Updated: March 9, 2021 11:32:45 am
While it is well documented that the Portuguese during their time of settlement in India introduced chhana (chhena) by adding a souring agent to milk, what is lesser known is their role in bringing a new variant of cheese to the Bengal delta. Bandel Cheese, which derives its name from a small hinterland town which is around 50 km from Kolkata, is a constant reminder of Portuguese influence on Indian cuisine.
Cheese has never an important part of Bengali cuisine but it became popular under Portuguese influence in the 16th century.
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Though cheese is popular throughout the state now, Bandel Cheese is far from well known, and has a niche following among a section of culinary experts and food lovers. Over the years, it has developed a cult following of sorts, with this variant being among the favourites of legendary director Satyajit Ray and his son, filmmaker Sandip Ray.
What is the history of Bandel Cheese?
According to travel blogger Rangan Datta who has extensively researched and written on the subject, Bandel Cheese was probably first made by the Mog (Burmese) cooks under Portuguese supervision. It has a salty taste and comes in two different varieties — plain (whitish) and smoked (brownish).
“At present, many people from the Anglo-Indian community are regular consumers of Bandel Cheese. But the product has a huge potential in the local as well as in the international market,” said Datta.
According to Datta, it was probably the Portuguese who introduced the art of cheese-making in Bengal and despite all odds, the technique has survived over centuries. Initially, Bandel was the centre of cheese production but now it has shifted to Tarakeshwar in Hooghly district and Bishnupur in Bankura.
Palash Ghosh, who is one of the few makers of Bandel Cheese, said, “We started making it from scratch. Split milk is mixed with lemon juice and curd is extracted, with the excess water being drained off. Then the entire thing is shaped in a pot. To make the smoky variant, we use fumes to bring in the flavour.” He added, “The Ghosh family has been making Bandel Cheese for generations now. We use household items for our preparation. This is something which we do with a lot of care and affection.”
Though Palash, along with his father Shubhash Ghosh, has been producing around 150 pieces of Bandel Cheese from approximately 20 kg of milk on an average, they are unaware of the Portuguese influence or the history of the product in the country. The number of pieces can vary from time to time depending on the density of the milk. “The making is a very tough and delicate process. After processing, we supply it to the New Market in Kolkata,” said Shubhash, who just like his son keeps the recipe a closely-guarded secret.
Why the fight for a GI tag?
JU professor Dr Debabrata Bera has been closely working with Dr Shovon Roy, senior scientific officer at the department of science and technology, Government of West Bengal, to obtain a Geographical Indication (GI) tag for Bandel Cheese. Dr Bera feels their work can help improve the quality and commercial viability of the product. A GI tag will not just bring in recognition for its unique taste and history, but also exponentially increase its marketability.
“We started our research on the product a couple of years ago. Apart from its historical value, Bandel Cheese is very unique in nature. But if you look at the variant that the Ghosh family has been producing, you will find that the production and the packaging can be better. Quality control can provide the product the commercial push it requires,” Dr Bera told The Indian Express.
He added, “Another problem is that we have detected the presence of bacteria like E. Coli and Staphylococcus in this variant. These microorganisms contaminate the cheese. So, we are working on this now.”
Dr Bera and Dr Roy are not the only ones who are trying to obtain the coveted GI tag for Bandel Cheese. Saurav Gupta, the owner of Whole Hog Deli, a popular charcuterie in Kolkata, has also joined the race.
Gupta, along with a team of researchers led by Professor Bera, recently visited Palash Ghosh’s family in Bankura.
Taking to social media to share his experience, Gupta wrote, “A journey which started approximately eight years ago after I read about Bandel Cheese in a writing ‘The Portuguese Influence on Bengali Cuisine’ by Ms. Colleen Taylor Sen is now gradually coming to its fruitful end. Today, took Prof. Debabrata Bera, Dr. Lakshmi Roy and two of their Research Associates from the Department of Food Technology, Jadavpur University to Bankura to meet the family of Sri Palash Ghosh, an 11th generation Bandel Cheese maker & the only family in the world to make Bandel Cheese, as part of the mission to obtain the coveted GI tag…”
Though Bandel Cheese has a distinct taste and texture besides carrying forward an interesting cultural history and culinary legacy, it is still far behind its more distinguished cousin — cottage cheese (paneer) — in terms of popularity in Bengal. But with the efforts being put in to enhance the product’s commercial viability and obtain a GI tag, the Ghosh family, which spends countless hours daily to produce its labour of love, will hope that changes soon.
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