As borders shrink in an increasingly globalized world, some unique communities are nearing extinction. The Jews of Calcutta are one of them.
As the capital of British India in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Calcutta in eastern India was once a migrant hub. Communities such as the Parsis, Armenians, Burmese, Chinese, Greeks, and Jews settled there to establish trade and escape their respective wars and displacement. In the early 19th century, it became home to Baghdadi Jews, who comprised one of the Middle East’s most significant Jewish populations until they began to travel as merchants during the 16th century. But after India’s independence from Britain in 1947, nearly all of the 6,000-odd populace re-emigrated west or re-settled in the newly formed Israel.
Today, only about 20 Jewish descendants of the original Baghdadi Jews remain in Kolkata (as it was renamed in 2001 in recognition of its Bengali moniker). The city’s Jewish Community Affairs body has stopped counting the number of Jews who call the city home, and nearly all of them have aged into their seventies. This has prompted fears that the Jews of Calcutta will soon be history.
But there is one thing that may be able to preserve the legacy of this unique community: food.
A new restaurant, Calcutta Stories, aims to draw attention to Kolkata’s Jewish heritage. Calcutta Stories is trying to pique the city’s interest in the migrant cuisines of Kolkata’s roots, including Jewish, Parsi, and Armenian Indo-fusions. It is owned by Prithvish and Baishali Chakravarti, who launched the traditional Kolkata-Chinese eatery Tak Heng last year. The Jewish section of the menu was crafted by 86-year-old Flower Silliman, who has been chronicling Jewish-Calcuttan cuisine through cookbooks in a bid to preserve an essential part of the community’s culture.
Silliman was born in Calcutta, where she lived for about half her life before moving to Israel and, later, to the US to live with her children. “My mother wasn’t a good cook, but my grandmother was,” Silliman says of her younger days in Calcutta. “She was incredibly inventive. For instance, she used to make a delicious jam with the pith of pomelos, and even though the fruit is bitter, the jam wasn’t. It was her way of combining the cooking techniques of the Middle East—she was from Basra—with what was available in India.”
Over time, Middle Eastern culinary traditions began to merge with Indian ones, creating a unique flavor profile. The most popular Jewish-Calcuttan dish within the Jewish community is probably alu makallah. “I always say this dish came about because two Bengali and Jewish housewives were neighbors,” Silliman says.
Believed to have been inspired by the chopped fried potatoes that are indispensable throughout West Bengal, the state of which Kolkata is now capital, alu makallah is made by peeling whole potatoes, pricking them all over with a fork, and deep-frying them in oil with salt and turmeric. The outside turns crisp and brown, while the inside is soft and delicious. They’re best eaten by hand, because they tend to jump off plates if you try to cut them with a knife and fork.
The gradual fusion of Bengali and Jewish cuisines over the centuries included assimilating Judaism’s strict dietary laws with Indian culinary techniques. Having trained as a nutritionist, Silliman’s interest and expertise in Indian food led her to open the world’s first kosher non-vegetarian Indian restaurant, Maharaja, in Israel in the 1970s. “At the time, Israelis were starved for information about India,” she says. Silliman hired a cook from India and decorated the restaurant with classical paintings to make it as authentically Indian as possible, and ran it successfully for around eight years.
Silliman retained the “Indian-ness” of the food at Maharaja without combining it with local flavors, but at Calcutta Stories, she has reflected the marriage of Middle Eastern and Indian cuisines. Jewish food was blander and lighter in the deserts of the Middle East, but it became spicier and fuller when the Baghdadi Jews came to India.
New ingredients and access to fresh greens made unique interpretations of standard dishes possible. For example, Jewish households in Kolkata added fresh ginger—which isn’t available in the desert—to hilbeh, a green chutney traditionally prepared with fenugreek seeds, garlic, lemon juice, coriander, and green chilies. Some versions also added mint leaves and/or parsley.
Living between these two cultures didn’t just mean applying different cooking techniques to foreign vegetables—it also meant finding ways around Jewish food preparation laws in a non-kosher country. Ian Zachariah, a 73-year-old food writer who works with Jewish Community Affairs, grew up in the only Jewish family in Jamshedpur, a city 290kms (180 miles) away from Kolkata. Since Jews make up only a small minority in India, kosher rules were tough to follow. “Our cook used to slaughter the meat because no one knew the kosher way,” he says.
When he moved to Calcutta over 50 years ago, kosher meat was easier to find because of the larger Jewish community. But as the number of Jews in the city shrank, they had to adapt. One alternative was to go to a halal butcher, because the method of slaughter as per Islamic and Jewish dietary laws is very similar. The meat would then be salted for an hour to draw out all the blood before it was cooked.
Other Jewish culinary rules were easier to adhere to, such as not mixing dairy products with meat. Coconut milk became a valuable substitute for dairy. Freshwater fish was a staple in every household, thanks to the abundant lakes and rivers in the state. A common stew was made by flaking fried fish into boiling coconut milk with fresh coriander and chilies. Tamarind also began to appear in some traditionally Jewish dishes, such as chitanee, which is a sweet-and-sour chicken preparation.
Until now, the new generations of Kolkata have only known of the city’s Jewish legacy through oral history. But thanks to Silliman’s cooking at Calcutta Stories, they’ll get to taste it, too.