Deciphering Bengal’s Lost Recipes

MUnshiganj, formerly known as Bikrampur (until 1986), is a district in central Bangladesh. It is part of Dhaka Division and borders Dhaka District. Bikrampur was the political and cultural center of ancient Bengal. During the Sena Dynasty, Vikramapura was the second capital of the Senas besides their capital at Nadia. After Bakhtiyar Khalji (1204) conquered Nadia, King Lakshmanasena fled to Vikramapura and continued his rule. After Lakshmanasena’s death (1206), his descendants Visvarupasena and Kesavasena ruled Vikramapura until 1223 AD. Some historians postulate that the sons of Lakshamanasena ruled in Vikramapura until 1243-45 AD. Raja Dasarathadeva Danujmadhava (Danuj Rai), the Deva king of Chandradvipa, ousted the Senas of Vikramapura in the third quarter of the 13th century and ruled over all of South East Bengal until the end of the 13th century.

Being an ancient capital, Bikrampur has always been a prosperous district. A large number of notable dignitaries hailed from this district, including the famous physicist/botanist Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, the reformers Brahmo Durga Mohan Das and Dwarakanath Ganguly, the Congress leader and close ally of Mahatma Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu, the three renegades — Benoy Bose, Badal Gupta and Dinesh Gupta – who orchestrated the attack on the Writers Building, cinematographer Radhu Karmakar, literati Buddhadev Bose and Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay and many others. In fact, a large number of the population migrated from the district to India during partition and settled here. But even after 75 years, the pangs of separation that have made a deep and permanent creak in the psyche of immigrants, continue to throb. It is not possible to forget the good memories of one’s “old” homeland.

Whenever the elders from Bikrampur get the chance, they always sing hymns about their “Desher Bari” (ancestral home) and the proliferation of gourmet cooks who have created magic with their culinary skills. Since Bengalis have a sweet tooth, no ‘adda’ is complete without discussing food and ‘mishti’ (sweets). One of the most notable and outstanding desserts originating from Bikrampur district is undoubtedly Pataksheer. This traditional candy has evolved over generations through trial and error methods and now its identity is synonymous with the neighborhood. In fact, the first thing that comes to mind for Bengali foodies around the world when they hear the name Munshiganj is Patkheer. Patkheer not only holds pride of place in Munshiganj, but its unique taste has captured the hearts of Bengali sweet lovers all over the world. Kheer (condensed milk) is wrapped in banana leaves (pata or leaf) and served, hence the name Pataksheer, aka Patkheer.

According to historical records, ‘patkheer’ was a popular dessert among Dhaka people even during Mughal times. According to elderly people from Santoshpara village of Sirajdikhan upazila, this confectionery is about 250 years old. It was created by Pulin Bihari Dev, who together with his wife perfected the art of making patkheer. At present, confectionery is only made in Ghosh-bari at Goalpara crossing under Santoshpara village of Rosunia union. About twenty families from Goalpara, all descendants of Pulin Bihari Dev, participate in the preparation of this confectionery.

Bharat Ghosh, the current owner of Maa Kheer Bhandar, is determined to carry on the legacy and he has made it clear to all family members that no matter their level of education or the career they choose to pursue, they will all have to participate to make sure nothing gets in the way of the centuries-old tradition of patkeer-making. They made a name and fame for themselves through patkheer. Another sweet shop named Rajlaxmi Mistanno Bhandar in Sirajdikhan Bazar is also known as Sunil Ghosh-er Mishtir Dokan. Sunil Ghosh passed away a few years ago and now his brother, Khokon Chandra Ghosh runs the shop. Others including Bharati Ghosh, Jagdish Ghosh, Samir Ghosh, Shankar Ghosh, Shibu Ghosh, Shyamal Ghosh, Manik Ghosh, Bimal Ghosh, Gopal Ghosh and Sridam Ghosh are also culinary experts who have made a name for themselves for their expertise in this domain.

The basic ingredients needed to make patkheer are very simple: pure cow’s milk, sugar, turmeric powder, cardamom and banana leaves to fix the kheer. First, two maunds of milk are boiled milk for about three and a half hours. Stir continuously with a wooden ladle so that the milk does not stick to the bottom of the container. After condensing the milk, one kilogram of sugar is added with five grams of turmeric powder, then the container is removed from the oven. The kheer is then poured into earthen pots to cool and rolled in banana leaves, ready to be served. A leaf of Patkheer weighs 500 grams. From two maunds of milk, 24 sheets or 12 kilograms of patkheer are made. A leaf of patkheer is sold at 300 Taka.

There is a strange and ancient tradition that is followed religiously by all families of patkheer makers. According to the dictate of the patriarch who initiated the process of patkheer, the daughters of the families are not allowed to learn the intricacies of making the dessert. Instead, those who are married to male families are taught the details of preparing the delicacy. This is due to the age-old belief that since daughters are married off and become family members of their husbands, it can jeopardize their monopoly as there is a chance of trade secrets being exposed.

Although demand for patkheer is perennial, bulk quantity demands peak during the winter months. On Christmas Day, for example, demand can reach 5,000 kilograms. Patkheer is also used to prepare ‘Patisapta Pitha’, another Bengali delicacy which is a must in winter. In the villages of this region, there is an old tradition of eating patkheer with muri (puffed rice).

The price of patkheer changes following the escalation of cow’s milk prices in the market. Most of the families involved in making the dessert confess that they are still in the business just to keep the old family tradition alive. The volatile nature of the market is deeply reducing their profit margins. However, patkheer has a ready market. In addition to the surroundings of Sirajdikhan, orders for patkheer regularly pour in from countries such as Italy, Germany, France and Japan. Locals place orders through mobile phones and a significant number of traders buy the item and sell it in different parts of Old Dhaka. Patkheer is now synonymous with Munshiganj and this unique heritage dessert is a must for anyone planning a trip to Bangladesh.