Mishti is the sweetest word in Bengali language. It means 'sweet' and it sounds sweet. Bengali girls are often named Mishti—they look sweet, they sound sweet; all of it can by and large can be called a sweet affair.
I recall a famous Bengali movie that came out a few years back called Maach Mishti & More—the name was such that one won't forget it for years. I often wonder where would Bengal go if not for mishti, and how would Bengalis survive life's trifles and troubles without this sweet lifelong affair. Bengal’s economy is highly, if not totally, dependent on Bengalis' love for mishti.
Although it is an evergreen phenomenon in the life of a Bong, come December and the charm of the mishti heightens manifold. This happens with the support of nolen gur or date palm jaggery. But winter or no winter, the charm of Bengal’s sweet affair is far from fading.
So, here is a 'tiny' list of West Bengal’s sweetest delicacies in various shapes and forms. I came across these during my last visit to Kolkata, having seen some fifteen odd varieties of sweets in my own home in a stint of a little more than a couple of days.
Nolen Gur'er Soufflé
A thick layer of creamy jaggery soufflé over a thick layer of soft sondesh, this will have you licking your lips. Let me first introduce the star ingredient: nolen (new) gur. It is a word that makes every Bong skip a heartbeat and go weak in their knees. It is date palm jaggery, an extremely seasonal product that Bengalis buy during winter and store in a refrigerator forever. It is made from the first flush of juice from the date palm trees. Only the first flush makes a premium quality nolen gur, rest goes to make other inferior variants of jaggery.
West Bengal’s villages are the actual creators of this jaggery, with Nadia, North and South 24 Parganas, Murshidabad and Malda districts being the key contributors. Every evening during winters, earthen containers are tied to date palm trees to catch the oozing sap. The date palm juice is then retrieved from the trees before sunrise and is then heated to convert it into jaggery.
Then they sell it in different varieties to different kinds of customers, after which it reaches every corner of West Bengal. No wonder the jaggery is perceived as premium and is quite highly priced. The famous Amitabh Bachchan movie Saudagar (1973) revolved around the same theme, and was based on the Bengali short story Ras by Narendranath Mitra.
Going back to this heavenly dessert, it seems to be the original creation of one of the most popular sweet chains of Bengal, Balaram Mullick and Radharaman Mullick. The bottom layer is made of a soft variant of sondesh made of nolen gur, known as makha sondesh. Above makha sondesh lies a thick layer of soufflé, again made of nolen gur. It is rich in taste and gorgeous to look at. This sweet may have different variants, like come summer and the jaggery soufflé gets replaced by mango soufflé.
Baked Sondesh Roll
This one has a slightly baked rosogolla (rasgulla) wrapped in a thick layer of baked sondesh! That means it is a huge slice of thick sondesh rolled carefully after placing a rosogolla inside it. As one takes a bite of this, I found an interesting blend of flavours—the softly sweetened sondesh first, followed by a more sweeter, baked rosogolla. Overall I found this sweet quite delicious.
Now, sondesh is a famous dessert said to have originated somewhere around the 16th century in the larger Bengal region. It is mostly made of kheer or chhena (cottage cheese). Interestingly, using curdled milk was a taboo in India in the earlier times, marking it inauspicious. But chhena became an important raw material for making sweets courtesy the first set of western influence in the form of Portuguese who reached Kolkata through its port and settled at Chittagong initially, which was then part of undivided India but now falls in Bangladesh and later spread to parts of Hooghly district.
Sondesh means news or message. Bengalis practiced this tradition of sending sweets or food as a gift to families and friends and hence the sweet got its name. In fact sweets remain the one important gift to be carried while visiting someone even now. In West Bengal, even now, any form or variant of sweet can be found in every household, almost every day.
Sondesh is commonly prepared by using chhena by tossing it with sugar over a low flame. Later this hot, sweetened chhena is shaped into small balls which are called ‘Kanchagolla’. This is the most simple version of sondesh. This sweet is then put in a small use and throw bowl for serving to customers.
I learnt that many years ago when the extreme heat of Kolkata summers, chhena rotting was a big wastage. To counter this daily wastage of a tasteless but useful by-product of milk, it was mixed with the molasses or sugar and a fine paste was made out of it. One inquisitive person started mixing sugar, khoya (milk fudge) and cardamom powder with it and it finally resulted in beautiful and awesome tasting paste known as makha sondesh. That was the first form of the sondesh, known to Bengalis.
The same sondesh can be prepared in different complex ways and that gives rise to other variants where it is filled with syrup, blended with coconut or kheer, and moulded into a variety of shapes.
Sondesh is a symbol of fusion of the two cultures, Bengali and Portuguese, because Portuguese loved their cheese! First sondesh with chhena was made in Hooghly district in West Bengal. A small town called Bandel in Hooghly district was another important settlement of Portuguese in West Bengal. It is said that the local cooks (mostly Indian and Burmese) learnt the art of curdling milk to create chhena from their Portuguese masters and spread the word among their own people. That’s how the knowledge about it spread and hence our current-day sondesh and rosogolla were born.
Joynagar'er Moa is made with nolen gur (jaggery made from date palm tree extract), kanakchur khoi (a form of popped rice made from a special variety of aromatic rice), ghee, cardamom, raisins, cashew nuts, etc. No wonder this one is a seasonal sweet, available only during winters because both the key ingredients, date palm jaggery and kanakchur khoi are available only during winters.
This sweet is a specialty sweet of a place called Joynagar in South 24 Parganas in West Bengal. All these years the sweet came to Kolkata from Joynagar itself. But recently many sweet makers in Kolkata have also started making it, sometimes by using artificial ingredients only for the sake of its popularity.
This delicacy obtained the GI tag in 2014 and was exported for the first time this year after 117 years of its birth! GI tag signifies a product has a specific geographical origin and enjoys a reputation because of it. This gives the certificate of authenticity only to some 25 shops in Joynagar only. Nevertheless, I found this sweet from Balaram Mullick and Radharaman Mullick genuinely delectable and flavourful.
Shankha Sondesh (Conch-Shaped Sandesh)
There can be different types of sondesh, be it in shape or raw material. This one’s a date palm jaggery one, found during winters. The same sweet can be made with sugar during rest of the year. Even the shape of the conch may vary depending on the mould being used. This is a slightly hardened form of makha sondesh, a common variant made of jaggery. It can also be called winter special sondesh.
The soft and moist chhena is cooked with the perfect ratio of sugar/jaggery, cardamom powder and put in different moulds to make sondesh. The same sondesh can have rose water or vanilla as an ingredient for flavour, or become a mango sondesh during winters. It’s about tweaking it slightly based on the seasonal ingredients. The sondesh and its many variants, can make you swoon with delight. In fact, noted food historian Colleen Taylor Sen rightly calls sondesh the ‘Emblem of Bengaliness’.
I have a very fond childhood memory associated with sondesh. As a child I would visit my maternal home in central Kolkata almost every year, where brothers of my maternal grandfather lived with their families. That one was an old and huge house, with multiple rooms and a big courtyard, each room inhabited by one family. So I had not one but many grandfathers to pamper me. I called one of them, ‘hansh dadu’ meaning ‘duck grandfather’ as he would take me for a walk in the evening and get me a duck-shaped sondesh from a small shop close to the children’s park, every day. The sondesh was not important to me, the duck was!
This one is an interesting fusion of sondesh and chocolate. The proportion of chocolate may vary for different formats of this kind of sweet. Liquid chocolate can be used as an icing on a sondesh or it can be out an out a chocolate sondesh with cocoa powder well mixed with chhena, sugar, salt, chocolate chips etc. There is one more format where the sondesh may be filled with liquid chocolate inside or on the top. These are more modern formats of sweets, very popular in Kolkata.
We see how far the sondesh has travelled. Kolkata’s Balaram Mullick & Radharaman Mullick Sweets is leading from the front when it comes to variants of chocolate sondesh, with options like Choco lava, Choco fudge, Choco bon-bon, Choco excess, Cadmish (Cadbury’s chocolate and raisins) and more.
The name means, ‘sondesh filled with water’. It is not literally filled with water, instead it may be filled with coconut water, liquid jaggery, chocolate syrup, mango syrup etc. This one is the same sondesh made little hard outside with a filling inside! One has to eat this with care.
I found an interesting story behind the origin of jolbhora sondesh. Sometime in 1818, Surya Kumar Modak, belonging to the Bengali confectionery-making community from Chandannagar in Hooghly district, received a request to make a special sondesh to surprise a customer’s son-in-law. Modak created a sondesh in the shape of a palm fruit kernel, with a filling of rose-flavoured water. As the son-in-law took the first innocent bite, the liquid spurted out in all directions spoiling his new clothes, much to the amusement of the family members who wanted to play a prank on him.
Surya Modak’s sweet shop still exists in Chandannagar with a wider variety of jolbhora options now like aam jolbhora (filled with mango) and coca jolbhora (filled with chocolate). And this one is a must buy sweet available in Kolkata’s innumerable sweet shops, to be found one in every lane and by-lane of the city.
That’s just a few of the universe of sweets that West Bengal boasts. One may easily add to it rosogolla, gurer (jaggery) rosogolla, mishti doi (sweet curd, with an emphasis on 'mishti' again), chanar jilipi, chomchom, kheerkadam, mihidana, labanga latika, rajbhog, sitabhog and many more interesting names and variants, unique to many shops.
Murshidabad, Burdwan, Bishnupur districts from India and Dhaka, Nator districts from Bangladesh were the pioneer of sweets in undivided Bengal. But today the whole of West Bengal has achieved mastery over the art of making sweets.
The thing to note here is how innovation is driving this business in Bengal. If we have winter special malaiyo in Varanasi, West Bengal’s nolen gurer soufflé is not far behind. The creativity used around one simple idea of a sweet dish is highly appreciable. West Bengal’s mishti is class apart but the sad part is that we can find this quality, taste and variety only in West Bengal.
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