The Jewish Palate: The Baghdadi Jews of Calcutta, India

Chef Dennis Wasko tries traditional Baghdadi cuisine while exploring the tiny Jewish population in Calcutta.

meat potatoe stew 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
meat potatoe stew 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The first Jews arrived in Calcutta sometime in the late 18th century.  This group was comprised of Baghdadi Jews who came from Iraq, as well as Syrian and Persian Jews. All of these Jewish settlers were fleeing from Islamic persecution in their native lands.  The Jewish refugees who were forced out of their homes found welcoming safety in Calcutta.  By 1800, the Jews had established a vibrant community and thrived as diamond merchants, real estate brokers, exporters, spice traders, and bakers.  The first generations of Jews in Calcutta spoke Judeo-Arabic, but by the 1890’s, English was the language of choice.
The Jewish communities of India achieved their maximum population and wealth under British rule, and the small community of Calcutta continued to prosper and trade amongst all the major cities of the Far East and the rest of the world.  The native Indian population was very tolerant and the Jewish community was allowed to live in peace and security.  The community reached its peak population of about 5,000 during World War II when its numbers were swelled by Jewish refugees fleeing the Japanese in Burma.  The community formed a solid minority, and their wedding parties and religious feasts were legendary in the raucous, bustling city.  The community rarely faced discrimination as they were too small to bother with.  The Hindu and Muslim communities were too busy fighting each other, and Indian Caste conflict also deflected attention from the Jews. 
The golden age ended in 1947 with the birth of Indian independence.  The native Indian population associated the Jews with the British and Anti-Semitic attacks began.  The founding of the State of Israel in 1948 also had a negative impact on the Jews of Calcutta.  Anti-Jewish and Anti-Israel sentiments ran high and many Jews left Calcutta and immigrated to Israel, England, and the United States.
Some Jews remained behind, but life was different.  The community was shrinking and collapsing.  The butcher shops began to close, followed by the bakeries.  Hebrew was no longer taught in the Jewish schools which began admitting non-Jews in order to survive.  The great Synagogues stood empty and it was almost impossible to find a minyan in order to hold services.  The Jews only gathered for funerals, and sometimes not even then.
Today, there are fewer than 35 Jews remaining in Calcutta.  The great, colorful community is gone – dispersed by bigotry and hatred.  It is estimated that within 10 years it will disappear completely.
The original Baghdadi settlers brought their traditional recipes with them.  What they discovered in India was an almost entirely new group of spices and herbs.  They were also introduced to new tropical vegetables and fruits.  Pumpkins, coconut, bitter melon, and many other exotics grew in the lush tropical climate.  All of these new items were incorporated into the cooking of the Baghdadi community which resulted in the evolution of a whole new style of cooking. 
This recipe for Marag (spiced chicken soup with vegetables) is very typical of the Baghdadi cuisine.  It is more than a soup, but not quite a stew.  It is a light meal designed to be served when it is too hot to eat a heavier meal.
Marag (Spiced chicken soup with vegetables)Serves 6 to 8
1 medium onion, chopped½ teaspoon minced fresh ginger2 garlic cloves, finely chopped¼ teaspoon ground turmeric½ hot chili, chopped (I use Serrano) 1 3-pound chicken cut into 8 pieces4 cups water¾ cup chopped fresh or canned tomato1 cup cut cauliflower ½ cup cut green beans1 medium carrot, diced medium1 medium waxy potato (I use red new potatoes), diced medium2 tablespoons chopped cilantroKosher salt to taste
1.Place the onion, ginger, garlic, turmeric, chicken, and water in a stock pot.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes, skimming surface as needed.
2.Add all other ingredients except for cilantro.  Continue simmering for 20 minutes, or until vegetables are tender.
3.Finally, add cilantro. 
4.Serve in warm bowls with rice.