Natun Bazar in Kolkata is not a pretty sight, not for an outsider at least. It is a warren of littered lanes flanked by shops and makeshift stalls selling everything from vegetables and medicines to clothes and knick-knacks. Crumbling buildings line its arteries, their rickety shutters and balustraded balconies giving the impression that they are held together by fortuity, not concrete and steel.

But aesthetics is not what you go to Natun Bazar for. If you are discerning, you go there for mishti.

Built in 1871 by one of Calcutta’s biggest businessmen, Raja Rajendra Mullick, Natun Bazar has some of the city’s oldest sweets shops that sell mainly one thing – sandesh. On any day, a visitor can find in its dense lanes sandesh in myriad shapes, colours and tastes: white ones the size of marbles, tan-coloured ones in the shape of conches, coffee brown squares and yellow spheres, to list just a few.

“Natun Bazar’s sweet shops have preserved an age-old format that can’t be seen anywhere else in the city,” said Sibendu Das. “They offer great insights into the ways sweet shops evolved.” Sibendu Das is a journalist and content creator who decided a few months ago to curate a food walk centred on mishti that would go beyond tasting sessions at a few legacy shops. Passionate about food ethnography, he wanted a deeper engagement for his guests. In the end, he landed on Natun Bazar, through whose story can be told parts of Kolkata’s story itself.

Credit: Priyadarshini Chatterjee.

Fledgling city

Raja Mullick founded Natun Bazar on Chitpore Road (now Rabindra Sarani) around a time when Calcutta had two areas: White Town, which was primarily British, and Black Town, which was mainly Indian. The city was undergoing rapid growth by this time. Industries were coming up. Infrastructure projects were being launched. For anyone wanting to attract people to this “newly emerging power-centre of the province”, an easy way was to set up a bazaar, writes historian Kaustubh Mani Sengupta in Bazaars, Landlords and the Company Government in Late Eighteenth-Century Calcutta. This must have been Mullick’s idea as well.

His Natun Bazar sprang up in the throbbing heart of the fledgling city, where the propertied cream of the Bengali society lived. “Some of the wealthiest households of the city were located within two blocks of Upper Chitpur road in the locality called Jorasanko-Pathuriaghata,” writes historian Swati Chattopadhyay in Representing Calcutta: Modernity, Nationalism and the Colonial Uncanny. A few streets away from the bazaar was Tagore Castle, built in the image of Windsor Castle by the Tagores of Pathuriaghata in the 1820s.

As the bazaar flourished, so too “grew a concentration of brass and bronze utensil shops, several doctors’ offices and pharmacies,” writes Chattopadhyay. “These were interspersed with bookstores, printing presses, grocery stores, and warehouses. These traders and professions occupied small lots, in even tiny rooms, creating a very fine grain of urban occupation.” As is the case, these shops and establishments attracted a flock of artisans and craftsmen, including a bevy of moiras, or professional confectioners.

Credit: Priyadarshini Chatterjee.

For the moiras, this was a perfect opportunity. They had been coming to the area long before Mullick laid the foundation of Natun Bazar to sell a simple sweet called monda (lumps of sweetened cottage cheese) at a bi-weekly haat out of temporary stalls. But now, with the market, they found a semblance of permanence, allowing them to truly thrive. There was a steady flow of business for them from the elites of the area who, like rich Bengalis everywhere, saw themselves as connoisseurs of mishti. To the rich, a sweetmeat wasn’t an element that completed a meal – it was a piece of craftsmanship. As Reverend Lal Behari Dey wrote in 1874:

“I do not know that any other nation in the world consumes so many sweetmeats as the higher and middle classes of the people of Bengal. In other countries sweets and comfits are for the most part eaten by children, in Bengal they are eaten as much by grown men and women as by children. In some feasts all the courses consist of sweetmeats from beginning to end….Hence confectioners are as plentiful in the land of crows.”  

To this day, a visitor can see the houses, or barrack bari, that were built to accommodate the sellers, including the confectioners, who turned Natun Bazar into one of the most important wholesale markets of the 19th century. These houses may be in bad repair, but there is a current of history flowing through them.

Credit: Priyadarshini Chatterjee.

Preserved in time

Tapan Das’s ancestors were among the moiras who found success in Notun Bazar after leaving their village of Dubrajhat in Bardhaman district: “Many of them migrated to Calcutta when their lands were usurped by British indigo planters.” Tapan Das is the fifth-generation owner of Nalin Chandra Das and Sons, one of the two oldest extant sweet shops in Notun Bazar. The other is Makhanlal Das & Sons.

These shops stand adjacent to each other, each patronised by a staunch bloc of loyalists. Both Makhanlal and Nalin have multiple branches across the city, but at their flagship stores in Natun Bazar, time seems to have screeched to a halt. Their antique cupboards, dusty walls and sepia photographs hark to a bygone era. Unlike other sweet shops around Kolkata, there are no glass showcases. Instead, the sweets are laid out on large brass platters and wooden salvers called barkosh. A buyer can find any kind of sandesh here, from marble-sized variety priced at a rupee to flavoured sandesh, all prepared fresh and often in front of the customer.

Credit: Priyadarshini Chatterjee.

The way Tapan Das tells the story, sandesh was, in a way, created and popularised in Natun Bazar. “The monda sold by the moiras of Natun Bazar eventually evolved into sandesh,” he maintained. The claim might be debatable, but Sibendu Das concedes that Nalin Chandra Das pioneered the introduction of flavours in sandesh: “They created chocolate sandesh as early as 1900.” According to an oft-repeated story documented by writer Ashish Sanyal, Bishwajit Ghosh, a scion of one of the area’s aristocratic families and a British-educated advocate, persuaded the then proprietor, Bhoot Nath Das, to use some of the cocoa powder he had brought from England to develop a new variety of sandesh. Reluctant at first, Bhootnath agreed to the experiment and came up with a luscious brown sweetmeat, a sharp contrast to the milky white sandesh. The creation was an instant success.

“What fascinates me about shops like Makhanlal and Nalin is that they continue to sell sweets of excellent quality for a rupee or two, ensuring it is affordable to everyone,” said Sibendu Das, as Tapan Das offered us a few marble-sized sandesh filled with nolen gur. Behind him, a few feet away, one of his workers stirred a wok of seething, bubbling milk to make Bengali-style rabri.

Unchanging tastes

Long before the Portuguese purportedly taught Bengal the technique of curdling milk, making chhana the mainstay of mishti, Bengali sweets used to depend on ingredients like coconut, lentils and khoya (reduced milk). Maybe it is a sign of its vintage that Natun Bazar still houses a wholesale market dedicated to khoya, which arrives from Bardhaman, Birbhum, Murshidabad and other districts of Bengal. Along its streets, there are rows upon rows of shops with dark almirahs and walls adorned with calendar art that stock soft yellow roundels of khoya of varying quality. Somewhere among them are the outliers. Shambhunath Haldar’s kheer shop, for example, which is at least 80 years old, doesn’t buy khoya but makes it with milk that comes from the century-old milk market in nearby Jorasanko. At Haldar’s, the chief karigar, Biswanath Bairagi, shows off the massive iron kadhai (also manufactured in Natun Bazar) he uses to painstakingly reduce milk.

Credit: Priyadarshini Chatterjee.

This khoya is the main ingredient in the tattwor mishti created by many shops in the vicinity. “The word tattwo comes from tattwo anushandhan, which means seeking news, and denotes sweets that a woman’s family would traditionally send to her marital home to seek news of her wellbeing,” said Sibendu Das. These days, tattwor mishti is gifted at weddings and comes in startlingly many colours and forms – from fruits and vegetables to figurines of bride and groom to intricately patterned butterflies and lobsters.

Walking through the streets of 152-year-old Natun Bazar, it is hard not to consider the evolution of Bengali mishti. Ingredients change, appearances change, fads fade, but the tastes that satisfied the sweet tooth of 19th-century Calcutta remain resolutely the same.

Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a food and culture writer, based in Kolkata. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Food Writings for 2022.