The Food Of The Baghdadi Jews Of Kolkata
Image Credit: Instagram/rakshitamittal

Out of the five Indian-Jewish communities (which include the Jews of Cochin, Baghdadi Jews, the Bene Israeli, the Bene Menashe and the Bene Ephraim), the Baghdadi Jews arrived in India in 1492. Baghdadi church groups came from Iraq in 1790, settled in Surat for seven years and then moved to Kolkata on the East coast because they were doing business with China. Another group of Baghdadi Jews came to India in the 1830s, which included the Sassoon family (who financed the Gateway of India). The Sassoon family, being a prominent Baghdadi family, set up synagogues in Bombay and Pune, and also in Beijing. 

The food of the Baghdadi Jewish community is as distinct as their history in India. Their cooking is a hybrid; they added Indian flavours to Iraqi and Syrian dishes. The Baghdadi Jews also adapted English food like bread pudding and adopted Indian food like puris. During the time of the Second World War, The Baghdadi Jewish community in Kolkata doubled with a number of Jews who had fled Rangoon and they brought along new cooking styles. Freed Cochini slaves came to cook in Baghdadi households in Kolkata and Mumbai. Later, they were replaced by cooks of other religions. These “Jewish cooks” were in demand; they weren’t Jews but Muslims who had worked in Jewish homes and had an expertise in traditional Jewish cuisine. These cooks created Baghdadi cuisine, which is a unique hybrid of Bengali (Kolkata), Maharashtrian (Mumbai), Cochin and Middle Eastern styles; they married hot and spicy with sweet and sour flavours.

Calcutta had no facilities for kosher slaughter. So, Baghdadi Jews got the chance to eat meat only on special occasions, when slaughterers came from Mumbai. For this reason, they were good at preparing vegetables and fish. The Jews adopted the Bengalis’ passion for freshwater fish and dislike for saltwater fish. Breads like chapatis and parathas were made by servants. Desserts weren’t really part of the menu, but Baghdadi Jews ate sweetmeats flavoured with cardamom and rosewater, and exchanged them on Jewish holidays. Ready-to-eat Indian sweets were bought. Nahoum and Sons, an old Jewish bakery that started off as a small door-to-door business, is still popular in Kolkata.

Baghdadi Jewish cuisine includes dishes like aloo makhalla (made with potatoes and chicken), marak (chicken or mutton with gravy) and mahasha (stuffed tomatoes) and is very different from the food of the Bene Israelis and the Cochin Jews. Fresh produce from Kolkata has given Baghdadi Jewish cuisine greater variety. As the cuisine evolved, it became inseparable from the community. Now, it's a marker of the cultural memory and religious identity of Baghdadi Jews.