The Bengali delights sandesh, rasgulla, rasmalai and chom choms have one secret that binds them — chhena, a peculiar type of cheese.

Prepared by adding lemon juice to cow milk, the chhena — it is safe to say — has single-handedly revolutionised the Bengali mithai scene.

But do you know what inspired it? Turns out it was the Portuguese Bandel cheese.

Despite being prepared through similar methods, the two cheeses differ in their taste.

While the chhena has a moist, sweetish consistency, the Bandel cheese has a smoky and salty flavour.

It is interesting to know the story of how the latter was invented and how it eventually inspired the chhena.

It all started in the town of Bandel, founded by the Portuguese near the trading centre of Hooghly.

The Portuguese were skilful confectioners and had invented the technique of curdling.

Following the battles with the Mughals, their numbers began dwindling and they began employing local cooks (from regions like present-day India and Burma) to cook for them.

It is said that these cooks learned the Portuguese curdling technique of introducing acidic substances to milk.

This eventually led to the popularisation of chhena.

The smoked version (Bandel) 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.

The irony is that though it is globally sought-after, only a few places in India sell authentic Bandel cheese.

Devotees who flock to the pilgrim town of Tarakeshwar and the temple town of Bishnupur will have a chance to taste it.

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.

The 500-year-old cheese may have dwindled from the Indian culinary scene but before it did, it inspired a generation of Bengali sweets.