What’s common between the nutmeg-scented darbesh crammed with raisins and khoya, the glistening orange grains of the mihidana, a joynagarer moa and the syrup-soaked sar bhaja? For one, each of these is an iconic Bengali sweet. More importantly, none of them is made of chhana, the soft, pillowy substance found in many confections identified as “Bengali sweets” by those outside Bengal, like the much fought-over roshogolla.
The most enduring theory about Bengal’s discovery of chhana and its evolution into the mainstay of the region’s confectionary traces the chhana’s origin back to the arrival of the Portuguese in Bengal around the 16th century. As celebrated food historian KT Achaya writes, the deliberate curdling of milk is taboo in Hindu tradition. By that logic, it is only natural that the idea of curdling milk with an acidic substance would be introduced by seafaring foreigners, and picked up by native confectioners only later.
Chhana-based stars like the roshogolla or sandesh, it seems then, are the flag-bearers of a more recently morphed identity of Bengali confectionary.
Food historians like Chitrita Banerji note that chhana-based sweets were made chiefly by professional confectioners, many of them Muslims, not inhibited by practices of ritual purity significant to Hindu homes. However, household kitchens of Bengal have been turning out a fascinating assortment of sweet delicacies for ages. From a mind-boggling range of pithe (sweet or savoury cakes – baked, steamed, fried or even stewed in sweetened milk – mostly made of rice flour, often with stuffing made with coconut, jaggery or sugar and legumes) to different kinds of nadu, moa and takti or fudge, to layered or stuffed pastries dunked in syrup and luxurious treats made of khoya and kheer (milk solids and condensed milk) – there is a whole world of iconic Bengali sweets, where chhana is conspicuous only by its absence.
The land of sugar
For a region that derived its ancient name – Gauda – from gur or jaggery, a fanatical fixation with sweets seems inevitable and long-standing. As early as the 7th century, Chinese emperor Tai-Hung purportedly sent his men to ancient Gauda, with its thriving sugarcane plantations, to learn the art of refining sugar.
This explains Bengal’s age-old tradition of making sugar lumps, famously called monda (from mondo or mound) of different kinds, like the tiny phul batasha or larger batasha called pheni, kodma and mathh that are often a part of ritualistic offering. Besides, simple sweets made of coconut and molasses or sugar are likely to have been popular in ancient Bengal. Coconut is at the heart of quite a few delectable Bengali sweets, from the humble narkel naru (coconut laddus of a kind), narkel’er takti (coconut and milk solids fudge) to the half-moon-shaped chandrapuli.
Bipradas Mukhopadhyay, in his iconic book Mistanna Pak, published at the turn of the 20th century, writes about a particular sweetmeat, a kind of pithe or pishtaka called the manthak. The manthak – deep-fried dumplings of dough, dunked in syrup flavoured with camphor and cardamom – have been around since ancient times, writes Mukhopadhyay. Unfortunately, the culinary culture of ancient Bengal has been documented rarely, except for a few stray instances.
Sweets of yore
On the contrary, medieval Bengali literature, particularly the Mangal Kavyas – a vast body of narrative verses written mostly in praise of folk deities and composed by authors from various regions of Bengal over centuries – are speckled with references to contemporaneous Bengali kitchens and studded with delectable descriptions of home-cooked meals that testify to Bengal’s longstanding proclivity for all things sweet.
Mukundaram Chakrabarti’s Chandimangal (a sub-genre of medieval Bengali literature called Mangal Kavyas) is replete with accounts of sweet dishes made of condensed milk or kheer, mitha petha or sweet cakes made of rice flour and cooked in milk, payas or rice cooked in sweet milk, kalabara, sesame porridge, mugsanti, khiramanna, khirpuli and gourd cooked in milk and flavoured with fennel. In his incredible book Anthropology of Sweetmeats, Anil Kishore Sinha mentions a few of these as well.
Bippradas Pipillai, a 15th century poet who wrote Manasa Vijay Kabya, another version of Manasa Mangal Kavya, mentions a variety of sweet dishes made of everything from rice, legumes and semolina to jaggery and milk solids like the “ashke pithe, kheer puli, dugdha chushi, mug samli and saru chaki”.
In her essay How the Bengalis discovered chhana and its delightful offspring, Banerji wrote about “kheer mixed with sliced mangoes, sweet yoghurt and items like dugdhalaklaki, sar bhaja, sar pupee and sandesh” that were mentioned in Krishnadas Kabiraj’s Chaitanyacharitamrita. According to her, the dugdhalaklaki was a predecessor of the present-day rabri, but in the Bengali way, sar (a fatty cream skimmed off milk, piled in layers and allowed to rest until firm) was cut in squares and stewed in sweetened milk. Sar Bhaja is basically the sar deep-fried in ghee and dunked in syrup while sar pupee or present-day sar puria is fried sar layered with almonds and khoya, soaked in sweetened milk.
Krishnadas Kabiraj’s Chaitanyacharitamrita, the epical biography of the 15th century religious reformer and founder of Gauda Vaishnavism, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, is another fantastic resource of insights on the popular food habits of the time. In fact, Nadia district, where Chaitanya was born, specifically the city of Krishnanagar, is still famous for their sar bhaja and sar puria.
The sandesh mentioned in Chaitanyacharitamrita, Banerji says, were “sweetened pellets of Khoya kheer”, and not the crumbly chhana-based sweetmeat the term is synonymous with today.
Centuries later, pithe and payas are still among the most treasured delicacies in any Bengali home, steeped in nostalgia and sentimentality.
Like neighbouring Odisha, Bengal has a fascinating range of pithe. The tradition of making pithe, especially on the harvest festival of Makar Sankranti (also known as Pithe Parbon in Bengal) is not only a time-honoured custom but also a token of domestic prosperity. From perennial favourites like Patishapta – a thin creped stuffed with coconut, jaggery or kheer – and Gokul pithe and dudhpuli to rare numbers with intricate recipes, the variety is staggering.
Mukhopadhyay lists a mindboggling variety of recipes for pithe, both sweet and savoury, including lesser-known stars like the sar chakra, a deep-fried pithe made with shona moong dal, coconut paste, khoya, sugar and maida, flavoured with cardamom and dunked in rose-flavoured syrup or one made with the pulp of palmyra fruit, flour and jaggery, wrapped in banana leaves and roasted in a clay over, sometimes overnight.
Again, few Bengalis could resist a bowl of thick, creamy chaal’er payesh (runny rice pudding), especially if infused with fragrant nolen gur (date palm jaggery). Referred to as Paramanna (literally, best rice), it is rice cooked in milk, usually with ghee and jaggery. In ancient texts, payesh is an offering and a component of ritualistic spreads.
But in Bengal payesh need not be made of rice only. From semolina and rice flakes to young bottle gourd, sweet potato and jackfruit seeds, and even luchi or deep-fried bread, stewed in sweetened, luscious reduced milk, the Bengali repertoire of payesh reflects the regions almost quirky culinary imagination.
Orbs of sweetness
Like pithe and patishapta, which have only recently started making an appearance on the shelves of sweet shops, quite a few other Bengali sweets have for the longest time, remained a specialty in household kitchens – culinary heirlooms passed down through generations.
Take for instance the naru. While the naru made with coconut and jaggery or sugar is the most common version, it has a myriad other avatars – chholar dal’er naru, til’er (sesame) naru, sujir (semolina) naru and many more.
An especially unique one is the ananda naru, prepared exclusively during auspicious occasions like weddings. Made of rice flour, coconut and jaggery, these narus are fried in pungent mustard oil and often come studded with sesame seeds. Of course, every household has its own recipe and even ritualistic stipulations, for making the ananda naru.
A close cousin of the naru is the moa, usually made of puffed, flaked or popped rice and jaggery. A particularly special case is the joynagarer moa, the crumbly, cardamom-scented sweetmeat made with nolen gur and khoi (puffed rice). Made exclusively of Kanakchur rice, and peculiar to the eponymous Joynagar, a town in Bengal’s South 24 Parganas, it earned the GI tag a couple of years ago.
A discussion on Bengali sweets seems incomplete without the mention of the mihidana, which literally translates to fine grains. The mihidana was born almost four decades after the roshogolla, in Burdwan. Purportedly, it was Bhairav Chandra Nag, a local sweet-maker, who made mihidana and sitabhog to mark Lord Curzon’s 1904 visit to Burdwan to confer the title of Maharaja on Vijay Chandra, the then king of Burdwan. While sitabhog uses a mix of chhana and rice flour, the original recipe of saffron-tinted mihidana calls for three different varieties of rice – kaminibhog, gobindobhog and basmati – powdered and mixed with Bengal gram flour, to form the batter. Laced with ghee, fragrant and delicate, the mihidana in its time was perhaps the most worthy declination of the chhana craze.