Last time, we started our exploration of Bengali sweets with a look at the milk-based desserts, rabdi and payesh. This time, we move on to chhana, derived from milk and the starting point for two of the most popular Bengali sweets.
“The name Sandesh is mentioned in medieval Bengali literature, including Krittibas’ Ramayana and lyrics of Chaitanya. But the ingredient is not known. Probably it was NOT made from cottage cheese as the Vaisnobs and Brahmins considered it impure form of milk. In Bengal, the present form of Sandesh from cottage cheese was made famous by three confectioners, Bhola Maira (1775-1851), Bhim Nag (1809-1885) and Girish Chandra Dey. Jatindramohan Dutta once listed various types of Sandesh, those were prevalent in various places Bengal at early twentieth century.”
Indrajit Lahiri, Mohamuskil
It was probably the advent of the Portuguese which started our love affair with chhana based sweets like sandesh with the introduction to cheesemaking, a tradition which gave rise to the now ubiquitous chhana and local varieties like Bandel cheese. Jatindramohan Dutta’s long list of sandesh includes Monohara from Janai (with a brittle sugar or jaggery crust contrasting the soft sandesh within), Gunfo Sandesh from Panihati, and Ramchaki sandesh from Sodepur, and a myriad of poetic names like Abar Khabo, Manoranjan and Kosturi alongside curiously descriptive ones like chop sandesh, biscuit sandesh and icecream sandesh.
Sandesh involves cooking chhana with sugar until the mixture dries up and darkens in colour. It is then set and cut into pieces or put into moulds. Depending on how long you cook (paak) the mixture, you get an array of sandesh with a variety of textures, from the incredibly soft, fall-apart norompaak sandesh like balls of kachagolla or the delicious mishmash called makha sandesh, to the stiff, crumbly korapaak sandesh like the like the delightful jolbhora taalshaas, filled with liquid jaggery and created by the famous Suryakumar Modak of Chandannagar, or the chandrapuli, the half-moon shaped sweets made using a mixture of chhana, coconut and khoya, a staple during Bijoya Dashami. Over the years numerous sandesh flavours have emerged, from the classic nolen gur (palm jaggery, a winter speciality) to more unconventional versions like chocolate and strawberry.
On the other hand, is you take balls of chhana, with some flour mixed in, and cook it them a sugar syrup, you get a rosogolla. The less the flour content of the mixture, the springier the final product will be. First created in 1866 by Nabin Chandra Das, it was apparently a serendipitous invention made when a ball of chhana accidently fell into a pot of sugar syrup nearby. A few decades later, Nabin Chandra’s son Krishna Chandra Das or K.C. Das developed an ingenious method of vacuum canning the rosogolla, and the rest is history. After a long feud, Bengal attained the coveted GI tag for the rosogolla in 2017, although Orissa’s rasagola also got it in 2019. The GI tag for the same product in both neighbouring states recognises the two distinct varieties of flavour and texture.
The rosogolla recipe is open to variations. A chhana with a lower fat content with a lower proportion of flour cooked for a longer time creates that spongy textures which many find appealing. Go the other way and you get melt-in-the-mouth rosogollas. Filling the ball of chhana with a small amount of kheer or dry fruits makes a rajbhog. The komolabhog uses the rajbhog formula with the addition of an orange flavour and a sunset-yellowesque food colouring. If the chhana is made into flattened patties instead of balls, cooked and dunked in a rabdi, you get roshomalai or rasmalai. Balaram and Radharaman Mallick’s iconic baked rosogolla involves pouring rabri onto rosogolla and baking it.
Two other desserts combine the best of both worlds, syrupy sponginess of a rosogolla and the rich creaminess of khoya. A chamcham starts with oblong shapes of the same chhana mixture which is cooked, sit lengthwise and stuffed with a khoya mixture, before being rolled in more khoya or sometimes, grated coconut. The kheerkodom or roshokodom on the other hand uses spheres of rosogolla encased in an outer khoya-based coating. Both chamcham and kheerkodom are usually less spongy as compared to the average rosogolla due to slightly more flour in the mixture.
Of course, not all sweets involve just reducing and poaching. Next time, we will move on from cooking with water to cooking with fat. In Part 3, we add oil to the equation.