“Are you getting lazy again? How many times do I have to remind you? What about your Sweets of Bengal series?” She again asked me? And as usual, I had no answer. I hear a lot about the Makha Sandesh from Kalna and also about the auctioning of chhena/ cottage cheese there. And it was time for me to check it out. This blogpost is long due and it’s on Kalna- the town of Makha Sandesh and Chhena.
Which came first? Chhana or Sandesh?
When the Portuguese landed in India in the sixteenth century, we get the first mention of something named as cottage cheese. But the question is, didn’t we eat sweets before that? We still get a mention of various sweets before that era- namely, “Dudh Lau/ Monda and Dudh-chire. The natural sweetener of milk was being used as the sweetener. Because, please remember, granulated sugar was introduced to Kolkata by that chinaman, Mr. Tong Achew. The Portuguese enriched us with their various types of cheese, and we got them in primarily, 3 varieties- Chhana/ the pungent Bandel Cheese and Bangladeshi Ponir. Murshidabad/ Burdwan/ Bishnupur from India and Dhaka/ Nator became the pioneer of sweets of Bengal- undivided Bengal.
On the way to Kalna
Kalna is at 3 hours driving distance from Kolkata. there are local trains running at regular intervals from Howrah. We had a nice breakfast at Nabanna Hotel and took the route via Pandua. It’s a slightly narrow road, but the condition is quite good. And mostly, the drive was quite scenic. We booked our night stay at Hotel Priyadarshini. That seemed to be the only good decent hotel at Kalna and was suggested by almost everybody.
The location is fantastic and it’s spot on the main road. The public transport is aplenty and rooms are quite decent. We booked the below room at 1500/- for 3 of us. But the interesting part is the food. They serve a typical home-style Bengali meal and it’s simply good. The mutton curry is to die for and is definitely recommended.
Auction of Chhana
But more than the hotel, our point of interest was the auction of Chhena. So, chhana is the base of what we know today as Sandesh. Of course, there is the lone warrior guarding the forte of non-chhana Sandesh- the Mecha Sandesh from Beliatore… But that’s an exception, really. Kalna is known to be the wholesale market of Bengal, for Chhana, or cottage cheese. Now, there ate around 9 arat, or wholesale markets in Kalna and a huge auction takes place every afternoon. You can say, the price for that day is decided there. I won’t say, the ambiance is super hygienic, but please remember, we stay in India.
From the nearby villages, chhana is brought in large buckets, soaked in water. The large lump is squeezed inside two wood pieces and water is separated. And after that, it’s put on to the weighing scale. What we see being used in the Kolkata sweet shops, mostly is this chhana. In fact, if you’ve traveled inside vendor compartments at local trains, you might have encountered the chhana vendors.
Just to give a rough idea, on an average business day, the business volume for each arat is around 200 kg of chhana. And there are 9 arats around Kalna town.
A brief story on Sandesh
The name Sandesh is mentioned in medieval Bengali literature, including Krittibas’ Ramayana and the lyrics of Chaitanya. But the ingredient is not known. Probably it was NOT made from cottage cheese as the Vaisnobs and Brahmins considered it an impure form of milk. In Bengal, the present form of Sandesh from cottage cheese was made famous by three confectioners, BholaMaira (1775-1851), Bhim Nag (1809-1885), and Girish Chandra Dey. Jatindramohan Dutta once listed various types of Sandesh, that were prevalent in various places Bengal in the early twentieth century. The list was like this
- Gnufo Sandesh of Panihati
- Ramchaki Sandesh of Sodpur
- Kanchagolla of Santipore
- Sorer Naru of Poradaha
- Manohara of Janai( has got a fine history). For preservation the Sandesh was dipped into sugar juice)
- Aam Sandesh of BhutoMaira from Ariadaha
- Talsans of Chandannagar
- JolbhoraTalsans of Simulia and Bhdreswar
- KopatBhangaKorapak of Madan Maira
- Korapak of Simle
- BatabiSondesh of Jorasanko
- Green Mango Sandesh
- Egg Sandesh
- Half egg Sandesh
- Biscuit Sandesh
- Chop Sandesh
- Ata Sandesh
- Chocolate Sandesh
- Ice cream Sandesh
About the Makha Sandesh in Kalna
Now, makha sanesh is a strange game. It’s the unplanned beauty of Bengal. Let me tell you the folklore behind the naming of Sandesh. In ancient days, the good news was conveyed from one village to another, by the barbers, along with a sealed pack of chhena. And this news, or “sandesha” in Hindi, probably has become the new-age Sandesh. This story was shared by my friend and guru, Haripada Bhowmik. Now, coming to Makha Sandesh, it’s another funny story.
Chhana was getting spoiled during the summer of Bengal and probably to prevent that, somebody mixed it with sugar and kept it. Another genius culinary expert added some powdered cardamom and grated khoya. And the entire mixture is mashed heavily. And voila, Makha sandesh is born. Honestly, I do not know about the truth of this story- so, please take it as folklore. As we started finding out, we understood, there are two main shops for Makha Sandesh at Kalna- Kalna Sweets and Ambika Sweets. Ranjit da, the current owner of Ambika Sweets helped us a lot in this sweet train at Kalna and I would like to thank him for the same.
Ambika Sweets, Kalna
When we visited Ambika Sweets, it came as a surprise to us. Honestly, I didn’t expect an establishment with 7-8 outlets in a small town like Kalna. And the very fact that Ambika Sweets, Kalna automated machines for production, stunned us. The makha Sandesh is quite good there and so is their Sordoi. But we were about to go to Nabadwip for the same. The makha Sandesh at Ambika Sweets, Kalna is slightly coarse and not as smooth as we get in Kolkata. But what matters, is the taste and it was superb.
All said and done, if you’re a first-timer, please taste the Makha Sandesh during winter. The addition of jaggery takes it to a different level
A chain of phuhka outlets in Kalna
This may seem slightly out of context, but I’ve witnessed a great entrepreneurship venture in Kalna. A modest phuchka shop, named Rabi & Ajay Phuchka” runs proudly with 5-6 counters at premium locations throughout the Kalna town. There are interesting varieties, and a small sit-down facility- a couple of benches and tools. But whatever, having multiple counters for Phuchka is not a mean feat, and I salute the owners for the same.
Sweets Of Bengal has become a project for me. I do not know how many of these district sweets will survive the grind of time. But let me taste our culture and document the same. If you know of any special district sweets, please let me know. I must thank Amitava Dey, owner of Felu Modak for helping me with the project and Ranjit da for taking me around Kalna town.
I can be reached at Indrajit.firstname.lastname@example.org