Small sondesh moulds in Chitpur. Photo: Rhea Dalal
Mishti is Like Oxygen
Think Bengali and the first thing that probably occurs to you is mishti. And that’s hardly surprising considering just how popular Bengali sweets are across all communities in India and abroad.
In fact, mishti is such an integral part of daily life in Bengali that most sweet shops sell even a piece or two of a particular variety in tiny paper boxes for consumption at the end of a meal. Many Bengalis will even go to their favourite local mishti shop twice a day to get fresh mishti to be enjoyed after lunch and then dinner, though some even have it for breakfast!
As you can see, mishti is like oxygen for a Bengali, and it’s hardly surprising that there’s such an incredible variety available for the mishti-obsessed Bengali’s delectation.
Chitpur sondesh mould shop. Photo: Rhea Dalal
The ABC of Mishti
Mishti comes in many varieties and can be broadly classified intoshukno mishti or dry that is usually chhana based, rosher mishti or sweets soaked in sugar syrup, bhaja mishti or fried sweets, and kheerer mishti or sweets made with kheer. Sondesh falls under the first category of shukno mishti and has sub categories, mainly kora paak (hard sondesh) and norom paak (soft sondesh) and these are available in innumerable flavours and of course, shapes.
My mother occasionally made mishti at home and once in a while she would make sondesh. If my grandmother, or any of my mother’s aunts visited us in Mumbai, homemade mishti was a given and sondesh was often the mishti of choice.
Hello, Sondesh Moulds!
Mother had a few chhaanch or moulds made of wood and these were brought out on these sondesh-making sessions. She had the classic shankh or conch shell, maachh or fish, aata or custard apple, and generic phool or flower-shaped moulds.
A few years ago she found the moulds again and gave them to me starting off my fascination for these. Every visit to Kolkata meant a search for sondesh moulds and I found wooden moulds and black terracotta moulds too after scouring the Gariahat market, Lake market, and the Kalighat market. They’re not that easily available and one has to wander from shop to shop searching for one that might happen to stock them.
A butterfly sondesh mould. Photo: Rhea Dalal
Chitpur's Mould Makers
Soon I heard about the sondesh mould makers in Chitpur, a suburb in the northern part of Kolkata. I set off to look for them and after much wandering around and asking innumerable passers-by, I finally saw a row of shops with all manner of wooden kitchen implements festooning the fronts and glass display cases filled with hand-carved sondesh moulds. This is in the Notun Bajar area and the shops are right on the main road. There are more shops and workshops in the inner lanes but I didn’t explore further. If you walk a little further you will come across another treasure trove – shops selling kansha or bell metal vessels.
I walked into the first shop and it turned out to be the oldest on the street. Run by a gentleman everyone called Narayanda, the shop was packed to the rafters with all sorts of wooden kitchen tools – big platters called barkosh, little flat low stools called pnire, wooden bowls, huge flat bowls the Marwaris use to knead dough in, rolling pins in every conceivable size, huge wooden paddles used in sweet shops to stir kheer, and of course, boxes and boxes of sondesh moulds.
Boxes of sondesh moulds in Chitpur. Photo: Rhea Dalal
Of Lobsters, Fish & Butterflies
The moulds are made in two grades of wood – teak and mahogany. They are all handmade with patterns hand carved in deep grooves so you get a good clear impression when you press the sondesh mix onto the mould. You get small ones around 2 to 4 inches in size and you get really big ones around 10-12 inches in size. The big ones are for festive occasions like weddings when large fancy sondesh is sent as part of wedding gifts between the groom and bride’s houses.
The sheer number of shapes and designs will leave your mind in a whirl! Butterflies, lobsters, fish, peacocks, and the conch shell are most popular in the big moulds. The small ones are in greater variety ranging from different flowers and fruits to geometrical patterns, playing card motifs, conch shells, fish, et al.
These shops supply sondesh moulds and kitchen equipment to sweet shops across Bengal and even outside the state. In fact, if you have a pattern in mind you can give them a drawing and they will custom-make a mould for you.
I came back with a bag full of sondesh moulds and the joy of seeing a tradition alive and kicking, thriving, and even growing with the times.