Like soccer, it gives a sweet kick. Like kolaveri di, the Tamil song gone viral on the net, it`s a rage. Born and reborn in new avatars and a symbol of the Bengali sweetmaking genius, the sandesh has undergone brilliant evolution to keep up with the contemporary palate.
How else does one explain the widespread fame and ever increasing popularity of this sweetmeat, made of cottage cheese, that exists in over 100 varieties, with latest ones like chocolate free kick, kolaveri di and butterscotch sandesh?
`Sandesh is not only a bestselling sweet, it is also the most versatile as it can be given any shape, colour, texture and flavour. There are over 100 varieties of the confection including chocolate variations,` said Dulal Gupta Sharma, secretary of the West Bengal Sweetmakers Association.
Sharma, who is penning a book on the history and evolution of the sweet industry in the state, said: `Sandesh, which literally means `message`, traces its origin to the age`old tradition of sending sweets along with good news, especially about childbirth or marriage and as time elapsed, the sandesh of today evolved.`
Varieties of sandesh, an essential component of Bengali hospitality, has names that reflect flavouring, texture, shape, size, design, ingredients, as also the poetic fancies and advertising flair of their creators.
Examples are deshgourob (glory of the nation), manoranjan (heart`s delight), monohara (captivator of the heart), pranahara (captivator of the soul), abak (wonder), nayantara (star of the eye), abar khabo (I`ll have another) and the latest ` kolaveri di.
Confectioners have always resorted to fancy names for their sweets. A sandesh was named after Lord Ripon, Viceroy from 1880 to 1884. In the 1960s, a sandesh was called bulganiner bishmoy (Bulganin`s wonder) in honour of visiting Soviet premier Nikolai Bulganin.
Sweet shops in Bengal, known for their novelties, have taken the initiative to create such attractive variants as choco-twister, choco-kumbha, choco-riceball, choco-fusion and choco-mudpie.
These usually mean adding slices of dry or fresh fruits, ice cream, and other non-traditional flavourings and moulding the sandesh with toast, sandwiches, cakes, chops, pastries, biscuits, and other Western food items.
Talk of the sweet is incomplete without the name Bhim Chandra Nag. Established in 1826, it is one of the oldest shops in the city and is synonymous with the sandesh.
`We believe in the coexistence of modernity and tradition which is reflected in our products,` said Suresh Nag.
`On one hand, we have the traditional sandesh like the taalsans, jolbhora and on the other we have the alfonso mango sandesh, the butterscotch sandesh (made with butterscotch pulp), the green mango sandesh with the flavour of raw mangoes. We also have the chocolate free kick ` a fusion of two passions of the city: sweet and soccer.`
Innovation in varieties has not escaped Girish Chandra Dey & Nakur Chandra Nandy, one of the oldest and exclusive dealers of traditional sandesh.
`We sell only sandesh, ranging from Rs.10 to Rs.30 apiece, and make over 100 varieties. Considering today`s times, we also have gone for a makeover of our sandesh and created several new flavours using chocolate,` said Prashanta Nandy, the owner of the shop.
`There is black forest sandesh and rice ball chocolate sandesh, white chocolate sandesh and the choco samosa ` a sweet variety of the popular Indian snack with the outer covering made of chocolate and stuffed with dry and fresh fruits.`
Gourmands feel sandesh has a delicate, complex texture that must be savoured. While connoisseurs debate the virtues of their favourite variety, manufacturers talk with the passion and expertise of a French oenophile.
`Sweets are a marker of rites of passages in a Bengali`s life: the birth of a child, pregnancy, marriage, even death, and when one talks of Bengali sweets the only name that comes to mind is sandesh,` said Priyanka Das, as she bought a bagful of chocolate fudge sandesh, watermelon sandesh and mango gelato sandesh from her favourite shop Balaram Mullick in Bhowanipore to celebrate her son`s birthday.
Talking about the sweet industry in the state, Sharma who also runs Mistimukh, a fortnightly journal dedicated to the industry, said: `In 2010-11, sweets worth Rs.70,000-80,000 crore were sold in the entire state, including exports. Around 30 to 40 percent of it consisted of sandesh.`