A Vintage Jewish Cookbook from Calcutta, India

A few months ago, blog reader Barry Scott wrote me an intriguing email:

Dear Tori,

I thought that you might be interested in this cookbook.  It was published in 1922 in Calcutta, India. My father-in-law, a Jew of Calcutta, gave a copy of this book to me.  The Jews of Calcutta had a long and colorful history. They settled there well over two hundred years ago…

Barry scanned a copy of the book, entitled the Jewish Cookery Book, and sent it to me. It was published by Mrs. H. Brooke and printed by East Bengal Press, 52/9 Bowbazar Street, Calcutta. I have a pretty large collection of vintage cookbooks (both Jewish and non-Jewish), but this volume was totally new to me. It contains several kosher Jewish Indian recipes, including some I’ve never heard of before.

This seemed like the perfect opportunity to take a deeper look at Jewish Indian cuisine. I pored over the scanned pages of the cookbook, taking in all of the dishes, exotic spices, and ingredients. Some of the recipes were familiar to me, others completely new. I chose a dish that sounded tempting and went for it!

Before I started cooking, I did some research on the history of Indian Jewry. Rather than one mass migration, Jewish groups have settled in India at different times throughout the centuries. India’s Jews descend from four major groups—the Cochin, the Bene Israel, the Paradesi, and Baghdadi. The Bene Israel and the Cochin Jews claim to be descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel.

Cochin Jews, circa 1900. Jewish Encyclopedia, 1901-1906

The Cochin Jews are the most ancient group of Jews in India. They claim roots in India from the time of King Solomon, though it can only be historically verified that they resided in India after 70 CE. After the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, a wave of settlers landed in the ancient port of Cranganore. They moved to nearby Cochin in the late fifteenth century after the Portuguese invaded, and were welcomed there by the maharajah. An area called Jew Town was established, where the Cochin Jews lived in harmony with their Hindu neighbors. They became involved in trading pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and other spices.

In the 16th century, Sephardic Jews were exiled from the Iberian Peninsula. A group of these Sephardim settled in Cochin. Known as Paradesi Jews, this group had lighter skin than the original Jewish settlers of Cochin (known as Malabari Jews). The customs of the Malabari were quite different from the Paradesi, and tension developed between the two populations. A division soon emerged; black Malabari Jews were often treated with disdain. They were barred from attending the white Paradesi Synagogue, and the Paradesi looked down upon the Malabari in business and trade dealings. Despite the issues between the Malabari and the Paradesi, the Cochin lived relatively peacefully in India for centuries.

Bene Israel Family at Bombay, circa 1900. Jewish Encyclopedia, 1901-1906

The Bene Israel Jews believe that their ancestors were oil pressers in the Galilee, who fled by sea to escape religious persecution in the 2nd century B.C.E. Legend says that seven Jewish couples survived a shipwreck on the Konkan Coast of India, on the shores of Kolaba; those seven couples are said to be the ancestors of modern day Bene Israel Jews. The shipwrecked Jews washed up near a village called Navgaon; all of their belongings were lost at sea. The survivors settled in Navgaon and started working in agriculture and oil pressing. Over the centuries, the descendants of the Bene Israel continued to carry on key Jewish traditions, including keeping kosher, circumcision, and observing Shabbat. The small group of Jews was “rediscovered” in the 18th century by traders from Baghdad, Iraq.

While the shipwreck story has at times been questioned over the years, the Bene Israel may, in fact, be right about their ancestry. According to a research study published in the early 90’s by Tudor Parfitt at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, which gathered DNA from over 4,000 case studies, the Bene Israel are likely descendents of the Israelite Kohanim tribe.

Barry’s father-in-law, Ezra Joseph Gubbay, a Jew of Calcutta – 1930

More recently, a wave of Baghdadi Jews settled in India. Not all Baghdadi Jews are from Iraq; the Baghdadi name is also used to encompass immigrants from Iran, Yemen, and Afghanistan. Around 250 years ago, a wave of Jews emigrated from these countries to India, settling in Surat and later Bombay and Calcutta (now known as Kolkata). Baghdadi Jews established a trading network from Syria and Baghdad and Bombay to Calcutta, stretching all the way to Japan and Hong Kong. They quickly found success in trading, and the community thrived. Many Baghdadi Jews made their home in Calcutta, where Barry Scott’s father-in-law Ezra Joseph Gubbay lived—and where the Jewish Cookery Book was written. Ezra, like many Baghdadi Jews, was involved in various trading that included indigo, textiles, and precious stones.

Sadly, the population of Jews in India is now dwindling. After World War II, the rise of Indian nationalism made things tense for Jews in India, who were closely associated with Great Britain. The Jews began leaving in the 1940’s, emmigrating from India to Israel, the U.S. and England. A few elderly Jews stayed behind, but that population is slowly disappearing. In Calcutta, a once thriving community of 5,000 Jews is now on the verge of extinction.

The Jews may have left India, but their culinary traditions live on. Like other Jewish communities around the globe, Indian Jews have adapted the regional cuisine of their adopted country to make it kosher. The unique spices of the region are used freely in Indian Jewish recipes, as are regional kosher substitutes (like using coconut milk as a pareve alternative to milk or cream). Lamb (referred to in the cookbook as “mutton”) is used instead of beef as a red meat source; this is because the Hindus have a sacred respect for cows, and the Indian Jews generally respected this restriction. By exploring these recipes today and savoring these very special Indian flavors, we can imagine what it was like to live a Jewish life in India.

In my next blog, I’ll dig deeper into Ezra Joseph Gubbay’s family story. I’ll also share a recipe from the vintage Jewish Cookery Book from Calcutta. Stay tuned!

Update: I’ve posted the Gubbay family story and a recipe from this cookbook. Click here to view.

Comments (58)Post a Comment

    1. My grandfather is ezra Ezekiel ezra my father Edward ezra. From Bombay grandfather originally Baghdad I love the cuisine and am constantly trying to find more recipes.

  1. Don’t confuse lamb and mutton; they definitely have different flavours, though of course you could substitute lamb for mutton if you wished.

    1. Zemirah, in this 1922 cookbook there is no distinction between lamb and mutton– all sheep’s meat is referred to as mutton.You are correct that there is a difference in flavor between the younger lamb meat and the older mutton meat, though they come from the same animal. I would think that most of the “mutton” recipes in the book would taste better using lamb, not mutton. I’ve not had a chance to try any of the meat recipes yet.

  2. Be careful: “mutton” also refers to goat in some parts of India. In the north where I live, I buy what is called mutton regularly – but I know for a fact none of it has ever come from a sheep.

    1. Hi Darcey, I was not aware of that– very interesting! According to Barry and his wife, their Jewish family in Calcutta only ate mutton once per year, for Rosh Hashanah. I will ask them to clarify if the mutton Ezra refers to is sheep or goat meat. Thank you for pointing that out!

    2. After speaking to the Scott family. it was clarified that they did not actually eat mutton; they made the mutton recipes in the cookbook using chicken. However, a lamb shank bone was served for Passover as part of the blessing.

  3. Hi Shiksa, if you’re interested in B’nai Israel cooking, I recommend Esther David’s “Book of Rachel”, a novel including recipies. The author is a B’nai Israel living in Ahmedabad !

  4. I’m a volunteer at Distributed Proofreaders, which (basically) takes scanned images of old public-domain books, runs them through OCR, and then a team of volunteers double-checks the generated text and creates a free e-book from it. Would you consider sharing the scans with us so this could be preserved for a wider audience? (I’m a fan both of old books about Jewish culture, AND about old cookbooks, so I’m drooling on my keyboard here…)

  5. Love this!!! I too collect cookbooks…all kinds….but yes, my favorite are the Jewish Cookbooks because of the heritage…this is great….so interesting…and I love when the books explain the history of the region!! Enjoy and Thanks for sharing!!!

  6. My brother was a cook in the Air Force on Guam in the early 50’s. Each shipment of meat contained a certain amount of mutton. It began to pile up. He cooked and served some. That night he was visited by some higher ranking men. Bury the rest by the light of the moon. I remembered that story from his “war days”.

  7. How cool is that! When I was 19 and in Israel, my banker that helped me set up an account was from India. I found it fascinating then and now…er…a few years later :-)

    I’m looking forward to reading more!

  8. I went to Cochin for my honeymoon a few years ago and visited the Synagogue in Jew Town (Cochin) that was built in 1500s. It was amazing to see how well kept the synagogue is. We loved exploring the surrounding areas and got some incredible spices from JewTown as Kerala is know for its dried spices.It was special to me as it was my first trip to a synagogue. :)

  9. Thanks for a fascinating blog. Can’t wait to read more. And does anyone know who the group is that certifies some Indian sauces sold in packets at Trader Joe’s and other food chains? The sauces claim to be complete dishes for one, but there’s not much in the packet, so I add eggplant, onions, etc. But the spicing is great. Also, what does B.C.DE. stand for in the paragraph about Bene Israel Jews? Wonder if these people are related to a similar Bene Israel group in Africa.

    1. Mirela, it’s supposed to be B.C.E.= Before Common Era. The D was a typo. I’m not sure who certifies the TJ’s sauces, you’d have to check with the brand (if the brand is TJ’s, I’m sure the store can find the info for you).

  10. I love Jewish/Israeli cookbooks and cooking/eating many recipes I’ve found from around the world. This cookbook sounds awesome and if the Scott family agrees, I would love to be able to have a shared ecopy of this cookbook also.

  11. I have a friend from Cochin. She has told us that the shochet only visited to butcher cattle a few times a year so she grew up mostly vegetarian. When she hosts a Hadassah board meeting, the food she makes is so fabulous even non-board members attend. I keep asking her for recipes, but she insists that she makes them up as she goes along.

  12. Thank you Tori, I am learning about a culture through you that I never understood. You have encouraged me to look deeper with single posts.

  13. What a fascinating blog, as a Sephardic Mexican Jew living in the US, I think it’s incredible that they have been able to maintain and keep kosher after so many years.
    Very interesting, I would love to read more.

  14. Absolutely fascinating!
    Who wouldn’t want those recipes, if they love cooking? I look forward to them and wonder if you’ll print them on your site.

  15. An Indian restaurateur acquaintance told me about an intriguing dish called Cochin chicken, which is baked in clay and started before the beginning of Shabbat. Thanks for the great post; that cookbook is really interesting!

  16. As one of the handful of Jews still living in Calcutta, I find all this very interesting. Yes, to clarify – “mutton” is goat’s meat, though I believe sheep are occasionally slaughtered at Bakr’Eid.
    We haven’t had a shochet here for years, so the few old folk who still keep kosher eat fish, eggs and veg. When I visit my children in Israel I bring back Osem chicken soup for two old ladies who are friends of mine. Israeli supermarkets are like Aladdin’s cave with their treasure trove of kosher products !

  17. I am a Jew from Calcutta and now live in Los Angeles. There are several books on Indian Jewish cooking. One is called, Indian-Jewish Cooking by Mavis Hyman. Another is, The Varied Kitchens of India by Copeland Marks. Still another is, Around the World with a Skillet by Flower Silliman. They are all good.
    My great (to the 4th power) grandfather started the Jewish community in Calcutta, two hundred and fifty years ago. You can Google Bagdadhi Jews from Calcutta if you are interested. There were Jews in Singapore too. My mother was born there and her mother was born there also. Their families came from the Middle East originally. Their cuisine is also fabulous. It incorporates Malay, Indonesian, Indian, and Chinese cuisines into their Middle Eastern recipes. Such great food, we must keep these recipes alive because these cultures will be lost with the last of our generation. I am very happy to see there is interest in our cuisine and culture.

    1. Hi Melanie,
      Nice to see you here and to read your comments – so true about Indian Jewish cooking, though I would like to add that when we talk about the Baghdadi Indian cooking, it is very very similar to the Iraqi Jewish food, only after coming to Israel and mixing with the Iraqi origins here I discovered that many of our dishes are so similar – again as with us Jews so easily adapting to our surroundings whereever we go. May I recommend to those people looking to learn about their heritage (Indian heritage) to visit our website – link to indianjews.org – it is a new Indian heritage center started in Israel by volunteers working to save our heritage which unfortunately is disappearing with the new generation. This center needs the help of each and every one financially and emotionally – and with information lots of information – so anyone reading this and interested in helping in this project please do contact me, lets save the Indian heritage and pass it on to the next generation.

  18. Melanie, we greatly enjoy Indian cooking, and I appreciate your recommendation for those three Indian Jewish cookbooks. I have several Indian cookbooks, but it’s hard to adapt some of the recipes for kosher cooking. And I’d like to learn more about Indian-Jewish cooking as opposed to the dishes served in most Indian restaurants in the U.S. So I’m going to start with the one by Mavis Hyman. Are the others also for Jewish-Indian cooking or just Indian cooking? Also, do you have any recommendations for books to read about the Indian-Jewish community? A Jewish student at the university here in town is an American-born son of a family from Cochin, but sadly, he knows little of his heritage. Thanks again for your post! And, of course, thanks to Tori for providing the space for these conversations…and great recipes.

  19. love indian food and we have many good indian
    restruants here in los angeles.
    the meat from the goat is mutton and from the sheep
    is lamb.very few places sell mutton in this city ,there r
    some from Bungler Desh who sell it most prepare lamb.

  20. Hi Tanya,
    There is a cookbook called Sephardic Cooking by Copeland Marks and there is a section on Cochini Jewish cooking.

  21. Mordecai Cohen, I am afraid you are somewhat mistaken, at lest as far as terminology in the United States.

    Mutton is the meat of an adult sheep, while lamb is the meat of a young (up to a year old) sheep.

    The meat of an adult goat is called either chevon or goat, and the meat of a young goat (or kid) is called cabrito.

    The colloquial use of the term “mutton” for goat meat is largely confined to a few countries in Asia.

    I have had all four varieties. With proper preparation, they are all delicious.

  22. the jewish boy in the bottom photo clothes, is the designs on it similar to the designs they had on their clothing before they were kicked out of Spain in the 1500’s? if so amazing traditional clothes

  23. loved reading about the Calcutta Jewish community.I myself grew up in Calcutta 1951 _68 and we had lots of Jewish friend,_ I remember the Morris family especially!!!

  24. I am also an Indian Jew from Calcutta, I was 12 when I left for the UK and now I live in Los Angeles, California, USA. I have a few books on our cooking, and yes I do cook.
    Have you heard of Copeland Marks? His book on the varied Kitchens in India has all different types of cooking including ?Anglo Indian and Jewish cooking from the Middle East, where our food originated.

  25. I am an Indian I love cookbooks …you are lucky to find such an oldindian cookbook you do not find many old Indian books you are lucky to find one…
    Keep us updated on your new finds

  26. I was born in Calcutta, lived abroad, in Israel and U.S.A and have now returned to live here in Calcutta. .Had a Kosher Indian restaurant in jerusalem called the Maharajah My book “Around the world with a skillet”has many Indian jewish recipes, though it is now out of print.I am about to publish another book on International cooking, called 3 cups of Flower ,,which will have compete chapters on Jewish , Middle eastern, Far eastern and Indian Cooking Other books include a chapter on Indian cooking in the International Kosher Cookbook, from the 92nd st Y. Mutton in old books usually refer to goat, which was slaughtered Kosher only rarely during High Holidays Copeland Marks, and Mavis Hyman have both written good books on Jewish cooking in India and there is also a book called “Awafi” published by Baghdadi Jews in Sydney, Australia

  27. Hi,
    “Spice & Kosher – Exotic Cuisine of the Cochin Jews”, by Dr. Essie Sassoon (of Ashkelon, Israel), Bala Menon and Kenny Salem (both of Toronto) has just been published and is now available worldwide.

    There are about 200 fabulous Cochin Jewish recipes and also a lot of historical information in the book. Recipes were collected from many members of the Cochin Jewish community in Israel, India, United States and Canada.

    Regards

    Bala Menon

  28. Hi
    My name is Ilanit and I live in Israel. 2 month ago I’ve opened a blog of Cochin Jewish Cuisine, which include recipes that have been passed down over the years. My aim is to preserve this tremendous food that is slowly disappear from the world as this small glorious community is been assimilated and extinct. You are most welcome to visit my blog and enjoy these wonderful tastes and flavors.
    link to chipappam.blogspot.co.il

    1. Hello Ilanit, and many thanks for your post about your blog. Although my family are all Ashkenazai, I am very interested in learning about Cochin Jewish Cuisine. So I eagerly clicked through to your blog. But I don’t speak or read Hebrew, so I needed the translation. However, the translation has problems, e.g., two of the ingredients for kallappam chykiz are “1 medium land development” and a “crocus.” Other recipes have other problems. Is it possible that you know someone who could translate to English?

      Also, I live in a university town in the U.S. where a graduate student, who occasionally attends our synagogue services, is the child of a family from Cochin. I know they would greatly appreciate your blog, but I suspect they too don’t read or speak Hebrew.

      I do, though, appreciate knowing about your blog. Thanks.

  29. Friends of ours are currently spending a few months in Kolkata and offering blog posts about their experiences there. Here’s one about meeting someone in Kolkata, Jael, who is one of the last Jews there. Jael is collecting documents about Jews in Kolkata, including cookbooks, I assume, so I sent our friend a link to this blog post to pass along to Jael. The URL for this blog post, with photos of a lovely Kolkata synagogue, is as follows: link to alanteller.wordpress.com

  30. Hello,
    My name is Shinjini and i am a research scholar working on cultures of food in colonial Bengal In Centre for Studies in Social Sciences,Calcutta. This cookbook is of immense importance for my work and i would request you to share the cookbook with me. they are rare treasures and needs preserving. it would be of immense help if you could let me know the name and publication details of the book.

Leave a Comment

Please read through the entire post and comments section before asking a question, as it may have already been answered. First time commenting? Read the comment policy.