Samir No one in this country can ever pronounce my name right. It's not that hard: Samir Na-gheen-an-a-jar. Nagheenanajar.
Michael Bolton: Yeah, well at least your name isn't Michael Bolton.
--Office Space, 1999
Food and language intersect in interesting ways. I've talked about this before, with regards to my bowl of oxtail soup. Words, names, descriptions -- they can all influence or enhance a dining experience. If they didn't, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing. Nor would Homer Simpson follow a tasty-sounding word with a drooly gargle. "Mmmm... gummi beer... [drool noise]."
Thus, people get hung up on the words associated with the foods they eat, in good ways and in obsessive ways. Ask a Minnesotan if it's okay to spell "Jucy Lucy" with an "i". Ask an upstate New Yorker if it's okay to call a beef-on-weck just a sandwich. But much of the substance of gastronomic linguistics is in the assimilation of foreign words. "Escargot" soothes with its elegant pronunciation; "snails" does not. Menus can indicate that something is served with cooking juices, but "au jus" is not a noun, people!
Let's get right down to it, though, folks. The Asian continent is the cause of far and away the most angst-ridden Anglo take-out calls in the entire dining spectrum. Each linguistic subset poses its own difficulties. Southeast Asia uses a lot of the letter X, and I know I've mentioned before how scary that letter is. Japanese involves vowels strung together in ways that the American tongue just isn't prepared to tread. Indian? Well, let's just say that some of those words look more like the captioning of an orc-heavy scene in Lord of the Rings.
Moghlai. Chapati. Jalfrazie. Navaratan. A typical menu like that at Maharani is enough to make any timid tongue go running for the numerical designations of each item. And let's not forget rajbhog. With that J-B-H combo, it's easy to forget that Sanskrit provides much of the historical structure of the European tongues that gave rise to modern English.
If you're unsure of your Indian pronunciation, you can take solace in the fact that rajbhog (RAZH buh-HOG should do the trick) doesn't appear on any menus in Madison. But it can be found stacked high in the sweets aisle at Maharani Indian Grocery at 6717 Odana Rd. (608 827-7188).
In Indian, 'bhog' means 'delight.' 'Raj' is the equivalent of 'king.' Stands to reason that rajbhog would be a pretty decadent dessert, and it is indeed a complex and sumptuous treat. Typical recipes include pistachios and almonds, saffron and cardamom, plus milk and sugar. The syrup is often flavored with rose petals or rose water. Oh, and of course the cheese. Yes, this is a cottage cheese-centric dessert.
Okay, not exactly cottage cheese. Traditional preparation means traditional cheeses, and that means paneer or more specifically, chhena. It's indeed very similar to queso blanco, cottage or farmer cheese, squeezed and pressed into squeaky blocks and sliced accordingly. For rajbhog, the chhena is broken up and mixed with flour, then rolled into balls slightly bigger than golf balls. The chopped nuts are set into the center during rolling, and the finished products are immersed in the flavored sugar syrup. Heat and serve -- piece of cake, right? Frankly, that depends on how you like your cake.
The Maharani grocery, like rajbhog, is small but packed with goodies. There are a lot of spices, naturally; the dishes that Americans are most familiar with are often differentiated only by the spice profile. There's also a lot of pre-made items, frozen and awaiting only a warm-up. And there are the shelf-stable, prefab items like rajbhog. Seated amidst its rasgulla cousins cham cham and gulab jamun, rajbhog represents something of a departure from the cheeses and cheese-based sweets we know more familiarly in the States. It's canned, it's room temperature, and it's not exactly artisanal.
There are approximately eight rajbhog balls per canister. They're golden and bright, even under the thick distorting haze of sugar syrup. My first moment of apprehension came upon the discovery that there really aren't any serving instructions on the can's label. All I know is that they're generally served warm, so I plopped a couple in a dish and microwaved them with some syrup for about half a minute. I really didn't want scorched rajbhog, so maybe I was too conservative. I guess I'll never know.
I expected the liquid to be unctuous and overpowering even in in the air as I opened the can, but it's actually a thin and only mildly sweet syrup for being, y'know, liquid sugar. A very slight floral element only hinted at the presence of rosewater. The rajbhog plated with a thud, and I drizzled more of the heated syrup over each one. This proved ultimately unnecessary; these buggers are so aerated, they might each hold a couple tablespoons of syrup. My fork struggled to find purchase to cut through each ball, and syrup bubbled out around the tines. Turns out these rajbhog are about as easy to split with a fork as an actual sponge.
Cut in half, the rajbhog is a respectable bite. With the first chew, however, you'll discover as I did that these are more cheese than cake. They squeak. And not in an entirely pleasant way. A little too much like packing peanuts, and the taste is equally artificial. All that syrup does little to add flavor, and the pistachio at the center is too tiny to make a dent in what is essentially a big mouthful of squeaky, saffron-y flour and cheese. It took me way too long to work my way through that first bite.
There's an interesting aspect of rasgullas that I was unable to experience, and that's the silver foil garnish seen on most of the packages at Maharani. This foil is primarily decorative but edible, and is known as vark or varakh. Those who practice Jainism or veganism take issue with vark, as it has been reported to be produced with significant amounts of beef fat. The silver is placed in strips between vast sides of lard, which are in turn pounded until the silver is flattened to a foil without threat of tearing. Obviously, this would represent a problem for those who do not consume animal products, or any substance touched by animal products. I wish I could have had some just to see if there was a hint of beefy aftertaste, but it was not to be.
Faced with the rajbhog I had rather than the rajbhog I might have wanted, I was in no mood to finish the entire can, which is the only message conveyed by the sparse label: consume soon after opening. I've had tasty gulab jamun in the Maharaja lunch buffet, so I can't believe that rajbhog are that different as to be so off-putting.
Is this what other rasgullas really taste like? Or have I been taken in by the scam of ready-to-eat Indian junk food? If the convenience store stereotype were reversed, would Homer Simpson be selling this version of rajbhog to Apu in the Kolkata Kwik-e-Mart?
I mean, you could say that it serves me right for eating what you might call canned cheese.