CALCUTTA -- Rosh Hashanah dinner at the third-floor apartment of Nahoum Nahoum, owner of the well known bakery of the same name in the 300-year-old New Market, is a treat, a treat for the senses and a treat for the soul. A heavy cloth covers the table, nearly obscured by an assortment of dishes heaped with various traditional foods, fragrant with many spices.
The guests arrive, speaking French and English and Bengali, even a little Arabic. Then the candles are lighted, conversation quiets, and it's time to observe the New Year of 5748 (the observation of the start of 5749 will begin at sundown on Sept. 23).
In honor of the occasion, the women are dressed in their finest: guests in subdued saris and kamish choridor (the baggy pants costume worn by fashionable women throughout India) mingle with those in western silk or cotton dresses. The men are comfortable in short-sleeved shirts and skullcaps. Rosh Hashanah is about to begin -- Calcutta style.
The servants scurry around, filling glasses with water that has been previously boiled and filtered (a necessary health precaution) and pouring a thick greenish raisin wine into heavy tumblers. Nearly all the trappings are different from Rosh Hashanah as it's celebrated in America, but the same religious spirit prevails.
Most of the Jewish families in Calcutta, Nahoum's included, came to India from Spain via Iraq, Syria and other Middle Eastern countries, and they still retain an allegiance to that part of the world, speaking Arabic in the home and an appropriate Indian language (like Bengali or Hindi) or English on the street.
The blessings are sung in rapid-fire Hebrew by a handsome, brown-skinned young man with an ornate yarmulke, Jonah Samson, a visitor from Bombay. The grandson of a hazan (one who sings a religious service), Samson sings beautifully as he makes his way through the service. First, he blesses that curious, cloyingly sweet and slightly viscous wine. Then the bread, round and somewhat flat, sort of like a hallah that didn't fully rise, with little satellites of rolls clinging all around, and the whole sprinkled with kulanjee (the strangely pungent black onion seeds used to flavor certain Indian dishes).
Then, one at a time, he goes on to bless the succession of various symbolic foods on the table, foods that are meant to be tasted before the start of the meal, sort of like ritual hors d'oeuvres. He holds up his glass or one of the plates for the appropriate barocha (blessing). After each prayer, he helps himself to a bit of food from the dish he holds aloft and then passes the plate so others at the table may also sample its contents.
There are two dishes of apples cooked in honey, one flavored with rose water and the other with cardamom and cloves; a small bowl of pomegranate seeds and one of tender, unctuous dates. "From Saudi -- the best in the world," according to the host.
Next there's white pumpkin (sort of similar to zucchini in texture) followed by garlic shoots and then long, long, long green beans, rather like those served in certain Chinese dishes. And then he blesses a dish of spinachlike greens and a huge, monstrous fish head (blessed but not eaten). Finally, he blesses the fish ("Bhetki, the best fish in the world," according to the host, a man given to superlatives). The thick, pure white flesh of the bhetki has been rubbed with a masala (spice mixture) before being baked in a tandoor and served at room temperature. The complex flavor imparted by that particular masala, a combination of lemon, salt, coriander, cumin, turmeric and ground red pepper or green chilies, provides an exquisite counterpoint to the bland, heavy fish.
Then the serious eating begins. Course after course, starting with brinjal (tiny eggplants) stuffed with a rather mild-tasting mixture of chicken and rice; hulba (a Yemeni dish of chopped greens with fenugreek), "good for the heart," according to the hostess, Nahoum's sister Helen, gently looking out for the welfare of each of her guests; gajar polao (rice with tender grated carrots); a curious me'lange of chicken, giblets and eggs; and alluringly seasoned pot-roasted chicken, almost more Middle Eastern than Indian in flavor, served with pungent fenugreek chutney. Next they serve the most famous Indian Jewish dish of all -- rich, brown, crusty alu makala, "the best potatoes in the world," according to Ruby Palchoudtiri, a well known Calcutta connoisseur.
The meal is then topped off by bright yellow chicken soup with little textured dumplings. No, not curried matzo balls but, like everything else served that night, a dish traditional to those Calcutta Jews whose ancestors arrived in India two or three hundred years previously, bringing with them the broad variety of tastes they had acquired along their diverse routes. As time went on, their cuisine was influenced by certain available Indian foodstuffs and spices. For instance, the little dumplings in the bright yellow soup were made of ground basmati rice, the flavorful long, narrow-kernel rice grown throughout India and Pakistan. They were then stuffed with a hauntingly scented meat and rice mixture, and the whole concoction is referred to as kubba curry.
Conversation gets livelier and livelier as the guests trade stories, with more and more enthusiasm as the greenish wine and other spirits are consumed. Some of the most interesting stories come from a young French journalist, David Kahn, in town at the time as one of his stops on an assignment to photograph the world's dying Jewish communities. With only 45 families remaining of the several hundred who originally built the three synagogues still in active use, Calcutta is, he says, one of the most interesting places he's been, especially in the context of its wonderful food.
It turns out that the diet of these Baghdadi Jews (as they're called, because of the background of their ancestors), while varied and exotic, revolves primarily around chicken and fish -- and vegetables, of course, since a great variety is available year-round.
Most of them observe strict kashrut, (eat only kosher meats and do not mix meat and milk at the same meal) and the resident shochet (ritual slaughterer) in town is trained only to kill chickens. Occasionally an itinerant shochet comes along, one who knows how to kill mutton (goat), the other meat that's generally available in India. Consequently, to make the most of what they have, the Jews in Calcutta developed their own, unique style of cooking, borrowing some exotic flavor combinations from their Bengali neighbors to add to their ancestral dishes; and the result, although much less chile-hot than most of the local food, is enticing and delicious.
But, no matter how delicious, after the various platters are passed several times around, the eating slows, the conversation quiets, and, after they nibble at an assortment of fresh fruit, washed down with exquisitely delicate darjeeling tea, the guests depart. And the year 5748 is properly on its way.
BAGHDADI-STYLE JEWISH POT-ROASTED CHICKEN (8 servings)
2 small roasting chickens, disjointed (9 to 10 pounds total)
5 to 6 cloves garlic
2 cinnamon sticks
2 large onions, chopped
3 bay leaves
1 1/2 teaspoons turmeric
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup water
1 1/2 teaspoons black peppercorns
2 tablespoon oil
Place all ingredients in a heavy pan, mixing until turmeric is distributed throughout. Cover and cook approximately 1 hour, or until nearly done. Remove cover and cook on moderate heat until water evaporates and chicken is tender. Chicken will stick to bottom of pan as it browns in the accumulated fat and oil. Cool in the pan. Serve with browned side up, either at room temperature or slightly warmed, accompanied by Mehti Chutney. MEHTISTART NOTE cq END NOTE (FENUGREEK) CHUTNEY (Makes about 1/2 cup, enough for 8 servings)
1 tablespoon fenugreek seeds
1/2-inch piece fresh ginger
1 large or 2 small cloves garlic
2 green chile peppers
1 cup cilantro, leaves and stems
1 teaspoon salt
Juice of 3 limes
Soak fenugreek seeds for a few hours. Grind seeds, ginger, garlic, chile peppers, cilantro and salt together. Add lime juice and mix thoroughly. ALU MAKALA (Brown potatoes made in the style of the Jews of Calcutta) (8 servings)
1 quart vegetable oil
1/2 pound chicken fat, cut into small pieces (or 1/2 quart more vegetable oil)
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon salt
16 old, round and smooth potatoes, peeled
Heat oil and fat together until chicken fat is melted. Strain out brown remains of the fat. Boil a large pot of water; add turmeric and salt. Cook potatoes about 4 minutes. Drain and dry thoroughly. Heat fat and oil mixture until smoking. Add dried potatoes and turn heat to low. Cook slowly about 1 hour. Do not allow potatoes to brown.
Cool in the fat. Remove and prick each with a long pin in several places; return to oil. Leave 3 to 4 hours. Shortly before serving, place pan over high heat until potatoes are golden brown all over. Serve while warm.
CHICKEN SOUP (8 servings)
5-pound stewing chicken, cut into pieces (or 2 small fryers, or equivalent amount of chicken parts)
2 onions, finely chopped
1/2-inch piece ginger, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
2 tablespoons oil
10 1/2 cups water
2 to 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon salt, or more to taste
3 to 4 stalks celery
4 fresh tomatoes, chopped
Kubba Curry Dumplings (recipe below)
Wash chicken and mix onions, ginger, garlic, turmeric and oil with 1/2 cup water. Place chicken and mixture in heavy covered pot and cook until chicken is nearly tender and onions are soft and mushy. Open lid and allow liquid to evaporate, stirring, about 5 to 10 minutes. Cook until chicken begins to stick and there is a fragrance of ginger and garlic. Add remaining 10 cups water, lemon juice, sugar, salt, celery and tomatoes. Cook 1 hour. Check seasonings; add dumplings to boiling soup, cooking for 30 to 40 minutes longer.
KUBBASTART NOTE cq END NOTE CURRY (Dumplings in Soup) (Makes about 24 dumplings)
2 cups basmati rice, soaked in 4 cups lukewarm water at least 4 hours, preferably overnight
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg, beaten
FOR THE FILLING:
1/2 pound chicken or lean lamb, ground
3/4 cup grated onion, squeezed dry in the corner of a towel
1/2 teaspoon chopped garlic
3/4 teaspoon chopped ginger
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
3/4-inch piece fresh ginger, grated
1 tablespoon chopped coriander
Drain and dry rice. Using metal blade, place in food processor and grind until smooth dough forms. Add salt. Add egg, if desired, for easier handling. Mix together filling ingredients. Place small ball of dough in the cupped palm of a moistened hand and pat out with moistened fingers to approximately 1/4-inch thick. Place a marble-sized ball of filling in center and, cupping hand, enclose filling entirely, forming a ball. Cook in soup 30 to 40 minutes.
FISH IN THE STYLE OF BHETKISTART NOTE cq END NOTE (8 servings)
2 tablespoons coriander powder
2 tablespoons cumin powder
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon cayenne or 1 small green chile, finely blended
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons oil
1 teaspoon salt
2 pounds thick fillet of fluke or flounder
(Optional: for a milk meal, add 2 teaspoons yogurt to ingredients)
Roast together on a hot, dry small pan the coriander and cumin powders. Add turmeric, cayenne, lemon juice, oil and salt; mix to a paste. Rub on fish and leave for 1 hour. Bake uncovered in a 450-degree oven 10 minutes or until flesh is opaque.