The sandesh and its many variants, can make you swoon with delight. In fact, noted food historian Colleen Taylor Sen, rightly calls the sandesh the ‘Emblem of Bengaliness’ - and in many ways, it indeed is.
Not only does the sandesh pack in quite a punch in terms of taste, it also reflects the story of Bengali renaissance through European influences. Since Bengal was a major trading hub with European powers since medieval times, it should come as no surprise that Bengali cuisine was among the earliest to be influenced by the Europeans. And the sandesh is a great example of the mix.
Traditionally, using curdled milk was taboo in India. In fact, it was considered to be downright inauspicious! Yet the sandesh, makes an exception. It is one of the only traditional sweetmeats that is made out of chenna (an extract from curdled milk). The reason behind this is simple. It is thanks to the first wave of European settlers who sailed in with their ships into the Calcutta port- the Portuguese, who loved their cheese!
Many Portuguese settled around the Hooghly, making Kolkata their home, in the 17th century. There were so many of them and they had such a thriving settlement, that they even influenced the local cuisine; spreading their love for cheese to the local markets.
Bengali confectioners adapted the Portuguese technique of making cheesy sweets and so was born, the sandesh!
The French traveller François Bernier, who lived in India from 1659 to 1666, wrote: ‘Bengal is celebrated for its sweetmeats, especially in places inhabited by the Portuguese, who are skillful in the art of preparing them and with whom they are an article of considerable trade.’ The Bengali confectioners deftly adapted the Portuguese technique of making cheesy sweets and so was born, the sandesh!
It was only a matter of time before this adaptation became ubiquitous to Bengal. The Bengali renaissance of the mid-19th century along with the emergence of a growing and wealthy urban middle class in Kolkata led to a ‘golden age’ for Bengali sweets and sandesh.
Traditionally, using curdled milk was taboo in India. Yet the sandesh, makes an exception.
Sweets shops like Bhim Nag, KC.Das, Dwarik Ghosh and Ganguram grew around the city and became legendary institutions. The sweet shops vied with each other to make the most extravagant sandesh and the patrons indulged in ‘conspicuous consumption’!
In its heyday, almost every sweet shop sold 100-150 variety of sandesh and over time sandesh started becoming more and more extravagant. Chocolates, apples, ice-cream and multi shaped sandesh varieties were made. Imagine a sandesh toast, sandwich, cake, chops and even biscuits!
Savvy marketers often took poetic license and gave these sweetmeats catchy names - Desh gorob (glory of the nation), Manoranjan (heart's delight), Monohara (captivator of the heart), Pranahara (captivator of the soul), Abak (wonder), Nayantara (star of the eye), Bagh (tiger), and Abar Khabo (I'll have another) were just some of them!
So ingenious were the names, and such a fad that a sandesh was actually named after Lord Ripon, Viceroy of India from 1880 to 1884. The tradition continued and even in the 1960s, a sandesh called ‘Bulganiner Bishmoy’ (Bulganin's wonder) was made in honor of the visiting Soviet premier!
Did You Know
There is a story of how a barrister ordered sandesh made in the shape of the Gothic building of Kolkata high court for his wedding!