Across India, with the notable exceptions of Bengal, Goa, and the north-eastern states, meals are usually accompanied by a bowl of curd, which is often set at home. Growing up in Bengal, I’d never witnessed this practice. Curd was the backbone of our meals—our vegetables are cooked in it, as is our fish, mutton, and chicken—but we never served curd separately to complement a meal. It’s odd that in Bengal we don’t have an affinity for tauk doi or sour curd despite the obsession we have for mishti doi or sweet curd.

There is nary a single Bengali sweetshop within and beyond the border of Bengal which will not have clay urns of varying sizes, filled with perfectly-set and caramelized curd covered with thin paper and held together by a rubber band around the urn. Originating in West Bengal, mishti doi is made by reducing full cream milk over heat till it is half its quantity and then sweetening it with sugar cane or palm jaggery. After the milk has reduced and is sweetened, yoghurt is added to the bowl and left in a cool, dark place for the temperature and the yoghurt to work wonders.

Mishti doi is always served cold. In many old Bengali homes, you’ll find heirloom stone and marble bowls that were designed to keep the mishti doi cold. But despite this and the limited ingredients, mishti doi is very rarely made at home. This is for two reasons. The first has to do with the fact that it takes a long time, and perfect conditions, to prepare. You need a cool, dark room in which to store the mixture to allow it to set. If you aren’t careful, the mixture will either curdle or split. The second reason is pure laziness, reinforced by the fact that sweetshops have been selling delicious mishti doi for over 150 years. And so, the less troublesome option is to stop by your neighbourhood sweetshop and pick up an urn of mishti doi.

Some references suggest that the Dutch East India Company brought mishti doi to Bengal in the seventeenth century. Another theory suggests that mishti doi was a late nineteenth to early twentieth century creation. According to this theory, which finds favour with many culinary historians, a dairy farmer named Gouro Gopal Chandra Ghosh, from the Sherpur area of Bogra in present-day Bangladesh, created the recipe for mishti doi and began selling it as dessert. Legend has it that the then nawab of Bogra, Altaf Ali Chowdhury, bestowed Ghosh with land where he and two of his siblings set up a small cottage industry, which today produces about sixty thousand containers of curd every day across approximately fifty factories. …

Bhapa doi is one of the more recent versions of mishti doi, which is found in very few sweetshops because it requires a double boiler to prepare, one that isn’t of much use in other Bengali sweets. This was also the only Bengali dessert my grandmother used to bother making at home. Bhapa doi is a steamed version of mishti doi, which isn’t as sweet and has a cheesecake-like consistency to it. Bhapa doi, or Bengal’s answer to cheesecake, is often flavoured with saffron and cardamom, and sometimes topped with mango puree.

Across the subcontinent, Gujarat is known for the only other yoghurt-based dessert in India. Shrikhand is prepared from hung curd, which is delicately flavoured with saffron, cardamom, and dried fruit. The consistency is that of mascarpone cheese or parfait. The key to a perfect shrikhand lies in the length of time you hang the curd in a muslin cloth, to drain as much water as possible from it. The difference between shrikhand and bhapa doi is that the former doesn’t need to be baked or steamed. It is also often served with a savoury puri or flatbread, which makes for an interesting sweet-and-savoury dish.

In ‘The Sweet Kitchen: Tales and Recipes of India’s Favourite Desserts’, writer Rajyasree Sen delves into the stories behind some of these iconic sweet dishes
In ‘The Sweet Kitchen: Tales and Recipes of India’s Favourite Desserts’, writer Rajyasree Sen delves into the stories behind some of these iconic sweet dishes

Shrikhand can be traced back to 400BCE. According to The History of Fermented Foods by Jashbhai B. Prajappati and Baboo M. Nair, shrikhand originated in ancient India and may be considered ‘one of the oldest desserts to originate on Indian shores.’ In The Historical Dictionary of Indian Food, K. T. Achaya traces the shrikhand to 500BCE and writes, ‘To dewater curd, it was hung in a muslin bag for a few hours; sugar and spices added to the mass yielded shikharini (identical with modern day shrikhand), first noted around 500 bce.’ According to him, it is the modern version of shikharini, or shikhrini, which was eaten by people in what is present-day Gujarat and Maharashtra.

The recipe for shrikhand and shikharini is the same, and finds mention in Gujarati-Jain literature from the seventh to the fourteenth centuries. In what seems to be an inescapable and inevitable fate for most desserts, even shrikhand is now prepared with mango and other fruits, although Sindhi and Gujarati cuisines have always had sweet and savoury mango recipes. …

The only other state which has a yoghurt-based dessert is Assam, which serves creamy yoghurt drizzled with jaggery as a simple end to a meal—a nod to how simple and yet sublime yogurt is.

Whether it is mishti doi, bhapa doi, or shrikhand, I find it fascinating that in a country which had no concept of ovens or bain-maries, we’ve produced desserts such as bhapa doi and shrikhand in kitchens at home.

Bhapa Doi/Baked Yogurt

Serves: 8; preparation time: 15 minutes, 24 hours to set

Ingredients

Natural yoghurt 500 gms, low fat

Condensed milk 400 gms

Green cardamom 4 pods

Saffron 10-12 strands, soaked in of milk

Cashews and Pistachios to garnish

Method

Preheat the oven to 190°C. Roast the cardamom in a large shallow baking tray in the oven for about 5 minutes. Heat the milk with saffron strands in the microwave for 10 seconds and leave until later. In the meantime, mix yogurt and condensed milk together until smooth. Crush the cardamom pods and stir them into the yogurt mix. Add ⅔ of the chopped nuts as well.

Fill a baking dish with the yoghurt mixture. Place the baking dish in a large and shallow baking tray. Fill this tray with enough hot water to submerge at least half of the smaller dish. Then carefully place the whole tray in the oven for 10 minutes. After this, sprinkle some strands of saffron and a little bit of the saffron milk on top of the yoghurt. Sprinkle a few of the nuts as well. Bake for another 5 minutes until the yoghurt has set. Leave for 10 minutes, or until it cools down, and then refrigerate. Always serve bhapa doi chilled.

Excerpted from The Sweet Kitchen: Tales And Recipes Of India’s Favourite Desserts by Rajyasree Sen, published by Aleph Book Company.