Bandel Cheese: Binding Bengal & Portugal

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    While Portuguese heritage in India is usually associated with Goa, a small Portuguese settlement at Bandel in the hinterlands of Bengal has an interesting legacy, kept alive today through cheese.

    Now known as Bandel cheese, what makes this delicious cheese so special is the fact that almost all of the famous channa (made from splitting milk) confections such as sandesh or rosogola (rasgulla) from Bengal, owe their origin to the Portuguese and their Bandel cheese.

    Splitting of milk has always been considered taboo in Hindu traditions. In myths associated with Lord Krishna who had been brought up in Vrindavan, there are several references of various dairy products with the exception of channa. So then how did Bandel cheese come to be?

    The story goes back to the 16th century, when the Portuguese started their operations along the coasts of Bengal while it was ruled by Hussain Allauddin the then Sultan of Bengal, who founded the Hussain Shahi dynasty. They monopolized Bengal’s trade with Europe operating through the three main trade points of Saptagram or little Haven, Chittagong or Great Haven and Bandel.

    The Portuguese first landed in Chittagong, which later became the most important port of them all. The King handed over the Customs House of Chittagong and Saptagram to the Portuguese and permitted them to build trading posts in both the towns. Major products traded from Chittagong included textiles, spices, rice, timber, salt and gunpowder. Fabrics with craftwork on them were exported from Saptagram and were called ‘Sutgonge quilts’.

    The city of Hooghly was, however, the centre of operations from where the Portuguese monopolised the trade of salt, mercantile trade and placed a duty on tobacco, which they refused to share with the Mughals. Shah Jahan, prepared to destroy Hooghly and its fort in 1632. The Portuguese were defeated by the Mughals who conquered both Hooghly and Chittagong.

    Cheese made by Burmese cooks employed by Portuguese in Bengal. And assimilated into local cuisine.

    The town of Bandel, on the outskirts of Hooghly was established a year after the siege of Hooghly. It derives its name from the Bengali word bondor which means ‘port’ and was part of the Chinsurah Portuguese settlement. It was here that the Portuguese retreated after being defeated by the Mughals.

    The Portuguese settlers in Bandel, had dwindled in number after the battle with the Mughals. So they started employing local cooks (from present day India and Burma) who learnt the curdling technique and started popularizing it locally. Eventually, these cooking techniques and dishes became amalgamated with local cuisine. This was also how Bandel cheese was invented. It is said to have been made by the Burmese cooks under the supervision of their Portuguese employers.

    Soon, further experiments using curdling techniques led to the creation of delicacies like sandesh and rosogola that remain immensely popular even today, despite the fact that by the 18th century the Portuguese presence in Bengal had almost disappeared.

    Thus, the rather unremarkable looking Bandel cheese had a remarkable impact on the culinary history of Bengal. Today it is seen in a round disc like shape, made of cow milk. It’s made by separating the curd from whey, which is moulded further into its shape. It is available in two varieties- plain and smoked. The plain ones are white while the smoked variety is brown.

    Though it was always somewhat of a niche food, Bandel cheese today is only made in the villages of Tarkeshwar and Bishnupur. In fact, it can only be bought at one shop (Old J Johnson) in New Market, Kolkata.

    Did You Know

    Salt is one of the main preservatives used in the Bandel cheese, hence, it is soaked in water overnight to remove excess salt before using it in cooking.

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