Dilkusha, monohara, parijat, madhuja.
(Heart’s Pleasure, Heart Stealer, Heaven’s Blossom, Born of Honey.)
These dulcet epithets swirl around me, as if the speaker is reciting from an old-fashioned Bengali primer providing instruction on “The 1,001 ways to address your beloved”. In fact, they are confections on display at the glass-fronted counter of Girish Chandra Dey & Nakur Chandra Nandy, a 170-year-old Bengali sweet shop on a North Kolkata street lined with crumbling mansions hoary with age. Each label describes a lovingly sculpted, fragrant creation made from chhana, a paneer-like cheese used to make Bengali sweets.
The naming of beloved mishtis (sweets) is a matter of profound importance to Bengalis, worthy of giving full flight to the romantic imagination. Like the hilsa and Durga Puja, chhanar mishtis are such an inextricable part of Bengali culture that I tend to forget it is a tradition brought by the Portuguese. If the 16th-century colonisers of Bengal hadn’t grown homesick for the soft cheeses of their olive-groved native land, I may never have known my favourite sugar brittle chhanar murki or the syrup-gushing joy of devouring chitrakoot.
Milk-based sweets have always been a part of Bengali cuisine but were typically created by slow-cooking milk until it reduced to a rich, creamy kheer. Once the Portuguese established themselves on the river port of Bandel, they started purchasing milk locally to make cheese, gradually encouraging local production to ensure a ready supply for their tables. Their patronage transformed Bengali cuisine forever, and it wasn’t long before locals realised the immense potential of curdled milk as the building block for mishtis. Swiftly, the first generation of professional chhana-makers tamed heat, milk, and sugar (or gur, jaggery) to create subtly differing textures (paak) of cheese from soft to solid, smooth to granular.
In the cool interiors of Girish Chandra Dey & Nakur Chandra Nandy, just beyond the dizzying array of sweets, six or seven artisans are hard at work. Sitting cross-legged on the floor with giant wooden plates and pallets in front of them, they knead the chhana “dough”, hand-crush nuts and spices, and deftly shape the mixture with their fingers or moulds, filling, glazing, and embellishing, until finally, a new tray-full is ready for the counter. The artisans work in almost complete silence, immersed in their role of this age-old culinary choreography. Many are second- or third-generation workers from the villages of Bengal and neighbouring Bihar. An electronic weighing scale to attain the precise weight for each piece is the only modern technology visible.
Several of today’s classics trace their birth to the fertile dairy-supporting districts of Hooghly and Burdwan. For instance, upriver from what was Portuguese Bandel is the erstwhile French enclave of Chandernagore, now known as Chandannagar. Tourists flock here for the architectural remains of its French connections, stroll along the riverside promenade, or visit the workshops of its famous illumination artists who light up puja pandals. But for the Bengali gourmet, the town is where the jalbhora shaada tal shaash—a firm, palm heart-shaped chhana sandesh filled with light, rose-scented sugar syrup—was invented.
Bustling Burdwan town and the area around it is famous for its 108-temple complex, its hectic calendar of rural fairs, its wood craftsmen. But its most popular export is the Sita bhog. It is a delicate, fragrant sweet pulao made with grains of chhana that was created by the town’s moiras (sweet makers) on the occasion of Lord Curzon’s visit in 1942. A short distance away, Saktigarh village is indelibly associated with another classic, the langcha, which is a deep-fried, syrup-dipped bolster of chhana. The section of the NH2 that passes close to Saktigarh is lined on either side with dozens of shops sporting names like Langcha Mahal and Langcha Kutir, patronised by tourist buses and two-wheelers hungry for the local speciality.
Sleepy little towns that are seldom destinations, but places you read off station signboards as your train speeds onwards, have been ensured a place in history thanks to their creative moiras. Like Janai, located between Kolkata and Burdwan, nondescript but for the fact that its chhana-makers created the incomparable monohara (a soft chhana ball, shot through with green coconut, infused with the heat of cardamom and cloves, and covered with a veil of fondant) and raskora (coconut-flavoured chhana scented with black cardamom, pepper, and camphor).
In time, the more enterprising of these rural artisans travelled to Kolkata to sell their wares. They found a lucrative market—especially amongst the city’s gentry located in the northern sections like Chitpur, Haatibagan, and Rajabazaar—and soon set up shops in the city. Among them are establishments like Bhim Chandra Nag, Nalin Chandra Das and Nakur’s, which are now considered heritage institutions.
I visit Nakur with Sunanda Basu, a true-blue North Kolkatan and a walking encyclopaedia on the cultural history of Bengal. Sunanda grew up in her family home just a road down from this iconic mishti dokan that makes exclusively chhana-based mishti (no kheer- or lentil-based confections here!). The relationship between her family and the sweetshop owners is a generational one. “Then, as now, if its chhanar mishti, it has to be Nakur,” she tells me.
We watch a batch of freshly made sandesh laid out on a flat wicker tray lined with butter paper. It’s a traditional tattyo, a gift tray that is ceremonially exchanged between the families of Bengali brides and grooms. The mishtis play a starring role and are closely scrutinised by older relatives before they pass judgement on the new in-laws. Understandably, much thought is devoted to the selection of these sweets, and typically it’s the sweet-makers who have supplied the family for generations who are engaged for this.
I still remember when the tattyo arrived from my in-laws’ home during my own wedding, amid the customary conch shell blowing and ululations. There were delighted exclamations when the mishti trays were laid out. This gushing was on account of a rare treat: shimmering white monoharas, all the way from Janai, sculpted by the family mishtiwallas.
My mum-in-law’s desh, or ancestral home, is Baksha, a village neighbouring Janai. For generations, the Chaudhuris have patronised the same clan of moiras and a family wedding is incomplete without their creations. A time-honoured ritual dictates the entire exercise. Bireshwar Nag—like his father and grandfather before him—is contacted (he has a cell phone now, but up until a few years ago, a postal department standard-issue yellow postcard would be dispatched). He travels to Kolkata and takes the order for the mishti. On the appointed day, he once again boards the crowded local train, this time with assistant in tow, the two of them balancing the huge terracotta haaris (vessels) packed with fragile monoharas on their heads.
From Howrah Station they take a bus to their South Kolkata destination. When at last they reach the house, the haaris are carefully lowered, and the red and white gamcha covering them removed to reveal layers of sal leaf expertly placed to protect the monohara. This is a much awaited moment and despite the chaotic pre-wedding bustle, the news that Bireshwar has arrived with his precious cargo, brings us rushing to where the moira is carefully unpacking the perfectly formed delicacies. In all the weddings that I have attended over the years, I have never seen the artisan unpack a monohara with even a hairline crack. When the last one is in place, and Bireshwar and his assistant have gone off to the kitchen for tea, snacks, and gossip, we treat ourselves to the extra monoharas, biting into the brittle-soft shell, savouring the rich, spice-scented chhana.
I snap out of my reverie when Sunanda tells me that the process used to make the cheese at Nakur is still the same as it was when she came here as a little girl, more than 50 years ago. “Like so much of North Calcutta,” she says, “mishti shops have altered very little”. Her observation is confirmed by Partho Chandra Nand, the twenty-something fifth-generation family member who is actively involved in the operations of the store. “We still source our milk from trusted producers from Natun Bazaar [a North Kolkata locality] and the chhana is made in-house pretty much as it always was.” There’s no machinery involved, no high-tech thermometers to regulate temperature. The entire process is driven and controlled almost entirely by intuition that is honed by experience.
There are innovations: Alongside the nuts, spices, and chhana are bottles of Hershey’s chocolate syrup, tinned mango pulp, and blackcurrant preserve. The fusions that feature these ingredients, Partho claims, find takers among the younger generation (there’s even a rum-ball inspired sandesh with imported 85 per cent dark chocolate). But despite these new-age additions, chhanar mishti is a fiercely traditional part of Bengali cuisine. The year’s first nolen gur sandesh for instance is always made on Kali Pujo (coinciding with Diwali) and the first batch is always sent to a Kali temple. In most Bengali homes, families wait eagerly for their batch of nolen gur, that wonderful, sweet liquid amber produced from the sap of palm trees. Poured into chhana moulds, it makes superlative sandesh, so that with every bite there is an burst of flavour. Bengali moiras may have recognised the potential of cheese late. But having discovered it they can claim to have owned it in a way that is unique and unsurpassed.
Appeared in the February 2015 issue as “Sweet Somethings”.
Arundhati Ray is a Kolkata-based food writer and researcher.
Lopamudra Talukdar is a freelance photographer, and is most drawn to street photography. While her travels have taken her across the world, she is particularly captivated by the diversity of Indian culture. Her work has been exhibited by several international salons.