A Note on Jewish Food in Calcutta
by Flower Silliman, October 2013
When the first Jews came from Syria and Iraq we followed the customs of our forebears in clothing, rituals and food. Until the early twentieth century, a few old people still wore Arabic clothing. Middle Eastern rituals were strictly observed for births, marriages, anniversaries, deaths and religious ceremonial observations all the way up to the 1920’s and 1930’s when I was a child. I have found that in Iraqi synagogues I have visited around the world, these traditional religious practices flourish.
When it came to food, it was slightly different, as our community bent their traditions to suit the new environment. While there were no compromises when it came to following the laws of Kashrut (Kosher eating), we adjusted our cuisine to include the bountiful produce here in India. Our food also gradually became more spicy to suit the tastes we developed here in the land of spices.
Ginger, green dhania (cilantro) and chillies and spices were added to old favorite recipes giving a new flavor to traditional Middle Eastern dishes. Jews from different parts of the Middle East who came to make Calcutta their home brought their own flavours and foodstyles to bear on our cooking. Yemenite Jews make hilbe (a green chutney) from fenugreek (methi) seeds, and this has become an essential sauce when serving aloo-makallahs and roast chicken for all the Calcutta Jews. Coconut milk was added to curries and desserts to maintain the dietary law that required that milk and meat not be mixed. All these changes produced a hybrid version of the original dish giving Calcutta Jewish food its signature identity.
The plethora of fresh fruit and vegetables of Bengal certainly added to the variety of foods served. As Calcutta was such a cosmopolitan City where we lived in close proximity with Armenians, Parsees, Anglo-Indians, Bengalis and other Indian communities, we also absorbed some of their cooking influences. As Muslim cooks, who also followed practices of halal were employed in Jewish kitches, they added yet another dimension to the food we served. Thus it was that we had Anglo-Indian, Parsee and Indian dishes as part of our daily fare.
Jewish culture and tradition is family oriented and so large family gatherings and meals were very much part of Calcutta Jewish life. Each week Friday night dinners and Saturday lunches are shabat meals that are quite elaborate with several courses served at each. Passover seder, Rosh-a-Shanah are other examples of times when large meals were served with special dishes prepared by the loving hands of our grandmothers, mothers and aunts and are remembered with nostalgia. And so it was that right through the Jewish calendar, observances were closely related to food and family.
Food connects the generations with love, bonding and closeness and as each year passes and older members are no longer with us, we pass on the mantle to the next generation to continue our traditions.