’Tis the season that reminds me of my favourite scene from the 1969 Satyajit Ray film Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne . Two armies marching to war and the enemy vanquished by a deluge of Bengal’s best sweets raining down from the heavens, all aggression paling before the power of the mithai.

This then is exactly what the run-up to Diwali is — a pan-Indian orgy of rich sweetmeats, celebrating goodwill and bonhomie. In Bengal it begins even earlier, with Vijaya Dashami, and ends with Bhai Phonta or Bhai Dooj. In this context, a couplet from a medieval Bengali folk song comes to mind, one that sums up perfectly Bengal’s affair with sugar:

Luchir koley porlo chini,

Jeno Shyamer koley Soudamini

Meaning, sugar wrapped in a luchi is like brilliant lightning, symbolising Radha nestled in the lap of Krishna. How much more amorous can you get?

Bengal’s unapologetic sweet tooth is probably a result of once being the producer of the finest sugar in the world, beginning with the prized gur that gave it its ancient name Gauda. Since then the sweet story has come a long way. From various delicacies made with thickened milk, coconut, sugar, jaggery, and combinations of pulses and rice flour, the Great Bengal Confectionery Renaissance was kicked off with chhana (fresh paneer) during Portuguese rule, which proved to be the game-changer. A mind-boggling range of sandesh, rosogolla , pantua , chom chom — dry as well as syrupy, fried and steamed sweets — made their début, with confectioners vying with each other to create the most innovative flavours.

Let’s take the sandesh as a case in point. The name means ‘news’ and it continues to make news at every sweet shop in Bengal. Mentioned in ancient and medieval texts, the original sandesh, according to celebrated Bengali littérateur Shankar, was just a hardened lump of sugar. Slowly innovations crept in till chhana became the main protagonist from the 18th century and, in the course of 500 years, it has spawned multiple versions. From a plain white, modest sandesh made with the first batch of Portuguese-style pot cheese, it has metamorphosed to imbibe seasonal flavours such as lime and lemon, oranges, mangoes, watermelon, custard apple, jackfruit, almonds, sandalwood, nolen gur (palm jaggery), among others. Nakur, Dwarik Ghosh and Bhim Nag are some of the legendary confectionery shops in Kolkata.

Sometimes there are tipping points that make for romance. Was the famous jalbhara (water-filled) sandesh inspired by the European liqueur chocolates or was it the other way round? I would prefer to think it was the latter. Sometime in 1818, Surya Modak, who belonged to the Bengali confectionery-making community moira and was living in Chandannagore, a French settlement near Kolkata that only became part of India in 1950, received a request to make a special sandesh to surprise a customer’s son-in-law. Modak created a sandesh in the shape of a palm fruit kernel, with a filling of rose-flavoured water. As the jamai , or son-in-law, bit into it unsuspectingly, the liquid spurted out in all directions, much to the amusement of the giggly sisters-in-law. In winter, the jalbhara is filled with nolen gur .

Those were exciting times. Ice had just reached Calcutta in 1833 aboard the American ship Tuscany, and the Ice House or Baraf Ghar had been built to store annual supplies. An exclusive item and expensive too, one had to produce a doctor’s certificate to procure it during times of scarcity, much like liquor under prohibition. Naturally then, ice or ice-cream was beyond the reach of the common man. That spurred Dwarik Ghosh, who set up shop in 1885, to introduce the ice-cream sherbet and ice-cream sandesh.

Curiously enough, sometime in the mid-20th century — when sweets were always sattvic in Bengal, as in the rest of India — some bright young moira came up with the deem or egg sandesh. Resembling a hard-boiled egg with a bright yellow yolk, all made of chhana and thickened milk, it was paired with a spongy chom chom and christened malai toast! Chicken and chicken eggs had finally broken the taboo in Bengali homes, and here was something to tickle the Vaishnava palate.

Moving forward, the Great Bengal Confectionery Renaissance Version 2.0 is here, with chhana married to chocolate, fudge and gelato. Purists will snort in disgust, but remember that lump of sugar and feel blessed at how far the sandesh has travelled. Kolkata’s Balaram Mullick & Radharaman Mullick Sweets is leading from the front. So you have a range that proclaims choco lava, choco fudge, choco bon bon, choco excess, mango fudge, Cadmish (Cadbury’s chocolate and kishmish ) and more. Given the Bengali proclivity to sweets, there are ‘diabetic’ versions of the sandesh too.


No story on Bengali sweets is complete without the rosogolla . How the sponge rosogolla was created by Nabin Chandra Das in the mid-19th century is well known, with even a baked rosogolla making a début a few years ago. What is fairly unknown is that if it hadn’t been for the rosogolla , Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda may never have met. At the time, the famous Bhim Nag, creator of the ‘ledikeni’ sweet in tribute to Lady Canning, was a supplier to Janbazar’s Rani Rashmoni, who happened to be Paramahamsa’s patron and the builder of the famous Dakshineshwar Temple. She ensured a steady supply of sweets to the mystic. Vivekananda was probably privy to this information, because when a friend insisted he meet the ‘mad’ priest, he agreed on condition there were rosogollas to make up for his wasted time.

Another important detail in Bengali confectionery history that is often glossed over relates to Ganguram Chaurasia, a halwai from Varanasi who opened shop the same year as Dwarik Ghosh. Chaurasia soon captured the Bengali heart with his radhhaballavi (poori stuffed with arhar dal paste) and alu dum , and the unparalleled mishti doi . For the first time, Bengali moiras had competition.

Fast-forward to the 21st century. The Marwari community in Kolkata has a long history, being bankers to Nawab Murshid Quli Khan from the time the seat of power moved from Dhaka to the village of Maksudabad, which later became Murshidabad in 1717.

Four centuries later, an entrepreneurial Marwari girl from Kolkata is asserting her Bengali-ness and stealing a march over all those who are still squabbling over who invented the rosogolla — Bengal or Odisha. Swati Saraf, 33, has created 170 flavours for that disc of chhana that was just supposed to lie insipidly in syrup. Determined to chart a contemporary and healthy innings for the tired 200-year-old ball of cheese, she flavours them using natural sugars and ingredients that include green chilli, cappuccino, organic rose, bubblegum, cinnamon, chatpata phuchka , tomato, vodka and even Breezer. She has created a range just for children starring fruits such as kiwi, strawberry, litchi, orange, blackcurrant and more. She churns out more than 3,000 customised rosogolla s a day, with a giant football one proving the feather in her cap.

There’s no stopping the Bengal mishti juggernaut now that it has started rolling again. It took more than a 100 years for European influences to enter the urban Bengali kitchen. It’s taken another 100 for the confectioners to allow global influences to invade its closely guarded creations. Kolkata today boasts the successful nolen gur ice cream, a creation by Pabrai’s of Fresh and Naturelle Ice-cream; Balaram’s nolen gur soufflé; Nakur’s strawberry malai roll and chocolate shingara ; and other startling innovations such as mango- chhana brûlée, baked mihidana , mango truffle sandesh, nolen gur cake and blackcurrant ice cream sandesh.

This season of sweets and treats, look no further than East.

Pritha Sen is a food writer based in Gurugram