Bangalar Mistanna – Brief History
Modern Bengal, is what we know today as west Bengal, which after scores of political dissections, is a disappointing left over of the greater Bengal. The region was recognized for its vast fertile land encompassed by numerous rivers and water bodies. Here farm practices were the main source of livelihood to millions. Ample amount of rice, fish and vegetables were available, mostly produced without any farm effort, growing as a part of the natural vegetation. With assistance from its glorious folklore, entertaining workers of all speciality. But all of this was quickly fading. The diverse multi-layered culture which was Bengals matter of pride was evanescent. But yet, what is left behind is quiet noteworthy. Bengal was enveloped in greenery and water bodies, and an array of fishes and vegetables were added to the Bengali platter. A Bengali is known to be content with maach bhaat. In order to ensure regular milk supply in households the custom of domesticating cows and goats were pursued. Though meat eaters around the world remember Bengal with its availability of delicious mutton giving it the name of Black Bengal, milk consumption in Bengal also has a significant record.
The prosperous Bengali kitchen (paksala) would see the preparation of milk based Pitha (cakes) during Pous Parbon or Payas offered to Griha-Debata on auspicious occasions along with other milk products which add to the culinary culture of the city. Elder female members of the family would indoctrinate the newly wed badhus reassigning their cookery skills which became a custom for generations.
Village milkmen made their living by maintaining cows to produce and supply milk compensating the residual market demand. Seasonal fluctuations however lead to the problem of surplus milk. So, to preserve this surplus perishable milk, an alternative process was invented and its end product became Mistanna, Two chief courses of actions were performed. Foremost the moisture of the milk was reduced by direct heating and then sugar was added towards the end, producing Khoa. Subsequently Chana is (casin) produced by curdling hot milk with acid as an agent. In the following stage, either dried out Sandesh or syrupy Raser Mistanna were produced. A few more inventive would set curd with milk and this product would be sent for retail. Hence, preservation of surplus milk and market demand for the produce was the main motivation behind the flourished cottage industry of Bengal’s sweet meat. Making of chana, only in this part of the country, was another unsolved mystery. Irresolute history retraces its path to the Portuguese food habit making its way into Bandel,Hooghly. Till date it is available in the name of Bandel cheese in some of the local markets. Still, Chana of Bengal, in all regard, differs from the said Bandel cheese.
In those days of inadequate of modes communication, it was difficult for a local recipe or foods find its way. Mistanna was accessible in whole of greater Bengal in variety of forms and taste. Considering this land’s vast yet different cultural profile than other parts of India, we would like to believe that Chana is absolutely Bengal’s own product. Visiting the remotes villages of Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and Bangladesh, social scientists might discover cultural traits of that elapsed period, even today. Bengal’s Mistanna was took its new avatar in this colonial city of Calcutta. In the mid-nineteenth century the educated westernised Bengali upper class had developed finer tastes for food and life and thus the village Moira was remembered to make sweets of new-fangled flavour apposite their new lifestyle. Hence, the artisans from every corner of Bengal came together, setting up shops in North Calcutta, Sutanuti to satiate the taste buds of this New Generation. Not just the elites, mistanna became an integral part of the daily meals of the middle class babus too. The introduction of Railways allowed these social changes to take place. These artisans settled within the premises of the shops to facilitate their business needs, calling it their “basa”. Their exposure to the urban lifestyle helped adopting finer taste in developing their products and practice. This was evident with the association of great names like Sir Ashutosh, along with the Nobel Laurete, Rabindra Nath Tagore, whose meals were incomplete without Sandesh.
Many ancient memoirs contain accounts of Artisans suggesting or being suggested exotic ideas which later escorted to the making of the finest variety of sweets that exist today. And has remarkable contributed to Bengal’s identity.
Post independence and with globalisation, Bengal witnessed a colossal changes in their socio economic situation. New two and three tier cities gave birth to the neo rich flourishing with the rampant urbanisation. Thus with the sweeping transformation in the cultural front affected our lifestyles and food habits. Tinned food was brought into play to make lives simpler. Inexpensive sweets having longer shelf life, made their entry in Bengali homes
affordability and preference for fusion items surrogated loyalty for a particular variety. With increase in cost of production and lower patron support, many exclusive novelties of Mistanna have been lost in oblivion. Moreover, the profession not being lucrative enough discouraged the participation of the new generation, either as entrepreneur or worker.
In near future, Bengal’s old classical form of Mistanna may vanish, dying a natural death, making way for new products as modern sweets, like many other things we have lost in the progress of civilisation.