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India is an Asian Earth Mother of great cultural and culinary diversity. Harbored among its millions for many centuries were three unusual Jewish communities, located in different regions of the country. I refer to the Baghdadi Jews of Calcutta, the Bene Israel of Bombay on the Konkan peninsula, and the so‑called Black Jews of Cochin in southwest India. These three groups developed their cuisines within the framework of Judaic laws in an essentially Sephardic system, independently of each other.
In early times, there was little knowledge of the existence of the Bene Israel and the Jews of Cochin throughout the rest of the world. Only later, during the 18th century, after the Jews of Bombay and Calcutta became established in their communities, was the word out that there were other Jews somewhere in India—isolated and even racially different but indisputably Jewish.
Calcutta: The Baghdadi Jews
In about 1800, the universal pull of trade started the movement from Baghdad, in trickles then in concert, to Calcutta. From then on, all the establishments of a Jewish community were organized there: educational, cultural and civic—from schools to synagogues and the cemetery.
The Jews brought with them from Baghdad their preferences such as hameen, combinations with vegetables and meat, and the famous koobe (stuffed dumpling). What they discovered in India was an almost entirely new group of spices and herbs that the local population were using, such as turmeric, cuminseed, coriander, hot chili, fenugreek (hilbeh), cardamom, mustard seed, and fresh ginger. In addition, tropical vegetables of the pumpkin family; loobia, the long bean; the coconut; bitter melon; and many more growing in the luxurious soil and tropical climate. These were incorporated into their dishes from the “old country,” and the gradual evolution of a new style of cooking began.
I was fortunate to have worked in Calcutta during the mid-20th century, when there was still a substantial number of the Baghdadi Jews living there. By the time I arrived, the Calcutta Jews had their own cuisine firmly stabilized and familiar to the entire community. Some recipes were completely new inventions, while others were Jewish by adoption but came from Baghdad to India. What gave it continuity was its use of the Judaic dietary rules of kashrut [the laws of keeping kosher] and its identity with their way of life in a new home.
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