In the hierarchical systems of ancient India, milk was easily the “purest of edibles” — nutritious, spiritual, pious, and sans the ability to “induce worldly desires” or “distractions”.
Priests to royals, aged folks to young mothers, and folklore to ancient scriptures, all swore by the transcendent qualities of the drink, which was delicious, soothing, energising, healthy, and rich all at the same time, wrote food historian Chitrita Banerji in Milk: Beyond the Dairy, a compilation by the Oxford Symposium of Food and Cookery.
So naturally, the introduction of an “alien element” such as acidic foods in something so otherworldly could be considered near sacrilegious.
And for many centuries, “the importance of that belief was instrumental in limiting the people of Bengal (as well as the rest of India) in the uses they found for milk and the products they derived from it,” Banerji explained.
Then Vasco de Gama “discovered” India, the Portuguese established their centuries-long rule over the subcontinent, and the long-withstanding “Aryan taboo on curdling of milk” was finally challenged.
As admirers of Bengali cuisine, we should probably be grateful because this break in traditions gave the region chhena, or chhana, which is responsible for all the decadent sweets we know and love today — from sandesh and rasgulla to rasmalai and chom choms. It’s what gives your favourite confectionaries that moist, melt-in-your-mouth consistency, and by itself is akin to whipped cream cheese, sweet-ish and mildly acidic in taste.
The same practice also gave the region of Bengal a particular type of cheese — in fact, a lesser-known cousin of chhena. The difference today is that while chhena has only gained popularity with time, its sibling lags behind owing to several reasons.
The Bandel cheese is made in a similar process to chhena, by separating the curd from whey with lemon juice or a similar acidic agent. It is then moulded and drained, and the result is a flattened mound of dry, crumbly cheese that is salty and smoky in flavour, which you can pair with sandwiches, salads, pasta and more. It’s the perfect indigenous alternative to the likes of the Greek feta, with a high concentration of salt that helps with a long shelf-life.
To consume it, one must soak it in water overnight to remove some of the brackish taste.
The cheese was born in — and named after — the town of Bandel, founded by the Portuguese near the trading centre of Hooghly. During the 16th century, it became a major centre of operations for the empire, which traded salt, tobacco, textiles, spices, rice, timber, and gunpowder here.
This stronghold over the town, like the rest of the region, naturally gave way to a flurry of cultural influences – prominent among which was food.
A new spin on a 500-year-old legacy
Banerji opined that the Portuguese were skilful confectioners who passed their skills to aspiring culinary figures of Bengal. Another reason, she said, could be because Portuguese men formed relationships with local women from lower castes and Bengali Muslim communities, many of whom were hereditary cooks and confectioners.
French traveller Francois Bernier noted this mixing of cultures and cooking styles in the recollection of his stay between 1659 and 1666. “Bengal likewise is celebrated for its sweetmeats, especially in places inhabited by the Portuguese, who are skilful in the art of preparing them and with whom they are an article of considerable trade.”
It is said that as the number of Portuguese settlers dwindled after battles with the Mughals, they began employing local cooks (from regions like present-day India and Burma), and this group was among the first to learn the invader’s curdling technique, subsequently popularising it.
The smoked version was introduced by the Dutch, who wanted the cheese to last longer in order to carry it down sea routes.
In modern India, however, not too many Bandel cheese makers are left. Many attribute this to the end of the British Raj, which was followed by a large portion of the Anglo-Indian population migrating elsewhere.
With this, alongside the fact that it was not commonplace in local Bengali cuisine, the demand for Bandel cheese has slowly dwindled.
The irony is that though it is globally sought-after, only a few places in India sell authentic Bandel cheese.
In fact, it is no longer produced in the eponymous town — its production has shifted to the pilgrim town of Tarakeshwar and the temple town of Bishnupur. Curious visitors will also find the cheese in Kolkata’s historic New Market, but only in a limited number of shops, most notably J Johnson.
Recently, chefs like Ranveer Brar and researchers like Jadavpur University’s Dr Debabrata Bera alike are aiming to get this forgotten cheese a well-deserved GI tag. Their bid is to transform the little-known delight from being merely a piece of trivia spoken about by food connoisseurs and historians to something known and accepted in the mainstream.
In conversation with The Better India, Dr Bera, associate professor of the Department of Food Technology & Biochemical Engineering at JU, explains, “Bandel cheese was introduced almost 500 years ago by the Portuguese. In those times, Indians were not habituated with cheese at all.”
Dr Bera’s research began in 2017 in collaboration with the West Bengal government’s Department of Science and Technology. The main aim, he says, is quality and packaging control, as well as streamlining production and eventually training new cheesemakers to carry the art forward.
“Lack of availability, producers, and even a market for Bandel cheese has led to a severe dip in quality,” he says. “Our target was to introduce hygiene to the production process, especially because we had detected the presence of E.Coli and Staphylococcus in the cheese. We’re following the original methods of making it, while closely following food safety guidelines.”
Another interesting aspect of Dr Bera and his team’s research is that they are looking to extract medicinal value from the cheese.
“You see, it also contains some beneficial microorganisms. The protein essentially degrades to smaller peptides, which have pharmaceutical properties like being anti-tumour. We have isolated a few microorganisms from the cheese and are trying to see if these can be used in other products, like yoghurt or other varieties of cheese.”
Last year, Dr Bera’s team met with Palash Ghosh, an 11th-generation cheesemaker widely regarded as among the few, if not only, producers of this unique cheese left in India. They aimed to understand the process of making the cheese and what modifications it needed to aid commercialisation.
The smoky, salty, crumbly Bandel cheese – only sold in a few New Market shops – needs a coordinated effort to ensure its survival. Taste it while you still can.
ClickRightwards arrow https://t.co/cdfJ3WjDpu pic.twitter.com/FHw3IGid3C— Rangan Datta (@rangan_datta) January 20, 2022
“Another problem we noted was that there was no consistency in quality,” he says. “The quality and taste of today’s product are different from, say, tomorrow’s. So we aim to streamline that process, to make the products homogenous, which is important if we want to market it pan-India or even in international markets. Even the packaging needs to be homogenous — something that again doesn’t happen because there are hardly any makers left.”
Alongside Dr Bera, chef Brar as well as Saurav Gupta, founder of Kolkata-based Whole Hog Deli, are also campaigning to bring Bandel cheese further into the limelight. While Brar has started an online petition to get it the GI-Tag, Gupta directly coordinates with Ghosh and other cheesemakers to establish a market for the cheese.
As for its scope, there’s a lot you can do with Bandel cheese.
Delhi-based Udit Maheshwari uses it to make a saltier kulcha that pairs well with spicy Indian curries, while Lavaash founder Sabyasachi Gorai finds it to be the perfect base for cheese sauces and dips, enhancing its flavours with the addition of nuts, adding a sweet kick with jaggery, or elevating its tart taste with kasundi mustard.
Here’s a recipe for Ranveer Brar’s spin on mixed vegetable sabzi using Bandel cheese:
- 1 tbsp ghee
- 1 tbsp oil
- ½ tsp cumin seeds
- Ginger garlic paste
- 2 large onions, finely chopped
- 1 tbsp coriander powder
- ½ tbsp degi red chilli powder
- ¼ tsp turmeric powder
- 1 cup fresh tomato puree
- ¼ cup water
- Sauteed vegetables
- 6-7 french beans, roughly chopped
- Salt to taste
- 2 processed cheese squares, cut into small cubes
- ⅓ cup water
- 5-6 smoked Bandel cheese, cut into quarter
- 1 tbsp coriander leaves, chopped
How to make it:
For ginger garlic green chilli paste:
- In a mortar pestle, add ginger, green chilli, salt to taste, and garlic.
- Crush it into a coarse paste and keep it aside for further use.
For sauteing vegetables:
- 1. In a saucepan, add ghee. Once it gets hot, add carrots and mushrooms.
- 2. Saute for 1-2 minutes.
- 3. Add green peas. Mix everything well and keep it aside for further use.
For Bandel cheese sabzi:
- In a saucepan add the oil. Once it gets hot, add cumin and ginger garlic paste, and saute for 5-10 seconds.
- Add onion and saute until translucent.
- Add coriander powder, red chilli powder and turmeric powder, and saute well.
- Add tomato puree and cook for 40-50 seconds. Add water and cook further for 2-3 minutes.
- Add sauteed vegetables, water, french beans and salt to taste.
- Now, add the processed cheese cubes, water and smoked Bandel cheese.
- Transfer into a serving dish and garnish it with coriander sprig. Serve hot with roti or rice.
Edited by Yoshita Rao
‘Fabled fromage: Two Bengal cheeses and their tales of homecoming’: Written by Ujjainee Roy for Telegraph India, Published on 12 August 2022
Milk: Beyond the Dairy: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 1999. (2000). United Kingdom: Prospect Books.
‘Why researchers and a charcuterie owner are fighting for a GI tag for Bengal’s unique Bandel Cheese’: Written by Palabi Dey for The Indian Express, Published on 9 March 2021
‘Bandel: A jewel of the Portuguese in Bengal’: Written by Sushmito Lahiry for LiveHistoryIndia, Published on 16 July 2022.
‘Syrupy trail: Who made the first Rosogulla?’ Written by Pritha Sen for The Times of India, Published on 5 August 2015
‘A short history of those pearly white, mouthwatering rasgullas’: Written by Shoaib Daniyal for Quartz India, Published on 5 August 2015
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