How a Portuguese Technique Led to a Bengali Sondesh Explosion

Nearly 500 years ago, the Portuguese popularized milk curdling in Bengal. Bengalis would add sweetness and create a rich delicacy.

Tania Banerjee

July 2, 2021

How a Portuguese Technique Led to a Bengali Sondesh Explosion
Sondesh (Photo: Saurabh Chatterjee)

Although it is the syrupy Banglar rasogolla that has won the coveted Geographical Indication (GI) tag — a marker that ensures a food product has a specific geographical origin — it is the ubiquitous sondesh whose versatility Bengalis have exploited for the past five centuries. In a typical sweetshop, sondesh occupies more than half the shelf space — though its history is far murkier than that of the rosogolla. They are crafted as conch-shells, sculpted as ornate swans, or shaped into simple spheres. Some are crumbly, meant to be consumed in a day. The dense ones would be good for a week. It doesn’t matter which one you bite; your tongue will thank you anyway.

Long before the sondesh, pellets of sweetened khoa, or milk condensed over heat, were common desserts in the subcontinent, including West Bengal. “We had sondesh for a very long time, but it used to be made with either coconut or thickened milk, or lentils and jaggery. The name [sondesh] comes from its usage for sending good news,” said Pritha Sen, a food historian. Krishnadas Kaviraj mentioned this early iteration of sondesh in his Bengali book Chaitanyacharitamrita, set between the years 1486 to 1534. 

Sondesh today, in contrast, uses curdled milk instead of khoa. And though the dessert is enmeshed with Bengali identity, it is an artifact of the Portuguese colonies in West Bengal — a remnant of one of the subcontinent’s very first interactions with the Western world.