Nina Mukerjee Furstenau
KOLKATA, India -- Clifton Fadiman famously said, "A cheese may disappoint. It may be dull, it may be naive, it may be over- sophisticated. Yet it remains cheese, milk's leap toward immortality." I love this quote for its whimsy and for its truth telling and confess something here, a Bengali milk-based sweet rarely disappoints, unless I try making it instead of having the good sense of going to a sweet shop.
Land of milk and sandesh
If you know much about India, you’ll know that milk is big here. For centuries, though you could slowly simmer milk to reduce it to solids (kheer) and make sweets, it was seriously bad form to curdle it. I am imagining a forefather pointing to the masses and saying DON’T MESS WITH MILK in capital letters. But the fame of Bengali sandesh and rosogolla and many other confections made with chhana, a soft ricotta-like cheese, at their base, prove there were some who dared to separate curds and whey and then went further and made sweetmeat magic happen.
I’ve learned it may have been the Portuguese that helped lift the ancient taboo in India on deliberately splitting milk. When they arrived in their ships with avidity for spices and the like, the traders left behind some enticing things. Cottage cheese was relished and, apparently, the Portuguese curdled to their hearts content.
This makes me pause. The magic of sandesh (see photo above, a kneaded and shaped sugar-chhana mixture) and rosogolla (made by boiling chhana balls in syrup for a spongier texture and delicious taste) is due to Portuguese influence? I have a history of failing to make good sandesh, and trying again anyway because I might just be in love with it. Though things usually go badly for my cheese, it is with a sense of betrayal that I think of all my effort over the years to create the quintessential Bengali sweet and it was ...Portuguese?
With relief and a harrumph from my inner sandesh-warrior, I find that the process of making chhana is mentioned in the Manasolassa, written in the 12th century—well before the Portuguese rounded the horn of Africa to get more quickly to the spice trade.
The Manasolassa is a Sanskrit verse version of fashionable wit and wisdom written by King Somesvara III (who ruled 1126-38 in southwest India). The title, which means “delight” or “refresher of the mind,” covers “medicine, magic, veterinary science, precious stones, vehicles, the art of acquiring and ruling a kingdom, elephants, painting, music, dance, literature, women, fish, plants and cuisine,” according to Colleen Taylor Sen in History of Food in India. Women and food rank a bit down-list from my perspective but the king, annoyingly, is not available for comment.
Among the 100-plus dishes mentioned by Somesvara, many of which exist today, there is something suspiciously like chhana. “Milk was split by adding a souring agent and draining the whey through cloth to make curds (chhana); the curds were blended until smooth, mixed with sugar and fried in small balls,” Sen says.
This is critical stuff. There have been extended debates in India over where cheese-based sweets originate. In November, articles in the Hindustan Times and others carried headlines like “Bengal wins the rosogolla battle, authorities say sweet didn’t originate in Odisha.” Another article in the Indian Express by Priyanjana Roy Das, says "some foods can divide us and one of them is rosogolla."
My lineage hails from a land where there can be bitter debates over famed desserts (and yes, Bengal won rosogolla, though hearts were broken). So far, no one is disputing the origins of sandesh (please don't stir that pot). But pause here for just a moment. Rosogolla is Bengali, confirmed in court, where there was a court battle over a confectionery. So thank you Samasvara, king of many things and one of them my sandesh-loving heart. The Portuguese may have made cheese-making more widespread, less of an ill-omened thing to do, giving confectioners a new substance with which to work, but Bengali ingenuity made the sandesh and rosogolla and the Geographical Indications (GI) registry of India says so.
Coming up soon, if all goes well: a visit to KC Das Sweets in Kolkata and the great- great- grandson of Nobin Chandra Das, the sweet maker who made the original rosogollas in 1868.
Tell me your thoughts on what desserts play a part in your history and how do they tie with wider ideas of your home culture?
*Author Nina Mukerjee Furstenau is researching her upcoming book, Green Chili & Other Impostors, as a Fulbright Global Scholar, 2018-19, in Kolkata, India.