Jumping potatoes and other delights

Ian Zachariah | Updated on January 16, 2018
Eat, pray, love: Even in India, there are differences in the cuisines of the Jewish communities of Mumbai (above), Kochi and Kolkata. The genesis of the Jewish community of Kolkata goes back to 1798 when Shalom Cohen, a wealthy merchant and jeweller fromAleppo, decided to settle in the city. Photo: Shantanu Das

Eat, pray, love: Even in India, there are differences in the cuisines of the Jewish communities of Mumbai (above), Kochi and Kolkata. The genesis of the Jewish community of Kolkata goes back to 1798 when Shalom Cohen, a wealthy merchant and jeweller fromAleppo, decided to settle in the city. Photo: Shantanu Das

Bite-sized: Sambusaks (pastry filled with cheese or grated almonds). Photo: Cheryl Isaac

Bite-sized: Sambusaks (pastry filled with cheese or grated almonds). Photo: Cheryl Isaac

Jewish communities around the world have always responded to the cuisines of the countries they live in: the Baghdadi Jews of Kolkata are no different

“Do be careful when you eat the aloo makala”, my mother would always caution her dinner guests. “They jump”. And indeed these golden fried potatoes, with their crisp exteriors and fluffy interiors do have to be opened carefully, for if you attack these casually with a fork , they fight you back and can end up in your lap or your neighbour’s plate or — horror of horrors — in plain view on the tablecloth! Jumping potatoes indeed!

The aloo makala originated in Kolkata and is the culinary pride of the Baghdadi Jewish community that created it. The name simply means fried potatoes, belying the complications that follow. This signature dish requires a certain type of potato (old, with little internal moisture) that has to parboil before being simmered in hot oil where it gets its colour and crust. Few cooks or housewives get it right every time, but even when it’s not perfect, it’s excellent.

Food was especially important in the life of the Baghdadi Jews of Kolkata. Sabbath dinners and religious festivals brought families together and community meals kept the small population closely knit.

As I have written elsewhere, there is no universal Jewish cuisine. The presence of Jewish communities the world over has resulted in food and cooking practices that are extant in the countries they live in. Thus there is a difference in what families eat in Belgium and what they eat in Tangiers or Shanghai. Even in India, there are differences in the cuisines of the Jewish communities of Mumbai, Kochi and Kolkata. So, in order to explain the cuisine of the Jews of Kolkata, one needs to go back just over 200 years.

It was a rainy day in August 1690 when Job Charnock, a senior official of the East India Company, travelled from Madras to set up a trading post at the Bengal villages of Sutanati, Kolikata and Gobindapur, laying the foundations of what was to become the second city of the British Empire. Kolkata, with its logistical advantages, its vast hinterland and access to Far Eastern markets, grew rapidly to become the centre of trade and commerce in the region, and by the mid-18th century, was a magnet for adventurers, fortune seekers, merchants and tradesmen from all over the world.

The genesis of the Jewish community of Kolkata goes back to 1798 when Shalom Cohen, a wealthy merchant and jeweller from Aleppo, decided to settle in the city. Finding it conducive to trade, he sent for members of his family and invited his friends to share in his ventures. The community soon swelled with people from other parts of the Ottoman Empire — many came from the towns and cities of Iraq and Syria, which gave rise to the name ‘Baghdadi’ to describe the Jewish community of Kolkata and distinguish it from the ‘Cochinis’ of Kerala and the ‘Bene Israelis’ of Maharashtra.

It seems certain that Cohen had not arrived alone. Travel then was fraught with dangers, both natural and man-made. Merchants, especially traders in jewellery, usually journeyed in groups for security. Additionally, being a religious man and of the priestly class, he must have adhered to the Jewish dietary laws and so must have travelled with at least a shohet, a ritual slaughterer, and a cook.

The earlier settlers brought along their own cuisine of the Middle East, food that they were familiar with. Over time, Indian influences were stirred in as cooks realised that local conditions and produce gave them the opportunity to tweak traditional recipes. And local recipes could be modified for the Jewish table. For example, under Jewish culinary (kosher) rules, meat and milk items cannot be cooked together nor served together at a meal. So in the preparation of, say, a korma, coconut milk substituted cream and there are no non-veg fry-ups with butter. This also why, after a meal which includes meat dishes, you will not be offered milk with after-dinner coffee.

The role of the ‘Jewish cook’ in the evolution of this cuisine cannot be underestimated. Jewish cooks were not Jewish — they were Muslims who had learned to make traditional fare. And over the years had mixed and added spices, used local and seasonal vegetables and developed cooking techniques, all of which resulted in a recognisable and distinct repertory of ‘Kolkata Jewish’ fare; Middle-Eastern meals with Indian overtones and Indian dishes with distinctive Iraqi flavours. These gentlemen — for they were inevitably always male — were in great demand in the community. An accomplished Jewish cook added to the household’s standing; though like Anatole the French chef at Brinkley Court (home of Aunt Dahlia in PG Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster stories), was often poached by a rival with the offer of a higher salary. Sadly, this breed of bawarchi no longer exists; not unlike the remnants of the Jewish community in Kolkata. They are either retired or gone.

Regional staples such as dal, rice, curries and bhaajis were the more common items at lunchtime; dinner would also feature chapattis or bread. The more versatile cooks would whip up “English dishes” such as Country Captain, chops and cutlets, or variations thereof.

Everyday traditional fare in our homes was fairly simple. Children, the elderly and the ill were frequently dosed with large quantities of chicken soup ( marag) and the presence of such seasonal vegetables as pumpkins (lau/lauki), carrots and beans added to the belief that marag “is good for you”. Another soup was ekjosh which used all fish cuts including the head, flavoured with tomatoes, garlic, lemon juice and coriander. As children, we were introduced to khatta and meetha, the former a sweet-and-sour chicken stew with either beetroot or okra; the latter a braised chicken dish with either carrots, pumpkin or black-eyed beans. In both you would usually find koobas, delicate dumplings stuffed with chopped chicken and rice. Another family favourite — and the first dish I learned to cook — was mahmoosa, a simple fry-up of eggs and cubed potatoes and the inevitable fried onion base which seemed to be the typical requirement of Jewish cuisine in Kolkata.

At teatime, out would come the bakes owing allegiance to the old country: b abas (pastry with a filling of dates), kakas (rings of rolled pastry and sambusaks (pastry filled with cheese or grated almonds).

Festival food and meals on Sabbath nights were generally grander, with meals consisting of a number of courses. Each family had its own favourites; each kitchen has its own secret ingredient. If I remember right, my grand-uncle’s Friday night dinners began with a clear chicken or vegetable soup. Then the bearers came around with mahashas. Though they were not called starters in those days, the sight of the platter of succulent vegetables — often brinjals, sometimes cucumbers, tomatoes or onions — stuffed with chicken and rice and spiced with tamarind and cinnamon, was enough to animate the craving for the courses to come. This was followed by the anticipated aloo makala, served with roast chicken hari kebab. The third course would consist of pilao and chittani. This thick-gravied chicken curry is a typical adaptation from its Middle Eastern counterpart; its sweet-and-sour flavours are spiced with cumin, coriander and chilli. As an alternative to the curry, my grand-aunt would occasionally serve khatta. The meal would end with fruit or agar-agar, a seaweed confection.

As no cooking was allowed on the Sabbath, Saturday meals in Jewish homes were often put together from leftovers from the night before. A delicious salad would be created from aloo makalas and roast chicken, chopped together and garnished with coriander, onions and chillies. Another option — and a more filling one — was hameen, in which a whole chicken, stuffed with chopped liver and spiced with cinnamon and cardamom, was slow cooked overnight in a bed of rice.

With the exodus of the community beginning in the 1940s the population of the Kolkata Jewry is today down to about 20 individuals, but there are significant numbers in London, the US, Israel and Australia that still eat the food they did in Kolkata. It is not certain that the following generations will continue to do so. What is more likely is that the cuisine of the Baghdadi community will fuse again with local tastes and emerge as fresh culinary streams.


1 chicken, jointed

3 tbsp oil

1 tsp turmeric

1 tsp ground garlic

1 tsp ground ginger

6 large onions, finely chopped

1.25 cup vinegar or equivalent tamarind

1 tbsp sugar

1 tsp paprika

Chilli powder to taste

3-4 medium tomatoes, chopped


1 Heat oil and brown the onions well, stirring constantly. Add spices and fry for about 10 minutes.

2 Add the chicken or meat and fry well. Add the tomatoes, cover and cook gently till the meat is tender.

3 Add the vinegar and sugar just before the chicken is cooked. (The sauce has to be thick and shiny)

4 Sprinkle with cumin. Continue cooking for another 10 minutes.

5 Serve hot with white rice or pulao.

Ian Zachariah is a Kolkata-based writer

Published on October 28, 2016

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