The ties that bind, sharing an Iraqi-Jewish and Indian supper

There’s a whole menu of Jewish food which most of us will not know. It’s pretty niche — evolved by a community of Iraqi Jews based in Calcutta. It was always a small group of émigrés — 5,000 at its peak — which has now dwindled to fewer than 20 members. 

“The Jewish community of Calcutta was only ever a quarter of a percent of the city’s population even at its peak,” explains Max Nye, whose mother, Esther was born there. “Her family came from Iraq. Mum was three quarters Iraqi and a quarter Syrian — and her family had moved from Iraq sometime after the 1870’s. My great-great grandfather, moved the family from Iraq when life became difficult for them. ” 

Nye explains that the Iraqi Jewish community in Calcutta was one of three Jewish communities in India. “There was also one in Mumbai and another in Kochin. Each was distinct from the others.” The Calcutta Jews brought Middle Eastern and Iraqi flavours, which, Nye says, they ‘Indianised’ by mixing in flavours more commonly found in Indian dishes. “They added in spices like haldi (turmeric); dhania (coriander powder); and zeera (cumin). They also adopted coconut milk in curries but also to make creamy parev desserts. 

Nye explains that during the 100 – 150 years they lived there, the Jews created a new, hybrid culinary culture — with some dishes entirely unique to that community. Pantras, for example, which are made from minced chicken cooked with turmeric and salt, wrapped in a (parev) pancake, crumbed and deep fried. “They were absolute favourites with me and my sister. Mum refused to cook them for us as we squabbled so much over them!” 

Kofta was another dish that had travelled from Iraq to the new country. Instead of being eaten as part of a mezze spread of dishes as it would have been in Iraq, in India, it became part of a curry. 

Wanting to find out more about the cuisine in the last five years Oxford graduate Nye spent his time learning recipes from his mother, when he wasn’t working as a media trading director. He helped her to write them out properly and researched the origins of her family’s food. “In my 20s and 30s I had no interest in learning to cook it, but one day I went home and asked Mum to teach me so I could pass the recipes down to my children.” 

Nye was keen to know about his mother’s history but she was too young to remember much before she moved to England. “About two and a half years ago, I spent a week at the British Library researching the history of the Calcutta Jewish community and our foods to try and find out more about it.” 

He discovered some of the dishes blend Indian and Arabic terms. “Aloo makala — which is literally the most delicious potato dish you will ever eat — for example. Aloo is Hindi for potatoes and makalla comes from almaqaliya the Arabic word for fried. You parboil them first in water, salt and turmeric, then in oil and then leave them for one to two days in the oil." 

"When you want to eat them, you turn the heat right up until the potatoes are expelling air. It makes the jump around in the pan, so they’re also nicknamed jumping potatoes. To crisp them up my mum then dunks the hot pan in a sink of cold water. She calls it the shock treatment and it makes them really crisp.” 

Another recipe that Nye discovered had Arabic roots were buttery, date biscuits he’d always known as ‘barbers’. “I discovered that b’ab’e is Arabic for date and that I’d been misspelling it.” There was no traditional handing down of recipes from mother to daughter in the previous generation. With staff on hand in India, his grandmother, Florence, hadn’t learned to cook. 

When she arrived in England — where they had no help in the kitchen — she was not yet equipped to cater for her family. “Grandma Florence had never needed to learn how to cook. Apparently she once tried to make aloo chops (potato pancakes filled with spiced vegetables) and used engine oil instead of cooking oil. They came out blue! It could have been a family myth, but she didn’t teach mum to cook.” 

When his mother married his father Peter, she cooked a range of European food but none of the dishes from India. “We ate that food when we visited family to celebrate festivals like Rosh Hashanah and Pesach.” It wasn’t until Esther reached her early 30s that she finally learned to make her family’s food: “My great aunt Ruby called her and said it was high time Mum learned to cook proper Indian Jewish food.” 

A series of lessons followed taught by Aunty Ruby at her North West London flat, where they were joined by some of his mother’s other aunties and his cousin, Triffein, who, according to Nye, had started the first kosher Indian restaurant in London 35 years ago. During these lessons, his mother took notes in a large notebook. “She still uses it and adds recipes to it. ” 

Since then Esther has cooked more of the traditional dishes, catering for crowds of 25 to 30 people each Yom Tov and also serving it to her own family. Celebration meals now include dishes like those crunchy aloo makala and T’beet — a typically Iraqi Jewish way of cooking a whole chicken in rice slowly, overnight, much like an Eastern European cholent. 

To break the fast on Yom Kippur, one ate samboosaks (samosas) filled with cheese and either baked or fried; or perhaps bourekas, which are also cheese-filled or stuffed with a mushroom and pea mixture. Or cacahs made from the pastry scraps left over after making samosas. 

“The scraps are shaped into little biscuits and baked as they are or sprinkled with poppy seeds or a little sugar. They are very simple, which is the whole point for something to break your fast on.” Nye has now compiled more than 100 recipes to ensure that his mother’s community’s food is not lost. It’s a real labour of love. 

by Victoria Prever

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