When the Portuguese first settled down in the Gangetic Delta, it is said that they introduced three things. The first of these was the chhana (chhena), which was obtained by adding a souring agent to milk; the second was dhakai ponir, a fresh cheese that would be curdled with the addition of rennet and then put in a bamboo basket and hung to dry out; and the third would be the salt-cured Bandel cheese. Recently, the Department of Food Technology in Jadavpur University met with one of the last few people making Bandel Cheese, Palash Ghosh, to understand and analyse the process of making it, and whether it could be commercialised, packaged, and introduced to an increasing number of people who have developed a taste for it, so that the cheese remains even though the family might not choose to continue creating it. Dr. Debabrata Bera and his team are currently in the process of creating a laboratory version of the cheese, which would mimic the long procedure of making the cheese by hand and also provide some solutions that can be beneficial for this particular cheese which is rich in probiotics and a plethora of minerals and vitamins that develops during the process of curing it.
Primarily utilising a procedure that is at least 500 years old, Bandel Cheese originally was a fresh cheese made of cow's milk curdled with lemon juice, and was then preserved in saltwater to lengthen the shelf life of this otherwise fresh cheese. However, it took the Portuguese some time to realize the fact that these didn't last very long on their own, and so, the little round balls would be smoked to give them some flavour and increase their shelf life too, so that they could be carried during long sea voyages. Allegedly, a group of sea-faring cooks from Chittagong who worked in these ships as cooks, also known as 'mowg' cooks, would find it of a lot of value and carry them along, and they would be served only after getting an overnight soak in freshwater, to get rid of some of the brackish taste and also to hydrate the cheese a bit to ensure a bit of creaminess rather than the springy texture you would expect of firm tofu or Halloumi, revealing a texture similar to Feta cheese.
In New Market, the cheese is sold by a few shops, and it can be easily recognized by shape, especially the ones that are smoked. In my household, Bandel Cheese would be brought home, soaked, and then served next day, sliced on top of cream cracker biscuits, or with some crusty bread. The fresh one lasts about 10 days in a tightly sealed box, while the salted one can last up to two months, and its uses are manifold. Denise Anthony, Senior Marketing Executive, Goodricke Group Limited, who has grown up eating Bandel Cheese, fondly recollects her favourite way of eating it. "Just fresh white bread, smeared with butter, slices of the cheese and some pepper. That's all you need. Add a few slices of bacon and a fried egg and you got yourself breakfast."
From a Chef's Angle
"The first time I came to Kolkata, about 19 years ago, I was smitten by the produce and the local cheeses. Bandel Cheese, Kalimpong Cheese, and Guava Cheese. Oh, the stories behind them fascinated me to no end," Says Chef Shaun Kenworthy, whose love affair with the Bandel Cheese is legendary. "I was at The Park, and I had to add it to Atrium's menu. Later on, when I went elsewhere, I took the cheese with me. It proved to be such a versatile thing! I remember making a salad last year with fried pointed gourd (parwal), local spinach, and then crumbling this cheese on top. But you can use it in so many ways! Slice it, crumble it, put it in your pasta - I make a smoky Mac 'n Cheese, and add this to the sauce, and oh, the result is so wonderful!"
In the Fine Dine Space
In the East India Room of Raajkutir - Swabhumi, a Boutique hotel, the Bandel Cheese Malakoff is a best-selling starter. "We deep fry it," noted Subrata Debnath, the former General Manager of Raajkutir and the Corporate Director of Food and Beverage, Ambuja Neotia Hospitality, "then serve it, piping hot, with a side of gooseberry chutney. The tangy sweetness cuts through the salt perfectly. We got rave reviews of it from patrons who hadn't known such a thing existed before."
(Also Read: 11 Best Cheese Recipes)
Outside Kolkata, eminent food personalities like Sabyasachi Gorai and Manu Chandra can be seen using this cheese in the menus they create. While the menu of Toast and Tonic features Udon, House Cured Chorizo and Clam with smoked Bandel, Lavaash by Saby, helmed by Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, and described as a "Bohemian-style locale serving light Armenian dishes," features it in their Greek Shepherd's Salad, and the cheese is a proud part of the Imperial Calcutta Cheese Platter. Home chefs and menu consultants have also warmed up to Bandel Cheese and used it in different avatars. Food researcher and history enthusiast Tanushree Bhowmick, who runs a popup kitchen called ForkTales, talks about it fondly. "I have this really special recipe of a fig and almond tart that we add Bandel Cheese to. The smoky saltiness just brings it all together and the result is incredible."
The white, fresh Bandel Cheese can be eaten on its own or used wherever Feta is called for, while the smoked, with richer, more intense notes, is often served with Bakharkhani, added to finish a risotto, grated on top of pasta, or just served with a good glass of crisp Riesling.
Bandel Cheese Salad with Marinated Onion
- 1 piece of fresh Bandel cheese
- 2 pieces smoky Bandel cheese
- 1/3rd cup red onion, julienned
- 1 tablespoon maple syrup or runny jaggery
- 1 tablespoon mayonnaise
- 1 tablespoon English wholegrain mustard or Bengali Kasundi
- 1-2 tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 1 tomato, sliced
- 1/2 capsicum, cut into slices
- 1 cucumber, sliced
- 3-4 black olives, chopped
- 4 slices of chicken salami (optional)
- Salt to taste
- Freshly cracked pepper to taste
1. Whisk together 1 tablespoon olive oil with the maple syrup, mayonnaise and wholegrain mustard. Add a pinch of salt and the onion and mix it all in well. Let it marinate overnight.
2. In individual serving plates, place the cucumber and tomato first, then put half of the marinated onion on top, followed by chicken salami (optional).
3. Crumble half of the fresh Bandel cheese on top and add salt and pepper if desired. Slice the smoked Bandel Cheese and put it on top, and drizzle extra virgin olive oil to finish.
About Poorna BanerjeePoorna Banerjee is a food writer, restaurant critic and social media strategist and runs a blog Presented by P for the last ten years where she writes about the food she eats and cooks, the places she visits, and the things she finds of interest. She is deeply interested in culinary anthropology, and food history and loves books, music, travelling, and a glass of wine, in that order.