Saturday, November 1, 2008

At Nakur

Kolkata sweet makers have a weird life, like bakers the world over, they sleep while the rest of us work and make themselves busy into the deep hours of the night. When you visit the sweetshops in the afternoon—at least those where the workshops are in the rear of the store—you see the workers sprawled on benches and any other elevated spot, tossing and turning in an effort sleep. As best as I can figure out, many of them live here much of the time. If you want to see the action, you need to wait until dark. Most of the confectioners don’t start production until six, seven o’clock so the sweets are fresh the next morning. Remember, there are no refrigerators here.

The best example
of one of these small confectioners is Girish Chandra Dey & Nakur Chandra Nandy, one of the best loved and oldest sweetshops in North Kolkata. Nakur, as everyone calls it, is on a busy commercial lane in the skein of densely trafficked streets that make up the old Shyambazar district. The shop itself is little more than a grated hole in the wall but the locals who line up at the window and the connoisseurs who have braved the traffic across town, know that this is where you can find some of the finest sandesh in Kolkata, delicate and creamy with a subtle grain that melts gradually and unevenly in your mouth.

This is probably the spot to discuss Kolkatans’ most beloved sweetmeat.
Whereas rossogolla seems to incite controversy and reactions that I associate with soccer hooligans [see for a little sample] sandesh seems to be primarily on object of affection. There is controversy, no doubt, but little bloodlust. I had the good fortune to have Joydeep Chatterjee my Kolkata sweets guru open the door for me at Nakur. Here there is no secret (or not much) to how sandesh is made. In fact, regular mortals can see right into the workshop as they shop for their sandesh. The workroom is astonishing simple. A large gas burner or two with a giant karai (Indian wok) set on top. A couple of sinks. And that’s about it. The workers mostly work squatting on the floor assembling the confections.

The process of making sandesh is easy enough to describe—the finesse comes in the execution. And the ingredients. In the early hours of evening, milk trucks pull up to the front of the shop, buckets of fresh, raw cow’s milk are carried inside and then pasteurized. Then a worker adds a small amount of the sour whey from the last batch of chhana. This curdles the hot milk. Then the milk solids, called chhana, are scooped out and allowed to drain. This is, incidentally, exactly the same process as making ricotta. Now the milk curds are set on a wooden board, set at an angle over a sink, allowing the whey to seep out gradually. Then comes a light squeeze in a linen cloth and finally the critical step where the chhana is kneaded, by hand, to achieve just the right texture. I am introduced to the master kneader, Uchit Narayan, the one Joydeep told me he would adorn with jewels and honors, if he had the power. Uchit grins at me and gets back to work.

Once the curds are the perfect consistency, they are cooked with a sugar syrup.
Depending on the desired result, you will cook them more or less time. Cook the mixture briefly and the sandesh is the consistency of a light delicate cheesecake. Longer contact with the fire and the sandesh is drier so it can be molded and filled—much like Belgian chocolates. At Nakur the fillings vary from lemon to black currant to even vodka!

So what makes Nakur better than the great majority of Kolkata sweetshops? First the milk. Protap Chandra Nag, who runs the shop, quips that K.C. Das uses pasteurized milk for their confections and so his sandesh has no flavor. Another reason is the slow process of draining the chhana which maintains the fat content of the milk. Joydeep tells me that a lot of sweetshops weigh down the [warm] chhana to extract the whey, losing a lot of butterfat along the way. They can render the fat and sell it for ghee but the sandesh is poorer for it. Finally, the apostates will the knead the chhana in a machine. A horror, my guru assures me.

So what is my favorite here? I think it is one of the simplest: a sandesh filled with a mix of soft chhana and evaporated milk. It’s like an edible haiku on the many forms of creaminess.