In The Newlyweds, when Amina returns home to Bangladesh, her mother picks up a box of freshly-made sondesh from a reputed vendor to bring to Amina's aunt.
Bangladesh shares the Bengali language with the Indian state of West Bengal. Bengali sweets (mishti) are famous all over South Asia and sondesh is particularly well-known. Like most other Bengali sweets, sondesh is a milk-based treat made from fresh cheese (paneer).
The word sondesh (or sandesh, as it is spelled in the rest of South Asia) is both singular and plural and means "messages." The sweets, it is said, got their name because the dry confections were often sent along with the bearers of good news.
According to a paper presented at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery in 1999, "'Mukha mishit korao' - 'Sweeten your mouth' - is the phrase used when offering [sondesh] to guests. The number, quality, and provenance of the sweets are an index of a guest's status. In remote villages, where sweets are not available or people are too poor to buy them, visitors may be offered a glass of sugar-flavored water. Friends and family members who travel bring back sweets from famous shops."
Writer Colleen Sen, the daughter-in-law of the late Arati Sen - a well-known Bengali columnist - explains that, "Sweets are an essential component of Bengali hospitality. Bengalis send sweets to friends and superiors as gifts, eat them to celebrate passing an examination or getting a new job, and offer them to the gods at pujtts. Sweets are a marker of rites of passages in a Bengali's life: the birth of a child, pregnancy, marriage, even death. The apogee of the Bengali sweet-makers' art and the sweet most emblematic of Bengaliness is sandesh."
Though there are many different recipes for how to make sondesh, it is generally cooked with paneer (made from cow's milk), sugar, lemon juice, clarified butter (ghee), and spices such as cardamom or flavorful extracts like vanilla. The mixture can be molded into a variety of shapes and is often garnished with nuts, such as pistachios or almonds.
Other popular Bengali sweets include the syrupy rosogolla (cheese balls in syrup) and mishti doi (literally translated as "sweet yogurt").
You can try your hand at sondesh by following the instructional video below, found at ManjulasKitchen.com:
This article was originally published in May 2012, and has been updated for the
February 2013 paperback release.
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