Bengali sweets are synonymous to 'chhana' for those outside Bengal. The universe of Bengali sweets was vast even before roshogolla arrived. Chhana-based mishtis like roshogolla or sandesh, are the flag-bearers of recently morphed identity of Bengali confectionery. The soft pillowy roshogolla is underwhelming, compared to the other quirky, creative sweets from the state.
Food historians like Chitrita Banerji note that chhana-based sweets were made chiefly by professional confectioners, however, household kitchens of Bengal have been turning out a fascinating assortment of sweet delicacies for ages. From a lip-smacking range of pithe to different kinds of moa, nadu, and takti or fudge, to stuffed or layered pastries dunked in syrup and luxurious treats made of kheer and khoya – there is a whole world of iconic mishtis, where chhana is detectable.
For the uninitiated, moa are savoury pancakes, dumplings or fritters made by baking, steaming, frying or even stewing in sweetened milk – mostly made of rice flour, often with stuffing made with coconut, jaggery or sugar.
The common thing between nutmeg-scented ‘darbesh’ crammed with raisins and khoya, the glistening orange grains of the ‘mihidana’, a ‘joynagarer moa’ and the syrup-soaked ‘sar bhaja’ is that these are iconic Bengali sweets made without chhana.
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. Gauda region derived its ancient name from gur or jaggery. This explains Bengal’s age-old tradition of making sugar lumps, famously called monda (mithai) of different kinds, like the tiny phul batasha or pheni, mathh and kodma that are often a part of ritualistic offering.
Unfortunately, the culinary culture of ancient Bengal has been documented rarely, except for a few stray instances. In an iconic book from 20th century ‘Mistanna Pak’ by Bipradas Mukhopadhyay, he mentions a particular sweetmeat, a kind of pithe or pishtaka called the manthak. They are deep-fried dumplings of dough, dunked in syrup flavoured with camphor and cardamom. Such kinds of sweets have been around since ancient times.
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 half-moon-shaped chandrapuli, narkel naru, to the narkel’er takti.
Medieval Bengali literature, particularly the 'Mangal Kavyas', can be spotted with references to contemporaneous kitchens from ancient Bengal. The text is a vast body of narrative verses written mostly in praise of folk deities and composed by authors from various regions of Bengal over centuries. It is filled with noticeable descriptions of home-cooked meals that testify to Bengal’s long-standing tendency towards sweets.
Mukundaram Chakrabarti’s 'Chandimangal' a subgenre of Mangal Kavyas, has mentions of sweet dishes made of kheer or condensed milk, payas or rice cooked in sweet milk, mitha petha or sweet cakes made of rice flour and cooked in milk, sesame porridge, kalabara, mugsanti, khirpuli, khiramanna and gourd cooked in milk and flavoured with fennel.
A 15th century poet ‘Bippradas Pipillai’ wrote 'Manasa Vijay Kabya', another version of 'Manasa Mangal Kavya', mentions a variety of sweet dishes made of everything from legumes, rice and semolina to to jaggery and milk solids like the “dugdha chushi, ashke pithe, mug samli kheer puli and saru chaki”.
Bengal sweets have been greatly influenced by Gauda Vaishnavism founded by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who was a 15th century religious reformer. Krishnadas Kabiraj’s 'Chaitanyacharitamrita' 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 laal doi, pantua, sar bhaja and sar puria.
In ancient times, Nadia was populated by milkmen in large numbers. Probably, that has been one of the reasons behind the origins of delicious sweets in Nadia, West Bengal, where Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was born.
A legend says that Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu loved to eat these sweets. Both the 'Sarpuria' and 'Sarbhaja' are made from the layered cream of boiled and reduced milk, called 'Sar' in Bengali.
Chitrita Banerji wrote in her essay 'How the Bengalis discovered chhana and its delightful offspring' "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.
The sandesh mentioned in 'Chaitanyacharitamrita', Banerji calls them “sweetened pellets of Khoya kheer”, and not the crumbly chhana-based sweetmeat the term is synonymous with today.
Centuries later, pithe and payesh are still among the most treasured delicacies in any Bengali home, steeped in sentimentality and nostalgia. The tradition of making pithe, especially on the harvest festival of Makar Sankranti is also known as pithe parbon in Bengal. It is not only a time-honoured custom but also a token of domestic prosperity. Patishapta – thin crepes stuffed with coconut, jaggery or kheer – and Gokul pithe and dudhpuli are some of the perennial favourites.
Bipradas Mukhopadhyay mentioned mind-boggling 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.
In ancient texts, payesh is an offering and a component of ritualistic spreads and still Bengalis can hardly resist a bowl of thick, creamy chaal’er payesh infused with fragrant nolen gur (date palm jaggery). 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 collection of payesh reflects the region's almost quirky culinary imagination.
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.
Mihidana literally translates to fine grains. The mihidana was born almost four decades after the roshogolla, in Burdwan.
West Bengal is known for its rich culture. Bengalis have always romanced the finer things in life, be it literature or films, music or cuisine. Amongst other things like Tagore and Victoria Memorial, Bongs take immense pride in their large selection of delectable mishti.
Sweetmeats not only form an integral part of the amazing Bengali cuisine, but are popular with people of all ages, across the country.