To every gourmet of Bengal, no traditional feast is ever complete without the moist, decadent final touch of an authentic Bengali sweet. In the land famed for its exquisite Roshogollas and heavenly Mishti Doi, Sandesh stands out as a perfect blend of sugar and chenna (cottage cheese) that literally melts in the mouth.
The preparation of Sandesh is a laborious process that involves cooking chenna and sugar on medium flame and giving various shapes to the cooled mixture by hand. Depending on the consistency, you can have norom pak, a softer variant, or kora pak, a tougher variant. Ingredients too vary from one region to another and from season to season. For instance, the famous Dhaka Sandesh from Bangladesh uses curd and Mawa to achieve an almost buttery texture, while the Makha Sandesh refers to just the cooked mixture without any definite shape. Moreover, no winter in Bengal is complete without some Nolen Gurer Sandesh, made from jaggery hand-collected from the ripe palm trees in the season.
The word Sandesh in Bengali means message. In Bengal, it has been a common custom to send a box of sweets to friends and family during festivities or while delivering good news. Most likely, the sweet has obtained its name from this intimate exchange of pleasantries.
The earliest mentions of Sandesh can be found in medieval Bengali literature like Krittibas’ Ramayana and the narrative poetry of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. However, unlike the modern Sandesh, the medieval variant did not use cottage cheese. It was only with the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century that Bengal learned the techniques of turning milk into chenna. However, refining the methods to perfection took nearly 100 years. The sultry heat of erstwhile Calcutta would easily spoil the chenna and mixing it with sugar was the only way to preserve it. This gave rise to the Makha Sandesh which, over time, was moulded into various shapes and sizes; the modern Sandesh was born.
Talking about the sweets of Bengal, it is important to mention three famous confectioners, Bhim Chandra Nag, Bhola Maira, and Girish Chandra Dey, who emerged as the pioneering Sandesh manufacturers of the region. Besides its taste, what makes them irresistible is the treasure trove of stories associated with each. For instance, legend has it that once the Banerjee zamindars of Bhadreshwar conspired with the famed confectioner Surya Kumar Modak to create a sweet that would fool the family’s new son-in-law. Modak came up with a large Talsansh, a type of Kora Pak Sandesh, with a hollow interior filled with rose water. When the unsuspecting son-in-law took a bite, all the rose water leaked out staining his new Punjabi (Bengali Kurta). The zamindar named the special Sandesh Jolbhora and instructed that though others will be allowed to copy the recipe, only Modak and his descendants will have the right to place the sweets upright.
So, reaching out for whichever variant of the Sandesh you get your hands on, further exploration of such humorous and exciting stories of the sweet is a strong recommendation.