While growing up in Kolkata, 63-year-old Bandra-based Pia Promina Dasgupta Barve, who goes by chef Pia Promina, spent much of her time at the home of her Jewish friend, Esther Silliman, a fellow girl scout at Loreto House. Promina distinctly recalls tucking into the scrumptious Aloo Makalla, Bamya Khatta (pickled ladyfingers), cakes, cookies and other Jewish delicacies prepared by Esther’s mother, Flower. “She was also my cookery teacher in school. I learnt many Jewish recipes from her. She would rule us with a stick because we were a rowdy lot but we were always welcome at her home,” says Promina, flipping through 86-year-old Silliman’s Three Cups Of Flower, a multi-cuisine cookbook featuring Middle-Eastern, Far-Eastern and Jewish recipes.
Aloo Makalla featuring confit potatoes and Roast Chicken
Promina, who shifted to Mumbai post her marriage in 1975, and worked in food processing and export departments at Mafco and Britannia, stayed in touch with Silliman. In fact, she even asked her to pitch in with recipes for Calcutta Cookbook, presenting a history of the city through food, co-authored by Promina’s late mother and gourmet chef, Minakshi Das Gupta, back in 1993. “She and I are close friends now. She, and her daughter Jael Silliman, have strived to resurrect the Jewish community in Kolkata, and she is still full of beans. Recently, she was consulted for a Jewish menu at an upcoming restaurant there,” informs Promina, who now runs her own bakery called Pia’s Food Boutique, supplying cakes and cookies to Nature’s Basket. This weekend, she will host a lunch pop-up, Jewish Kitchens Of Calcutta, organised by a city-based dining experience curator, Authenticook.
Chef Pia Promina Das Gupta Barve
What’s the origin?
While Jewish pockets are found in different parts of India, their cuisines vary, based on the state/region. “The Jewish community would never be a ghetto. They opened their homes for Sabbath and adapted from other communities. For instance, the Bene Israelis, who settled in Alibaug, adapted to Maharashtrian-style of cooking while Cochin’s Jews, one of the earliest Jewish settlers in India, use coconut milk,” informs Promina.
Meanwhile, the cuisine of Calcutta's Jews is a mélange of dishes, with roast chicken, lamb, fish and duck but sans pork. “They also adapted from Bengali cuisine. For instance, one of the Jewish women [I don’t know who she was] saw Bengali women make the routine Aloo Bhaja and began to use potatoes with the Roast Chicken. That’s how Aloo Makalla, a typical Calcutta Jewish creation, was born,” reveals Promina, who will serve it at the pop-up, with Helbeh (a coriander and fenugreek chutney).
The Jew cross-over
The menu also features dishes like Anjoli, a cold fish dish made with coconut milk, Chopped Chicken Liver and Mahashas, another classic Calcutta Jewish dish featuring stuffed vegetables. “In the old days, Kolkata was a melting pot of communities with the British, Armenians, the Jews, Anglo-Indians, etc. So, there’s sure to be a cross-over in cuisines too. Stuffing vegetables is a Middle-Eastern and Anglo-Indian concept. Mahashas may have been adapted from the Bengali Potoler Dolma (stuffed parwal) or the Anglo-Indian Tomato Farcies. The Jews stuff the vegetables with rice, fish or meat. Traditionally, it was cooked on chullahs; now, in ovens,” says the home cook, adding that Jewish cuisine features simple cooking techniques (“stove-top cooking or frying”) and is rich in whole spices, instead of grounded variety. “You will also find a lot of tomato and tamarind in Calcutta Jewish dishes because they love khatta-meetha, which is also true of Iran’s Persian cuisine,” Promina signs off.
On: June 26, 1 pm
At: Bandra (W)
What’s on the menu?
Cheese Sambosak: A specialty of Kolkata’s long-standing Jewish bakery, Nahoum and Sons, it’s a Middle-Eastern baked samosa (“more like karanji”) with a generous cheese filling.
Chopped Chicken Liver: A typically Iraqi Jew dish made with chicken liver, hard boiled eggs, fried onions. The Bengali Jewish version is spicier.
Anjoli: Traditionally cooked with Bhetki and coconut milk, a cold, soupy fish dish eaten with rice.
Aloo Makalla With Roast Chicken: Cooked only by Calcutta Jews, the dish features pan-roasted joints of chicken with confit potatoes and served with Helbeh (coriander and fenugreek chutney).
Mahashas: Vegetables stuffed with rice filling.
Israeli Cheesecake: A cheesecake, supposedly sold on the streets of Israel, featuring the cake without a crust.
Challah (pronounced hallah): A special Jewish braided bread eaten on holiday meals.
Bamya Khatta: Pickled ladyfinger. “I learnt the dish from a friend’s mother, Aunty Sybil. The ladyfinger is stuffed with ginger, mint, coriander and chillies and pickled in vinegar,” she adds.
Did you know?
Flower Silliman’s great grandfather, working with Hong Kong bank in Kolkata, was invited to Hong Kong and loved their rickshaws. He brought one back, which became a prototype to manufacture the rickshaws in Kolkata.