He always finds the right place to have chicken-rice and chai, even if it means checking out a few places, shaking his head disapprovingly and showing me back to the car. He has solemnly refused to take me to just any saree emporium in Kolkata to buy one for my mother. “After all it’s your mother, sir,” he reminds me, with the same authoritative fervour that he reserves for voicing his opinion on the right time to eat ilish. Even if I tried, I couldn’t have found a better guy to drive me to Kolkata than Robin Mandal. So when he pulls over at a mishtir dokan to realise my precious plan to take home a box of fragrant makha sandesh, I follow his assured self like a smitten Pavlovian creature to the little establishment.
This is Kalna, you see. Unless you’re an utter newcomer to these parts, you never fail to sense the freshness of Bardhaman’s chhana and the fluffiness of the sandesh in the air? Of course, Ambika Kalna, as it is also known, is the home of the 108 Shiva temple complex—one hundred and eight shivalingam shrines arranged in two concentric circles and constructed to staggering geometric harmony—and the Pratapeshwar Temple, a terracotta marvel. Kalna is also a stronghold of jamdani weaving, with active workshops still producing weaves that can fetch several lakh rupees for a single drape and frequently lure international buyers.
But that’s not the end of Kalna’s riches. The town is famous as the number one source of chhana—granular cottage cheese that forms the basis for a whole pantheon of eastern Indian sweets—and the ‘original’ rendition of the sandesh, one of the region’s most beloved milk-based sweets. Before the sandesh acquired its bite-size status and all of its funky avatars, it ruled hearts as the makha sandesh: an earthier, unassuming dessert supposed to be eaten like a lump of rice.
I’m currently standing in the second-highest milk-producing district in the state, in a city known for its dairy farming. “Bardhaman is very famous for its agriculture, and [residents] own a lot of cows. They do not pasteurise the milk; they boil it very well to get rid of the impurities, which is also how it gets so thick and creamy,” shares Shubhankar Sengupta, our guide from Kolkata and an authority on the region’s history and gastronomy. In a recent study, an impressive 71 per cent of the local Santhal community was found to possess medium-level knowledge of advanced dairy farming methods.
Unlike regular sandesh and its myriad modern manifestations including those made with chocolate and cashews, the makha, as I learned a few days ago, is served halfway through its preparation, in a ‘set’ form, as against the peda form. “After curdling, the chhana is formed by separating the casein from the milk using a muslin cloth, adding sugar to it, and finally cooking the dough over a low flame for a long time,” adds Shubhankar. Unlike its refined, citybred cousin, the rustic makha is coarser, more granular, and warrants eating with bare hands, as you would a mound of rice. That is what, I suspect, makes the flavour last longer in the mouth as well as the memory, as opposed to the regular sandesh, whose pleasure lies in its evanescence. Whether this primordial form of the sweet originated in Kalna too is quite debatable, but the latter is certainly its thriving hub.
I recall biting into my first ever dollop of makha sandesh days ago on a river cruise along the countryside. It wasn’t so much a bite as it was a minute-long shudder experienced from the ménage â trois—palate, tongue and sandesh collapsing evocatively inside the mouth. I savoured each bite of the cardamom-laced goodness, inhabiting completely the collective memory of a whole region like a culinary eavesdropper, and happily ghosting the love of my life, mishti doi, which was the other dessert on the menu.
Every Bengali worth their nolen gur can rattle off a mini list of places to score the best sandesh and doi from in Kalna. Here, it is unequivocally Ambika Sweets that connoisseurs of dairy sweets travelling through these parts often make a beeline for. The busy joint has its own production unit, which is an instant giveaway of how serious Kalnaites are about their sandesh. Come winter, and the brief appearance of nolen gur (date palm jaggery) makes its presence felt in the crumbly dough, which is about the only time the dessert undergoes any kind of adornment. In the capital, the iconic Bhim Chandra Nag in Burrabazar is the place to buy yourself a portion. The 1826-established institution is routinely overrun with customers lining up, no matter the month, for its impressive assortments of sandesh, and inventive takes on sweets from other parts of the country.
But Kolkata is three hours away, and I’ve a flight to catch. As Bikash Ghosh, the shopkeeper, packs my order, Robin dutifully recalls my wish to sample the chhanar jilipi. It is essentially a cylindrical gulab jamun approximating the ledikeni. I taste a spot of the cloying mass just to honour Robin’s faith in his powers of persuasion. The thing is, this is Kalna, and I’m only in the mood for sandesh right now.
Both Bhim Chandra Nag (call 033 22580378) and Ambika Sweets (call 9932805685) deliver across Kolkata.
Also Read | Winter Bites in Kolkata
Prannay Pathak dreams about living out of a suitcase and retiring to the island of Hamneskär to watch films in solitary confinement. He is Assistant Editor (Digital) at National Geographic Traveller India.