Pantua is a local sweetmeat offering from West Bengal and the adjoining eastern parts of the Indian subcontinent. Perhaps the genesis of the name comes from 'panitua' or 'panitoba', where 'toba' means under and 'pani' refers to water. This would mean something that is under water or dunked in water. Such nomenclature is understandable as the sweet consists of a ball made of chhena (cheese curd) dough, semolina, flour, and powdered sugar. This is then kneaded to a fine paste and rolled in the middle of a greased palm.
Some Khoya (whole milk granules) and small pieces of sugar candy along with ghee are inserted into the balls. This is then lightly deep fried in oil or ghee. Care should be taken to not control the heat of the oil or ghee in the wok. It should be warm enough so that the white balls increase in size and slowly but steadily take a brownish hue.
Once the colour has attained a deep brown, the balls are carefully extracted and dunked into a flavoured sugar syrup in a wide bowl or container. The sugar syrup is generally flavoured with rose water or powdered cardamom. Slowly, the flavoured sweet syrup seeps into the brown textured ball giving rise to the delicately flavoured sweet Pantua.
Ancient east India was an agrarian society where every household would have herds of cows and water buffaloes for ploughing and providing milk. Maintaining the herd was also economic as they were all free range grazers. The cattle would be herded together and let loose in the fields for them to freely graze. They provided abundant supplies of milk, which even after consumption within the family would lie in excess. All the excess milk was thus creatively converted into sweets that could be preserved and kept for a while. Thus started the renaissance of Bengali sweets.
The Pantua naturally has many cousins, which have been adapted by many over time as a variant from its main recipe. Gulab Jamun is a variant popular across India, in which the main ingredient is khoya (concentrated whole milk granules) instead of Chhena. The Gulab Jamun is a lighter coloured version dunked in rose flavoured syrup. Then there is Langcha, the long cylindrical deep brown version as against a round Pantua. The Langcha's inception was from Shaktigarh, a village near Burdwan in West Bengal, also a very popular fried sweetmeat option.
But the crown jewel is undoubtedly the variant called Ledikeni or Lady Kenny. Legend has it that one of the main confectioners during Lord Canning’s reign as the Governor General of British India, Bhim Chandra Nag, made a special concoction of the Pantua by changing its shape and by tweaking some ingredients. The main difference was that this sweet was not dunked into the sugar syrup but only laced with the sugar syrup, perhaps to make it less sugary for the palate of Countess Charlotte Canning, on whose birthday this was offered.
The Countess, wife of Lord Charles Canning, the Governor General, appreciated and kept patronising her favourite sweet from the confectioner Bhim Nag. The sweet was thus christened 'Ledikeni' after the famous personality. But the mother of all recipes and a popular favourite still remains the Pantua.