The Legends Behind Bengal's Famous Sweets

The Legends Behind Bengal's Famous Sweets
For each type of sandesh, the chana is cooked with sugar or gur to a different grain of clots, Photo Credit: Shutterstock

A homage to the entrepreneurial spirit of Calcutta's historic mishti shops and their wonderful creations

Rimli Sengupta
October 15 , 2021
16 Min Read

If you could float around above Calcutta on any given evening you would see thousands of Bengali sweet shops — from neon-emblazoned giants to dim holes-in-the-wall in blind alleys — thronged with sweet-besotted Calcuttans eating millions of sweets and buying even more. Of these shops, there are a handful that were part of the original wave. They were born in Calcutta’s heyday in the 1800s, when a burst of intellectual flowering had invigorated every aspect of the city, from fine arts to business. These shops have defined the Bengali mishti while catering to the finicky Bengali sweet tooth; they have witnessed Calcutta being buffeted by the winds of history while keeping their own character largely intact. This is their story.

On a recent evening, I was standing at Nakur eating warm and runny makha sandesh off a sal leaf. When Nakur opened its doors in 1844 at this very alley in north Calcutta, Queen Victoria had just been coronated, Tagore and Vivekananda would not be born for another couple of decades, and Calcutta was a city of gas lights and horse-drawn carriages. These images jostled for room in my brain as I was being hypnotised by the makha sandesh: pristine milk notes subtly lifted by the complex, aromatic sweetness of nolen gur.

 
 
 
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The scene around me was pure theatre: at one end was the counter where eager customers lined up to eat fresh sandesh; inside the shop, colourful regulars lounged with the proprietor chewing the fat on the day’s developments; and in the back, the kitchen was a Dantesque vision of fire and vast cauldrons, with a dozen men making mishti in full flow.

The Making of Mishti

Mishtis are made of milk solids, or chana. You can turn chana into deep-fried syrupy mishtis like pantua and lengcha, or boiled syrupy mishtis like rashogolla and chamcham. If you leave the chana mostly alone you get sandesh, which is best eaten fresh. For each type of sandesh, the chana is cooked with sugar or gur to a different grain of clots. As the clots dissolve in your mouth, the milk makes its presence felt. Sandesh, an urbane taste, demands quiet attention. It was introduced in Calcutta by Bhim Nag in 1826.

This venerable mishti shop still stands at its original location in Bowbazar. Some of its classics, such as the paradise sandesh, are as popular today as they were 150 years ago. But Bhim Nag was never a sandesh specialist. In fact, the most famous Bhim Nag mishti is the deep-fried syrupy ledikeni that was created for and named after Lady Canning when she arrived in Calcutta with her husband in 1856, in the electric days before the Sepoy Mutiny.

Nakur has always been a purist: sandesh and nothing but. On the evening I visited, 1,000 litres of milk had just arrived and was being boiled and curdled into chana in batches, slow-drained, and taken to the heart of Nakur’s sandesh operation: Uchit Narayan, chana-maestro. A wiry man with an easy smile, Uchit sat on his haunches kneading a cloud of chana. This evening, he was going to produce 13 different qualities of kneading. Some he kneads barely at all, some he leaves medium grains in, and some he works into a smooth fluff. Each is the starting point of a different sandesh.

In an hour, he had worked through nearly 40 kilos of chana while chatting with me. It would be the wee hours and 300 kilos before he was done. During the festive season his load is twice as much. And he has been doing this every night for 24 years. I’ve always been a Nakur fan, but seeing Uchit at work I felt that I need to rise to Uchit’s finesse to deserve him. Next time I eat a Nakur sandesh I need to watchfully savour the build and think of Uchit’s hands.

While sandesh is a Calcutta original, rashogolla most likely came to the city from Orissa. This early avatar is still common in Puri and Cuttack. Having tasted it I can say that it is denser, less elastic, and more syrupy than the current Calcutta rashogolla. Nabin Chandra Das of Bagbazar tweaked the original for longer shelf life and introduced the ‘sponge’ rashogolla in 1868. His son K.C. Das turned this into a vast empire of tinned rashogollas. But a serious rashogolla eater in Calcutta wouldn’t be caught dead with a K.C. Das tin.

The tins are meant for those in exile for whom the rashogolla needs to travel. For rashogolla, Calcutta goes to Chittaranjan, a Shyambazar shop founded in 1907.

Chittaranjan is a rashogolla specialist. Its 3rd generation proprietor, Nitai Ghosh, is a rotund man with an infectious belly laugh who is passionate about making and eating rashogollas. Rashogollas are simply chana kneaded into a smooth paste, rolled into balls, boiled in light syrup until plump, and then dropped in heavier syrup. And yet, a perfect rashogolla can be as elusive as a moonbeam. Nitai Ghosh knows; he has been on that trail for 40 years using dairy technology and taste focus-groups. In his factory, the steps in making and kneading the chana are largely mechanised, but the rolling and the crucial boiling of the rashogollas are still manual.

In exchange for his efforts, Nitai expects his rashogolla eaters to learn the art of eating rashogollas. He first had me clean my palate with water and brought out a few fresh, warm rashogollas. He opened one up and showed me the filigree of the honeycombed interior.

Then he insisted that I pick one up with my fingers. It felt surprisingly soft, like the underbelly of a baby bird. By now I was in a zen-like state. I squeezed out the syrup and popped it in my mouth. The texture was perfectly toothsome but not rubbery. The taste was all milk, and just milk, a fresh spurt with each chew. There was no furry-tongued aftertaste. This was a sublime rashogolla. So I ate another one, and this time kept my eyes open so I could watch Nitai’s pleasure in watching my pleasure.

 
 
 
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Calcutta’s historic mishti shops are concentrated in the north: the locus of 19th-century Bengali wealth, ideas and literature. The litterateurs of Calcutta, Tagore among them, have always been passionate about their mishti and never shy about publicly extolling the virtues of their favourite shops. Sandeep Sen, 4th generation proprietor at Sen Mahashay established in Shyambazar in 1885, told me that the shop was nameless for the first 40 years. Across the alley was the office of Shonibarer Chithi, a leading literary journal, where Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay and others would gather for evening chitchat and sandesh from Sen’s. They coined the name ‘Sen Mahashay’ to force customers into showing the respect they thought their favourite mishti shop deserved.

 

Balaram Mullick is Calcutta’s only legacy mishti shop that is not in the north. It opened in 1885 at Bhawanipur, which was then the city’s southern fringe and was starting to become wealthy. Sudip Mullick, 4th generation, mentioned how neighbourhood giant Ashutosh Mukherjee used to come by in his phaeton to eat his favourite guli sandesh. And now, a hundred years later, his descendant Chittatosh Mukherjee, former Chief Justice of Calcutta and Bombay High Courts, comes by in his Swift for the same guli sandesh. In addition to other traditional favourites like the exquisite makha sandesh and narom-pak jolbhora, Balaram serves up some truly exciting innovations including the baked rashogolla and amrita paturi sandesh.

 
 
 
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Each of these venerable mishti shops constantly strives to keep up with the shifting Bengali palate while fielding the demand for classics. Partha Nandy, 5th generation at Nakur, said that this challenge is what keeps him interested. Nakur’s response has been a range of dark chocolate sandesh that is wildly popular. But more titillating is their range of liquor sandesh — whiskey, rum, and vodka —  which you cannot buy over the counter.

In recent years, Calcutta has come to expect, indeed demand, mishtis with seasonal ingredients. Dwarik Ghosh, another Shyambazar institution founded in 1885, popularised nolen gur in the 1930s with the catchy phrase sheeter shanjibani — winter’s elixir. Nolen gur is date palm sap cooked down to sludge, whose bouquet blooms as winter deepens. Back then nolen gur was mainly eaten alone. Now not even the smallest mishti shop would be caught without nolen gur sandeshes during the winter months. And in the searing heat of May, Sen Mahashay creates the kanthal sandesh, with fresh jackfruit pulp blended in with the chana.

The extreme longevity of Calcutta’s historic mishti shops stands in stark contrast with the decimated state of Bengali entrepreneurship in the city. That these businesses have been able to field someone per generation to keep the family flag flying seems nothing short of a miracle. But what does the future hold? Some of these shops, such as Balaram, Chittaranjan and Sen Mahashay, are in expansion mode, with significant mechanisation over the past few years. Some others are in contraction. But Nakur appears to be in stasis.

They make a certain amount of sandeshes every day, entirely by hand, just as they always have. And a doting public wolfs them down in a few hours, just as they always have. What does it take to vend a product loved by millions and remain a corner shop for 165 years?

On a recent late afternoon, Bhim Nag was abuzz with folks stopping by on their way home from work. Against this tide an old woman shuffled in, her sari hitched halfway to her knees, and ordered one chamcham. She took off her teeth and placed it on the sal leaf she was eating off and worked on the chamcham with her bare gums, slowly, deliberately.

Her jaws clamped shut unimpeded until her sunken cheeks puffed out with their precious load. In out, in out, she rolled the mishti around in her mouth to not overload any one part of her gums. I was very taken by her focus and realised that she had removed her teeth to prolong her pleasure. Eyes closed, she was afloat in a private bliss bubble and didn’t notice Bhim Nag beaming at her from his garlanded frame on the wall.

As the early winter evening fell, the light from Bhim Nag’s glow signs glanced off the tram tracks on Nirmal Chandra Dey Street. The flow of homeward bound mishti-lovers ebbed. My thoughts turned to Uchit Narayan. Soon, the milk trucks will arrive at Nakur. As Calcutta sleeps, a man will work bare-handed through a mountain of chana that by dawn will turn into little jolts of excellence for a fossil city that no longer aspires.

The information

Nabin Chandra Das 77 Jatindra Mohan Avenue, Bagbazar.

Known for: Rashogolla, rashomalancha, ratabi sandesh, abar khabo.

Dwarik Ghosh 126A Bidhan Sarani, Shyambazar.

Known for: Ice cream sandesh, kesar sandesh, rashomadhuri, amrita rabri.

Chittaranjan Mishtanno Bhandar 34B Shyambazar Street, Shyambazar.

Known for: Rashogolla, madhuparka.

Sen Mahashay  1/1C Shibdas Bhaduri Street, Shyambazar.

Known for: Darbesh, ledikeni, kanthal sandesh, mihidana, mishti doi.

Girish Chandra De-Nakur Chandra Nandy (called Nakur) 56 Ramdulal Sarkar Street, Manicktala.

Known for: Golapi penda, mousumi, parijat, babu sandesh, gurer kanchagolla, chocolate jol bhora. Their liquor sandeshes are not for sale over the counter due to a liquor license issue. They are only available on order at the Nakur branch at Spencer’s store at 145 Rashbehari Avenue. Minimum order size: 20 pcs.

Bhim Nag 5 Nirmal Chandra Dey Street, Bowbazar.

Known for: Paradise sandesh, rose-cream sandesh, abar khabo, dilkhush, chamcham, mihidana.

K.C. Das 11A&B Esplanade East. Chowringhee.

Known for: Rashogolla, rashomalai, amrita kalash, chanar payesh.

Balaram Mullick and Radharaman Mullick 2 Padmapukur Road, Bhawanipur.

Known for: Makha sandesh, narom-pak jolbhora, chocolate bon bon, baked rashogolla, amrita paturi sandesh, aam doi.

This article is from our Story Bank.


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