I love Bengalis (Bongs) and feel particularly blessed to have known quite a few of them well and they enriched my life in so many many ways that a simple ‘thanks’ does not even moderately convey the gratitude I need to express. (but this blog should do).
One of the most divine man-made creations or should I say bong-made creations is their sweet MOA (pronounced MOE-WA). Here’s the fun fact I have eaten exactly three pieces of these in my life-time and yet each one of them have such a distinct place in my heart they easily make it to my all-time favorite lists. I personally think every Indian should eat it and be familiar with it, as its one of the most superlative creations I have had the privilege of experiencing.
A short preamble of where I am coming from, in my present state (not when I first tried it). After traveling to many places and being out of India a good half of my life, my love for Indian sweets which I could devour endlessly when young, has turned more into tolerance as I can barely eat even a few pieces as I recently discovered. Also there was a bit of envy after trying some fabulous desserts abroad. Now, the robust flavors of both Indian and some western desserts would be a great loveable knockout experience when I was young. But when I eventually tried some of the Japanese and Korean desserts (the only foods I can try from that cuisine, given that I am a vegetarian) and also similar & inspired Thai desserts I found that they were in a different league as they were possibly the most perfect and complete food in every way from presentation to the delicate, subtle, layered flavors, texture, portion and the only way to eat them was in a ritual that was more of a prayer as they deserved to be worshipped.
The reason for this long preamble is the fact that IMHO the Moa is possibly one of the few Indian desserts that beats both the Western as well as the East Asian fare hands down in every count. Remember if I have eaten only three pieces of Moa and still remember them, and can testify they were something else.
When I moved to Mumbai and started working in the lovely cosmopolitan environment, I had the pleasure of trying out both global as well as regional cuisines (as much as a veg can) and thought I had seen and tried all of them thanks to the generosity of my colleagues and clients.
In my third year there, one of my bong colleagues (SB) had returned from her wedding and bought back some sweets in celebration and she came to my desk to share one of the pieces and left it on my desk as she moved to the others. This looked like a blob of white -brown mess and seemed rather simply. The portion was enough to be eaten at one go, and I just placed it in my mouth and let me tell you, it was like being transported into another world. This was delicate, subtle with hardly a texture as it appeared to be mostly air-filled but seemed to have a level of mild sweetness that was unique - and a flavor so subtle, it had to be only gently conveyed as this portion lingered over your tongue barely for a few seconds before melting into an experience i.e. a burst of a ‘high’ that very few non-contraband foods can provide.
I seemed stunned for sometime and was wondering what had happened, and it truly was incomprehensible because the food had already disapeared, it was an intangible, surreal experience and not so much a sweet that I had consumed and could explain. The lightness of this was its unique feature (and perhaps a sweet unlikely to make you put on weight, I think).
I reached out to my recently married colleague SB to ask her about what this was and she exuberantly (as most bongs I’ve met normally are) explained that this was a sweet available only in Winter and lasts only for a few days, and then explained to me how the name had to be pronounced. She had more or less exhausted her box of that sweet and then went on to give me her last one left in the box - her piece and this time, I took small bites and enjoyed every bit of it but still couldn't place most of the experience - it was more intangible than anything I had eaten and very very difficult to identify or explain what this was. A lot of it felt familiar but alien at the same time
She then told me that this was made from a variety of puffed rice (not the same one used in Rice Krispies) - one which is ridged and has some of the kernel skin on it and is light at the same time. The rest she didn't know but guessed that this used milk as its base- like all other bengali sweets are made of.
I never got to eat this for nearly a decade later when I was back in India and one of my colleagues was visiting Kolkata for some work, and it was in December. I put in a request and he got this box for the office and I had this one portion again and it was as mind blowing as the first time I had tried it. He told me that the best (or rather the only) Moas to be eaten were the Jayanagarer Moas - the original method which cannot be duplicated as the recipe while sounding very very simple is extremely deceptive. The method of preparation and some secret ingredients, available only locally make it hard.
The puffed rice would be mixed with a somewhat pasty syrupy mixture of a special local jaggery (palm sugar) and thick milk protein similar to condensed milk, but freshly produced. There might be some flavoring thrown in which was more of the original raw ingredient - usually a few pods of cardamom but very little of it, most likely to be incorporated when heating the milk. The resultant mixture was shaped into simple shaped balls which looked inelegant but distinct, and the fact that almost no effort was taken in this strangely also made it unique in its own way. BTW the jayanagarer Moa has got a GI recognition).
The only hitch with all of this - this needs to be consumed within a day or two of production. Which is one of the reasons the original is so rarely eaten or available. Not only the local ingredients but also the method means this simply cannot be re-produced easily elsewhere and I haven't eaten this anywhere else.
But I long for it…