This famous Bengali sweet duo is now in Middle-East

A quest for Mihidana and Sitabhog

By Tania Banerjee

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Published: Thu 21 Apr 2022, 9:31 PM

Last updated: Fri 22 Apr 2022, 12:58 PM

In the Indian city of Bardhaman in West Bengal, a culinary delight quietly draws a sweet-toothed crowd. They come in search of Bardhaman’s Mihidana and Bardhaman’s Sitabhog — sweets that originated in the region and have received Geographical Indication (G.I.) tag in the year 2017, validating their uniqueness. On September 2021, the sweet duo reached Bahrain and garnered international interest for the first time. The sweets originated during British rule in India. In the year 1904, Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India, visited Bardhaman to honour an invitation by Maharaja Bijay Chand Mahtab, the ruler of Burdwan estate. To impress the European dignitary, the Maharaja directed Vairabchandra Nag, an eminent local sweet maker to create something unique. Mihidana and Sitabhog were thus added to the Bengali sweets’ repertoire.

The word mihidana means ‘fine grains’. On the shelves of sweet shops, Mihidana is very easy to spot. Bright orange in colour, the juicy tiny grains attract attention very easily. Chickpea flour or besan and two types of rice flour are mixed in specific proportions and textured into a semiliquid batter. The artisans then heat ghee on a pan and hold a finely perforated metal utensil, known in the local language as pawna over it. They pass the batter through a pawna with circular perforations. Drops of the batter splash into the heated ghee, get fried in it and take the shape of fine spheres.

The sweetmakers then soak these in sugar syrup flavoured by bay leaves and pulao pata (Pandanus amaryllifolius) to whip up Bardhaman’s Mihidana. The speciality lies in the rice used — Kaminibhog and Gobindobhog. Both of them are aromatic rice indigenous to this region. In Bengal, the mention of Mihidana is always followed by that of Sitabhog. The origin of the name Sitabhog is laden with myths. Some say it comes from the character of Sita of the Indian epic Ramayana, but such claims are contested. At first glance, Bardhaman’s Sitabhog looks like long-grained rice, quite like basmati, off-white in colour. Once taken outside the glass showcase, its distinct fragrance permeates the air. Once in the mouth, its grainy crust begins to crumble, leaving a lingering sweetness on the tongue.

It is made of a batter of Gobindobhog rice flour, chenna or cheese curds, and a pinch of refined flour or maida. This batter is also poured through a pawna, fried in ghee and soaked in sugar syrup.

Mihidana and Sitabhog were imported by Aljazira Group of Bahrain for their supermarket chain. Ujjal Kumar Mukherjee, the group general manager of Aljazira said, “I was already looking for specialised sweets from Bengal, so I asked my exporter, Indradeep Dutta of DM Enterprises to see if he can arrange export of these sweets from Bardhaman.” Mukherjee’s paternal ancestry is tied to Bardhaman and he was already aware of these “outstanding sweets”. According to him, the sweets were liked by the consumers in Bahrain.

It is a feat how the project launched and took off during the pandemic when the sweetmeat industry of Bengal was already reeling. The intervention of the government body APEDA (Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority) was instrumental in building trust among the various strangers — manufacturers and exporters.

These sweets will next be exported to Malaysia and Canada. On asking if export to the UAE is on the radar, Sandeep Saha, Regional In-charge of Eastern Region at APEDA said, that very few exporters of Eastern India have tie-ups with malls and retail chains; if the connections could be established, export to the UAE would definitely happen.

When it comes to conversations around Bengali sweetmeats, the limelight is always hogged by Roshogolla and Sondesh, the curdled milk sweets. But the world has a lot more to appreciate from Bengal. Debaditya Chakraborty, owner of Tikli Sweets of Bardhaman and the assistant scretary of Bardhaman Sitabhog and Mihidana Trader’s Welfare Association said, “I am very happy that the export is not just bringing business but recognition and appreciation to Mihidana, Sitabhog and its artisans.”

Chakraborty shared an anecdote to give an idea about how much the sweetmeat industry is near the edge. “A person who bought sweets worth Rs10 in 2019 bought sweets worth Rs7 post pandemic in 2020. He has curtailed it further in 2021 and spends only Rs4 on sweets.” Soaring costs of raw materials, particularly the fuel price hike has left the artisans with very little profit margin. “We couldn’t raise the price of our products as people are already buying less since the pandemic,” he added.

According to him, Bardhaman city has atleast 10-12 sweetshops that sell G.I. tagged Bardhaman’s Mihidana and Sitabhog. However, the sweet is also sold in thousands of other sweet shops across West Bengal. But not all use the recipe that got the G.I. tag. In some cases, the Gobindobhog rice that lies at the heart of the sweets’ recipe is replaced by other grains.

For many, when there’s an irresistible urge for Mihidana and Sitabhog, it becomes a daytrip. From Howrah station, you can board a local train for the 103km-northwest journey, with peeks outside the window at swathes of green and yellow fields — paddy and mustard cultivation. In 2.5 hours, you reach the destination, Bardhaman. Now, if you ever yearn for a spoonful of these aromatic sweets, you know where to find them.

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