Calcutta’s sweets can be exceedingly simple or excruciatingly complicated. Simple because the treats, called mishti, are everywhere; complicated because mishti are to Calcutta what bagels are to New York: a source of heated debate and endless opinion.
The treats here are different from the heavy, oversweet confections that frequently turn foreigners off Indian desserts. These tend to be based on reduced, richly concentrated milk. Bengalis, however, split milk for their mishti, a practice—possibly learned from Portuguese traders in the 18th century—that divides the milk into its liquid and solid components. This allows for lighter curd-based sweets that can be flavored, stuffed, covered with cream, dunked in syrup, and molded into the infinite variety of sweets that Calcuttans still adore sparring over today.
Such passion ensures high standards, however, and any neighborhood shop makes the essential ones quite well. The following rather opinionated list, narrowed from the hundred or so sweet emporia in the city, will be immediately and vociferously challenged by many locals, but we stand firmly by it.
Get fresh rossogullas—cheese balls in syrup—at Mithai (48B Syed Amir Ali Ave.), but never buy K. C. Das’s widely advertised and quite disgusting canned version. At the Gupta Brothers chain’s newest outpost in southern Cal (22 Ballygunge Park Rd.), go for the cheese cakes in sweet milk called rasmalai. The sweet pressed-cheese cakes named sandesh come in myriad shapes and flavors, but stick to basic ones like nalen gur sandesh, a winter speciality flavored with date palm syrup and best at the most centrally located branch of Ganguram Sweets (84A Sambhunath Pandit St.). Finally, Vien (34B Shakespeare Sarani) sells particularly good mishti dhoi, the divinely creamy sweet curd treat made in a clay cup.