A full moon, round and plump, the faint brown of burnt sugar, sails over a dark blue china sky. It lies placid and tranquil, a poem out of Shirshendu, though certainly not the singed-toast full moon that he describes. This belongs to soft early spring nights, moist with promise, or, even better, to crisp, cold winter nights when its steam mists the blue china. A cold crescent of stainless steel descends, squeezes and slow golden honey oozes out of the moon, the honey of notun gur.
It’s the cold that does it—sets the sap rising in the date palm stems and gives the favourite mishtis of Bengal their unforgettable flavour. Yes, yes, every season in Bengal is mishti season, but winter is open season if there ever was such a thing. That’s when nolen gur, the new young gur, runs brown, lending its smoky sweetness to chhana and milk.
You rummage through the mishti shops to see whether the sandeshes have the right tinge that whiter shade of pale brown, with shapes borrowed from the fruit with a drop of gur inside. They have to be just the right texture; otherwise the sandesh will absorb it before it touches your tongue. Kanchagolla, the earliest of the sandeshes, the soft melt-in-your-mouth balls which are the stage after the Makha Sandesh. Not bad for an accidental mishti discovery—the confectioners of Bengal, or moiras, found themselves faced with curdled milk in an unusually hot summer, whipped it together with sugar and gur, and offered it to their customers.
Unlike most Indian sweets, Bengali mishti is made from curdled milk, or chhana. The story goes that the rest of India thought that allowing milk to curdle was a sin. The moiras of Bengal apparently got around the forbidden aspect by deliberately cutting it with acid. Once that was accepted, there was no looking back.
Dwarik Ghosh, one of the legendary North Kolkata shops, put out advertisements for Nolen Gurer Sandesh every winter that were the first of their kind in Bengal. The sandeshes were known to the bhadralok of Bengal as sheeter sanjivani, the best way to stay happy and healthy in the cold weather.
Not that putting gur into mishti started with sandesh. Payesh has that honour, deep brown and creamy, lingering on the spoon and on the tongue. No one is really sure when the first grandmother started stirring cauldrons full of milk and rice to make kheer, but the dessert is mentioned in the Vedas and is probably one of the oldest in the world. It makes a dramatic appearance in the Ramayana where the then-childless Raja Dasaratha held a Putra Yameshti Yagya so that his queens could conceive. Out of the sacred fire appeared a sage holding a golden pot of payasam. Epics apart, the logic behind the importance of kheer is easy to follow. Rice is the first of the foods and in Sanskrit the word for rice and food, ‘anna’, is the same. In Bengal, kheer is actually known as ‘paramanna’: rice, milk and jaggery slow-cooked for hours over a smoke fire and brought to the table piping hot on winter evenings. The oldest of kheer recipes goes back some 2,000 years.
Winter brings Makar Sankranti and the Poush Mela to rural Bengal. There, as villagers celebrate the harvest and the full moon, they make Pithes out of rice, flour and sweet potato, stuffing them with kheer and grated coconut, sweetening them with more gur. To call them rice cakes, as many do, is to underestimate their complexity and textures. The simplest is the Rasbora, made from lentil paste, whipped up like an omelette and fried in little round balls. These are then dipped in syrup and served. Or there’s the Puli Pithe, a rich dumpling stuffed with grated coconut, gur and kheer.
These are celebrations of the fruits of the harvest and belong to huddles of huts grouped by a pond and fringed by khejur (date palm) trees, or to a sprawling mansion by the same pond, part of a fast vanishing world. Pithes are rough rural things with the fingerprints of the maker still impressed in some of them, but you might find a Pithe festival by accident in a remote corner of Kolkata, or encounter a relative who knows how to stir a maid into activity.
Narkol Naru, lost in translation as ‘sticky coconut balls’, is another of those vanishing ritual mishtis. Rolled gur and grated coconut, they are served up to the goddess during Saraswati Puja and then distributed to the yellow-saried devotees. Like the Pithe, Narkol Narus are hard to find in shops and, even when found, don’t taste quite the same.
In the middle of the winter smog and the bustle of the Kolkata streets you can spot hawkers trying to sell an out-of-town delicacy, the 300-year-old Joynagarer Moa. Balls of muri or flaky chirey and gur —what distinguishes one from the other is the authenticity factor: were they really made in Joynagar or somewhere in Kolkata? The small 24 Parganas town has been making moas for as long as anyone can remember and what sets them apart is the gur flavour. It’s easier to get it with the Muri Moas, which are brown and sticky, but the creamy ones are the test case and one bite of those can tell you where they come from within three villages.
Winter also gives rise to the Notun Gurer Rossogolla. At this stage, most non-Bengalis sit up and say, “What? Is there such a thing?” The Notun Gurer Rossogolla was probably created for the same reason that the rossogolla originally was — people were getting tired of dry sandeshes and wanted a juicy mishti that would tempt a gourmand’s palate. Everyone has heard of the rossogolla. Naveen Chandra Das invented it and gave it a local habitation and a name and earned himself the title of ‘the Columbus of Baghbazar’. The rossogolla is one of the icons of Bengal: abroad, these ‘squeaky cheese balls’ are served hot with ice cream in tea centres from Sydney to Los Angeles.
The Notun Gurer Rossogolla is of more recent vintage. It first floated across my horizon at a Bengal Club party. There, at the end of acres of crisp white tablecloth, was a deep tureen full of caramel moons. “What on earth is this?” asked corporate captains and socialites in filmy chiffons, staring. The first theory was that this was a caramelised rossogolla. Then someone looked at the menu. For most people it was love at first bite. The squeaky clean of pure paneer, combined with the dark-brown taste of notun gur in its full flush of ripeness. “Where do you get it?” the ladies clamoured. But the president’s wife was not willing to divulge her dark brown arts.
Now the Notun Gurer Rossogolla can be found in every narrow galli mishtir dokan and on every high road that boasts a sweet shop with a renowned name. Sweets have a habit of catching on in every nook and cranny of the city — Mamata Banerjee’s recent fast caused the footpath mishti vendors in the area to reap rich rewards simply because so many people came out to take the evening air, gape at the political tamasha and taste a little sweetness.
Baked sandesh is another winter variation on a theme — Makha Sandesh with gur in it, baked in the oven and served piping hot at the end of biye bari (wedding) buffets. Browned on top to add a crispy accent. The steam can be seen on the cold night air and the diner swoons in an ecstasy of anticipation. Most of the socialites in chiffons like to boast that theirs is the best and refuse to reveal the name of the treasure who made it, usually a caterer rather than a sweet shop. Even five-star hotels have been known to get into the game, rather more successfully than they usually do where Bengali mishti is concerned.
But then five-star hotels have also been known to come up with concoctions like the Sandesh Roulade. The Oberoi Grand put one together and it combines vanilla sponge, pastry cream and nolen gur with sandesh, then coated with kesar rabri. But it only goes to show that while Bengalis mutter “cholchey cholbey” where their politics are concerned, they won’t tolerate boredom in their mishtis.
There was a whisper that the Jadavpur University R&D lot had managed to distil gur, so that the essential flavour would be available all year round, rather like bottled vanilla, without having to wait for the sap to rise and the temperatures to drop. Quite a few Bengalis rejoiced in the thought of gur on tap, but somehow the experiment hasn’t been quite successful. Distilled gur lacks that thing. It’s like the Soya Chhana Sandeshes that can be seen around, an ersatz appearance of reality.
Kolkata has sweet shops on every corner. Below are just a few of the infinite variety that the city offers.
Balaram Mullick, Bhowanipore, # 2 Padmapukur Road (24759490): At the bhadro Bangali confectioner in the heart of Jadu Babu’s Bazaar, you can get roses and strawberry hearts moulded out of pink sandesh for Valentine’s Day. In winter they turn out the best Notun Gurer Rossogollas in town. They are also one of the few shops that offer Makha Sandesh in its almost original incarnation.
Girish Chandra De-Nakur Ch Nandy, 56 Ramdulal Sarkar Street, North Kolkata (22410048): This shop is known for its expertise in Jalbhara Sandeshes. Apart from Mousumi, Parijat and Babu Sandesh, the establishment offers soft sandesh in fruit flavours—orange, pineapple and strawberry.
Ganguram Sweets, 41 Bipin Behari Ganguly Street (22368087): Ganguram and Sons set up shop in 1885 and soon earned a reputation for the excellence of its doi. The shop in its various incarnations offers confections like the Indrani that can’t be found anywhere else.
Mithai, 48B Syed Amir Ali Avenue (22473590): They now have branches, but the one on the corner of Beckbagan and Lower Circular Road stands apart for its Notun Gurer Sandeshes. Mithai is famous for inventing the sandesh birthday cake, which gives die-hard ethnicity fans a unique option. It is also known for its Notun Gurer Sandeshes in winter, especially the Kanchagollas.
Gopal Halder, on Mayfair, straddles a drain, which some people suggest gives the shop’s confectionery its unique flavour. Their speciality is the Bengali version of rabri, creamy layers upon layers of curd. However, it has to be booked in advance and collected after 7pm.
Mukherjee Sweets, 29/1B Ballygunge Place (24404965): This is a hive of activity in the evenings, local domestics rushing to get a little something for the babu’s tea. Their mishti speciality is the Shorbhaja.
Dwarik’s, 126A Bidhan Sarani (255545784): Dwarik’s, which shifted in 1885 from Howrah to Shyampukur, still has three shops in the city. They stock the age-old favourites: Kesar Sandesh, Dilkhush and Rasa Madhuri, along with Tripti, a sandesh sandwiched with Cashew and Amrit Rabri.
Sen Mahasay, Bhowanipore, 40A Ashutosh Mukherjee Road (24551135); Fariapukur,1 Shibdas Bhaduri Street (25555022, 25553319); Lake Market, 171H Rashbehari Avenue (24406373): Say Sen Mahasay in Kolkata and most people chime in with ‘Mishti Doi’. However, there’s a lot more to the shop than Mishti Soi. Asutosh Sen set it up in Fariapukur Street in 1897. The shop is famous for its rich Ratabi Sandesh and the rose-flavoured pink Peda. In winter you can try the Kanchagolla.
Naba Krishna Guin, Nirmal Chandra Street (9830146030): Known for its Ratabi and Rose-cream Sandeshes and Chandan Kheer.
Putiram’s, 46/4 Mahatma Gandhi Road (23543837): Apart from the Coffee House, Putiram’s in College Street was the alternative gathering place for revolutionaries and intellectuals. There they fuelled their theories on the huge Raj Bhogs, the rose-scented rossogollas that are richly rotund and made with 15 secret ingredients. You can also find rarities like the Chop Sandesh, which looks like a chop, and the pale-yellow flat Biscuit Sandesh.
KC Das, 11A&B Esplanade (East), (22485920): It’s usually standing-room-only in this Esplanade branch of the shop started by Nabin Chandra Das’ grandson. Apart from their rossogollas they have kheer innovations, including the delicious Amrit Kalash and Chhanar Payesh.
Surya Kr Modak Great Grandson (26336305, 26839383): Well off the beaten track in Chandannagor, this shop sends Jal Bhora Sandeshes and motichur flying out to Switzerland. Surya Kumar Modak invented the Jal Bhora Sandesh, which, like the Jal Bhora Talsansh, cradles a drop of rose water in summer and nolen gur in winter. Tagore, Bengal’s greatest arbiter of taste, was a fan of the shop.
Jadav Chandra Das, 127A Rashbehari Avenue (22410417, 24640162): This sweet shop is famous for its white variation of the Mishti Doi theme.
Jalajog, inventors of the Lal Doi that Tagore loved and christened ‘Payodhi’. His picture and testimonial letter could once be found on the walls of the older shops. The shops are now restricted to Deshapriya Park and Lake Market and mainly sell cakes.
Nabin Chandra Das, 77 Jatindra Mohan Avenue, North Kolkata (25545689): Known for its Jolbhora in winter.
Banchharam, 19 Gariahat Road (24402133): Noteworthy for its rosomalai, Pantua and Doi.
Hindustan Sweets 58/1 Central Road, Jadavpur (24122797, 24125713): Off the beaten track near the Jadavpur bus stand, they make good rosomalai.
Rasona, Ballygunge Station Road (24406852): Run by a women’s organisation, this is one of the few places that turns out Pithe and Patishapta in season.
Visit Bhim Chandra Nag, the shop that the inventor of the sandesh built. Still near the crowded crossing of College Street and Bowbazar, the shop has entertained customers like Rani Rashmoni. In 1920 there were at least 45 kinds of sandesh available every day. Today it offers a variety of traditional sandeshes, like the 50-year-old Victoria, which was revived on popular demand. Their chhanar sandesh is also quite outstanding. 5 Nirmal Chandra Street, North Kolkata (22120465, 22697908)