals and celebrations of India and every part of the country has special desserts that are prepared in specific ways. In The Sweet Kitchen: Tales and Recipes of India’s Favourite Desserts, chef and food writer Rajyasree Sen delves into the stories behind some of these iconic sweet dishes and asks questions about the origins of others. Among the tales she tells are the following—Is sandesh only made in Bengal? Is the gulab jamun strictly Indian? Was the kaju barfi created through divine intervention? How did sweetshops support the independence movement? How did the Persians, Mughals, French, Portuguese, British, and others influence sweet dishes in different parts of the country? Why do most communities not use yoghurt in their desserts?—and more.

Weaving together stories, historical records, and recipes, the book takes a fascinating look at the desserts we have eaten for countless Diwali, Christmas, Eid, and Navroz celebrations through the centuries.

Picture Credit: Aleph

Review: When the Covid-19 pandemic forced states across the country to enforce stringent lockdowns in 2020 and 2021 that restricted access to almost everything except essentials, which excluded restaurants and eateries. The picture was a bit different in West Bengal’s capital Kolkata. Knowing how sweets are an integral part of the quintessential Bengali meal, the government allowed sweet shops to remain open along with other stores selling essential items. Such is the love for sweets in West Bengal. Rajyasree Sen’s The Sweet Kitchen is the perfect ode to the native mishti loving Bengali heart.

Having been brought up in Kolkata, Sen doesn’t shy away from making the reader observe the food scene of the city from the eyes of a ‘probashi’ – the colloquial term for non-resident Bengalis. A columnist and a blogger, Sen and her husband also opened a Bengali and Anglo-Indian restaurant in New Delhi. 

A peek into history

The 128-page book is not your regular cookbook with a bunch of recipes listed together in an almost mechanical way. In fact, it offers the reader a peek into the origin and historical significance of a dish. As one traverses through the pages, you notice you are deep diving into a maze of facts that help decipher the peculiar taste of a region and the reason why a certain ingredient is preferred for a dish. For instance, why is the use of chenna so widespread in Bengal? Or even the local economy. Did you know that every sweet shop in Bengal has a chemist in the vicinity? Reason: So that Bengalis can buy a digestive to digest the hearty meal that they had just had and probably repeat the process for their next meal.

You can also find an old wives’ tale slipped in a place or two. For instance, many Bengalis claim that the rosogolla can indeed cure an upset stomach. One should just squeeze the syrup of the sweet straight into the mouth and then pop in the rosogolla. It is believed that the healthy bacteria in the syrup can treat any stomach infection. The veracity of the remedy might not be full-proof, but it sure gives us another reason to enjoy rosogolla.

The book can be credited with bringing out unheard nuances of Indian cuisine, especially deserts. Right from history to geography to politics, there’s a lot that goes into shaping a region’s cuisine. The Sweet Kitchen aptly does that. You can look forward to discovering what connects the Portuguese and chhena, sandesh and the Bengal Renaissance, and the ubiquitous halwa and the Dutch. 

Sweet nothings 

As you read the book, you will notice how myopic our views might be. Take the case of the Christmas Cake. With a sizable Anglo-Indian population and having served as the capital of the country for years under the British, Kolkata’s Christmas celebrations are grand. However, what sets the Christmas cake apart is not the ingredients but the people who bake it. It is one of the few cities where you will see Hindus and Muslims standing in long queues to buy these cakes. Moreover, many of these bakeries are run by Muslims who bake cakes on orders from their Hindu clients. Sen goes on to mention names like Kolkata’s iconic Taltala Lane where bakeries opened decades ago still draw people from far with their delectable goodies.

Mind you, bakeries aren’t anything you might expect, for they are not air-conditioned or have fancy electric ovens. Instead, they have wooden or gas ovens where the baked goods go through the heat of the coal before turning into a delectable bundle of sumptuousness.

Some of these shops even rent out their ovens to enthusiastic bakers who flock to their shops with the ingredients. If you don’t know how to mix the ingredients, the bakeries will help you without any qualms.

Diversity of the Indian palate

While drawing out the difference between payesh, kheer, and payasam, Sen deftly gives you a peek into how the palate of India changes every few kilometres. The three dishes use largely the same ingredients – rice, sugar, and milk, but each represents a vastly different cuisine and region. Not to forget, she also lets you go down memory lane by throwing in references like the kamala kheer which is usually cooked on Ashtami during Durga Puja and is made with tangerine.

Speaking of the recipes, they are short, crisp, and sweet. The instructions strike the perfect balance between brevity and precision so that they are understood by everyone; be it an amateur cook like a college student or a seasoned one like your mother. What would have made these recipes stand out is pictorial representation. However, the lack of photos or an equivalent pictorial representation makes an otherwise colourful book a tad bit monotonous.

Sen’s The Sweet Kitchen takes the road less travelled when it comes to books on food and breath of fresh air in a market filled with glossy cookbooks. It is a useful resource to re-introduce the uniqueness of Indian desserts that subtly uncovers the many layers of our country’s rich culinary heritage. Published by Aleph Book Company, The Sweet Kitchen is available both in stores as well as on Kindle.

The Sweet Kitchen

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