A Highway to Somewhere
Most of Bengal's famous sweets come from Kolkata, but some particular ones have the names of other places attached to them.. Many of these places remain off the map for all but a small number of people who lived or went through those places. Shaktigarh, whose reputation rests on the langcha - is one such place.
The common langcha, an elongated brown sausage of a sweet that adorns the counters of every mishti-shop in sight, is usually a distant cousin to the rossogolla, the chamcham, the sandesh, the mishti doi - more a change of palate than anything worth pursuing on its own. All that changes, though, when you come to the Shaktigarhi variant. Bigger, bolder, a much darker brown and dangerously addictive - this is no pale second-rung sweet. Its hard to believe that there can be anything uplifting about filling a longish paneer sausage with khoa and frying it in ghee, but the best of Shaktigarh is simply outstanding. The magic is in the quality of the ingredients, the mix and the precise process - there's variance even within Shaktigarh, with some very average shops and a couple of outstanding ones.
For those who've never come near one, a Shaktigarh langcha is not unlike an elongated gulab jamun - but there are some differences. The skin is noticeably more chewy, the inside soft, fluffy and very white. Bad ones have hard centres, great ones ooze perfect soft, billowy white creaminess. The special version uses khoa (mawa) in the filling, which gives the centre more creaminess than the ordinary variety. You have to eat it warm or room temperature though; cold makes it unappealing.
For the longest while, however, the reputation of these langchas far exceeded their availability; I lived for over a decade within a hundred miles of Shaktigarh, yet managed to have it only once or twice. What changed things was the Expressway, which decide to go through Shaktigarh; suddenly there was this spanking new four-lane road connecting this rural hamlet to Kolkata, Durgapur, Asansol and busloads of people in between. The intersection where the expressway connects to the road leading to Shaktigarh station is strip about half a kilometre long lined with langcha shops.
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On my first highway visit to Shaktigarh, there were just a handful of small stalls selling the langchas. Barely more than roadside shacks, they were already doing great business; indeed the busiest one claimed to be selling over seven thousand a day. That time, in my usual quest for the best, I actually tried every stall and found a winner. On my recent visit, however, I was amazed. The shacks had multiplied, and become far shinier and fancier. Instead of a couple, there was now more than a dozen each named with every variant of house you can imagine in Bengali - from the humble nook to palaces, mahals and and even a bhuban (universe).
I couldn't resist doing the survey again, though this time trying every shop wasn't an option. All of Shaktigarh's langchas are a cut above most found anywhere else, but as before, there is plenty of difference between the shops. I tried a few at random, the ones nearest to where we had parked. The only langcha shop that did not carry a bhaban/mahal kind of name was one that proclaimed Kaushik Ghosher Langcha. This got me excited enough to try and cross the road for a taste of one of them, but their langchas were quite avoidable. The winner, in my short survey, was Adi Langcha Bhaban (pictured below). Their card informed us they were present on both up and down lanes; both branches are at the Kolkata end of the strip, on either side of the road. In particular, their special langcha (khoya added to regular langcha, fried slightly more) is outstanding. Beware of imitators, though - right next to it is Langcha Bhuban - nearly identical signage (even the colours are copied) but noticeably poorer langchas.