Potato Bhajee

Barry and Sallyanne’s father-in-law, Ezra Joseph Gubbay, a Jew of Calcutta – 1930, 8 yrs. old.

As I wrote about in my last post, blog readers Barry and Sallyanne Scott scanned and sent me a vintage Jewish cookbook from Calcutta, India. The book, entitled the Jewish Cookery Book, was published by Mrs. H. Brooke and printed by East Bengal Press in Calcutta. It had been handed down to Sallyanne and Barry by Sallyanne’s father, Ezra Gubbay, a Jew from Calcutta, India. Here is an excerpt from Barry’s first email:

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.  They came mainly from Aleppo and Baghdad. They were involved in various trading that included indigo, textile, and precious stones.  My wife’s family is from Baghdad.

My mother-in-law’s story (Miriam) is equally compelling.  She was born in Queens, NY, and was an army nurse assigned to a forward aid station in Burma, during World War II.  She and my father-in-law met at a Purim party.  They married in 1945 and lived in India until 1947, whereupon they emigrated to the United States.  My wife tells the story that her mom was given a choice– The French Riviera, or New Rochelle, New York.  She chose New Rochelle because it was closer to home. My wife was born in Darjeeling, where my in-laws had a summer home.

I was intrigued by the email, and by this family. Whenever a reader submits a recipe to me, I try to dig in and find out as much as I can about their family story. Ezra and Miriam’s story is a colorful one, indeed. I emailed Barry and Sallyanne questions to ask Ezra, now 89 years old, about his life in Calcutta.

Ezra and Miriam Gubbay, Calcutta – 1946

Normally I would have taken their answers and written out their story myself, but both Barry and Sallyanne have a wonderful way of describing these things from the heart. Instead, I decided to let them tell their family story in their own words by sharing excerpts from our email exchange. Here, Sallyanne describes her childhood in Calcutta:

“In our house in Calcutta were two separate cooking areas, one for meat and one for dairy.  All the kitchen help were Muslims.  All the housekeeping staff and other help were Hindus.  The person in charge of meal planning was a Yemenite Jew.  My Grandmother and Mother would meet with him each morning to plan the day’s meals. The head chef had some knowledge of European cooking, so the menu consisted of both European types of cooking as well as Indian Jewish cooking.

“If you stole someone else’s chef, it was ‘an act of war!’  The two families would never speak to each other again.  Chefs were sacred.

“My mom would have the chauffeur drive her to the market on many occasions to buy food.  The market was indoors and there were many vendors each selling separate types of food:  fruits and vegetables, baked goods, etc.  Since our family was kosher, the only things my mom would bring home were fruits and vegetables. All baked goods, bread, cakes, pastries, etc. came from the Jewish bakery in town.

“On Friday afternoon before Shabbat, my mom, dad and Grandmother would go to her niece’s husband’s mother’s house for tea and cakes.  After that they would go to her niece’s house for dinner. They would have a splendid dinner because, according to my dad, their cook was superb!  After dinner, my grandmother would either sleep over or take a rickshaw home because she would not drive on Shabbat.”

Miriam Wartell (maiden name), 2nd Lieutenant, taken between 1942-1945

I wanted to learn more about Miriam, Ezra’s wife, and how the two met. Sallyanne answered my questions via email:

“My mother was born and grew up  in Jamaica, Queens.  I believe her mother came from Poland and her dad from White Russia. She was Ashkenazi and my dad is Sephardic. My mom was a nurse at Beth Israel Hospital in NYC. She decided to join the Army.  She told me they shipped her out with woolen uniforms thinking she was going to Alaska.  Well she ended up in Burma on the front lines.  She was a second lieutenant and a nurse anesthetist.  She met my dad at a Purim party at Lady Ezra’s house.  Lady Rachael Ezra always held holiday parities in Calcutta for the Jewish servicemen and women.  My dad was smitten and gave her a ring on their fourth date!

“My parents married in June, 1945. I was born a year later.  My mom and I left India in July 1947 when they partitioned India and Pakistan.  Dad came to the states 9 months later.”

Ezra Joseph Gubbay and Miriam Gubbay – 1972

As I looked through the Jewish Cookery Book, I noticed that there were handwritten notations next to many of the recipes. Barry explained:

“My father-in-law annotated some of the recipes.  ‘Best if made well,’ ‘good,’ ‘Yom Kippur,’ and my personal favorite, ‘To Miriam in Hospital Calcutta.’  This was recipe number 21—Stuffed Pigeon.  Nothing says I love you more than a stuffed pigeon!

“Many of the recipes call for mutton, as eating beef was forbidden out of respect for their Hindi hosts.  My father-in-law says that mutton was only served once a year for Passover– just the shank bone, not the meat.  All of the dishes were cooked using chicken.

The handwritten annotations warmed my heart. They showed how clearly connected the cookbook was to their family culinary history. I felt honored to be reading it, like I was being allowed a glimpse at something truly personal and special.

The Jewish Cookery Book contains all sorts of interesting kosher Indian dishes. One recipe in particular caught my eye: Bhajee, a fried potato dish with onions and spices. With Hanukkah coming up and fried foods on the menu, I thought it might be just the thing to try. Here is the recipe as it appears in the cookbook:

Click here to print the original recipe for Bhajee

The first time I cooked this Potato Bhajee, I did it according to the vintage cookbook recipe; the only change I made was slicing the potatoes instead of halving them. I couldn’t imagine larger potatoes frying evenly when halved– thick slices seemed like a much safer bet. Perhaps the dish was originally made with smaller potatoes? Unfortunately I didn’t have any on hand, so I went with thickly sliced russets.

As sometimes happens with vintage recipes, the result was slightly disappointing. While the flavor was terrific, it turned out far too oily and heavy. 1 cup of olive oil? I love fried foods, but holy moly this was greasy. The onion also browned much faster than the potatoes, which made it a tricky dish to cook properly– a higher oil temperature will keep the potato from soaking up too much grease as it cooks, but it will also blacken the onion. Here’s a picture of the first attempt:

I really loved the flavor and the concept of the dish, so I decided to make some modifications. On my second attempt, to lighten things up, I decided to “oven fry” the potatoes first– this requires far less oil, and crisps them up nicely. After browning them in the oven, I tossed the potatoes with the softened fried onions in a skillet till it was all nicely cooked and caramelized. The ingredients stayed the same (with a big reduction in oil), only the cooking method was different.

The result? A delicious side dish that is very similar in flavor to the original Potato Bhajee recipe, with far fewer calories. I’ve given you my lightened up version below. If you’d like, you can stick with the original recipe (printed above), which is also very good– just too heavy for my taste. Next time I make this dish, I will likely make one more modification, to double the potatoes and halve the onions. I prefer a ratio of more potatoes to onions. That is a personal preference, though.

One more note on the cooking process… I used whole toasted coriander seeds and crushed them with a mortar and pestle, rather than using powdered coriander. My Indian Jewish friend Malka (who descends from the Bene Israel Jews) once told me to use whole spices in Indian cooking whenever possible, because they retain more flavor than powdered spices. You can certainly use powdered coriander in a pinch; toasting and grinding the seeds is the preferred method.

Ezra Gubbay and family. Left to right: Daughters Sallyanne and Lauren, Ezra, and son Joseph – 2010

Thank you so much to Sallyanne and Barry Scott, Ezra Joseph Gubbay, and family for providing us with this unique look at Jewish Indian cuisine! I am looking forward to trying more of the recipes in the Jewish Cookery Book over the next few months. I’ll be sure to share any gems I discover here on my site. :)

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Potato Bhajee

Ingredients

  • 3/4 tsp whole coriander or 1/2 tsp powdered coriander spice
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • Black pepper to taste
  • 1 lb. peeled potatoes (Russet or Yukon Gold)
  • 4 small onions, peeled and sliced
  • 1/2 tsp minced fresh garlic

You will also need

  • a large skillet, a mortar and pestle or spice grinder (if using whole coriander seeds)
Servings: 4 servings
Kosher Key: Pareve
  • Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. If using whole coriander seed, pour the seeds into dry skillet. Toast them over medium heat for 3-5 minutes, stirring constantly, till fragrant. Do not let them burn.
  • Crush the seeds to a powder using a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder. Measure out 1/2 tsp of coriander powder; reserve.
  • In a small bowl, whisk together olive oil, coriander powder, turmeric, salt and pepper.
  • Slice the potatoes into rounds about 1/4 inch thick; make sure all slices are of an even thickness. Place them on a baking sheet. Spray the sheet with nonstick cooking spray, or line the sheet with nonstick foil, if you have it-- it will help keep the potatoes from sticking.
  • Brush each potato slice with a layer of the spiced oil.
  • Turn the slices and brush the other sides with another layer of oil. You should only use about half of the spiced oil; reserve the other half.
  • Place baking sheet on the middle rack of the oven. Let the potato slices roast for 15 minutes.
  • Remove the sheet from the oven and flip the potato slices.
  • Put the sheet back in the oven, turning it so that the opposite side faces the front of the oven, and let it continue to roast for about 10 minutes longer till the potato slices are golden brown and tender.
  • Scoop up the oven fried potatoes with a slotted spatula and place them on a plate or in a bowl.
  • Place the onion slices in a large saute pan. Pour the leftover oil from the baking sheet over the top of the onions, along with the reserved spiced oil.
  • Stir the onions to coat them with the oil. Turn heat to medium and let the onions warm up, stirring frequently, till they begin to fry.
  • Fry the onion for about 10 minutes till the slices soften and turn yellow from the spices. Add the garlic and continue to saute till garlic is fragrant.
  • Add potatoes to the pan and gently toss them with the onions, being careful not to break them apart. Let the mixture continue to fry for a few minutes longer until the onions caramelize at the edges.
  • Serve the potatoes and onions as a side dish.

Comments (26)Post a Comment

  1. Excellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 stars
    Thank you for this recipe and post! Love the story! These delicious combination of spices is part of my Yemenite Jewish heritage. I just posted a recipe for lentil pancake for Hanukkah on my blog: link to tribesadozen.tumblr.com
    BTW, We make a similar dish to the potato Bhajee, only we roast the potatoes and onions with the oil and spices in the oven. It is much like any roasted potato and onion dish. This method is easier because it uses less dishes and utensils and it cooks on it’s own. You also end up with partially caramelized onions, which adds sweetness to the dish.

  2. I love your recipes (and your blog: I love poring through vintage cookbooks!), and must praise the clarity of your photographs, which make each stage accessible even to the relatively novice cook!

  3. Very good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 stars
    Tori, thank you so much. You did an amazing job with the story. I love how you put your spin on the recipe. Keep up the fantastic work. You are truly a gem.

  4. I LOVE Indian food. It, along with Jewish food of course, are my favourite cuisines. I recently discovered that my childhood neighbour was a Baghdadi Jew from India; wish I had known him as an adult. Thanks for the recipe and history!

  5. Excellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 stars
    Great! I live in Middlesex County, NJ – home to the largest concentration of Indian Americans in the US. Love their food.

    1. Hi Cindy, I was so happy to read your comment. It made me feel like I was visiting home. I grew up in Edison. Graduated from J.P. Stevens H.S. in 1974, and went to Charles E. Gregory Nursing School at Perth Amboy Hospital. Thanks so much for a taste of home.

  6. Excellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 stars
    I’d like to print the recipe for bahgee (it sounds delicious), but since I’m not on facebook or twitter I cannot print it. Is there some other way? Thanks

    1. Reba, I apologize, there was a glitch in my website format and my print button disappeared. It should be back now– it’s a red “print” button on the green recipe card above. Let me know if you need any further help!

  7. Excellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 starsExcellent - 5 stars
    We eat a great deal of Indian style foods and this is not far from a standard I make. Thanks for posting this recipe it looks like another great one for Channukah

  8. I love this recipe and especially your modification. I would love to see this cookbook published. We do some Indian cooking as my husband is Indian (and a convert) but I’d love to see these Jewish Indian recipes!

  9. Tori my dear, how I’ve missed you. Been crazy busy. Wanted to pop in and say hello, see what my gal pal has been up to. This recipe is lovely and the tale behind it is heart warming. I love the pic of the family.

  10. Very good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 stars
    Wow..this is so fascinating. I’m Indian and I know a bit about the history of Jews in India but it’s wonderful to get such an intimate perspective on their lives.
    Funny thing though, potato bhaji is a very common Indian dish. A dinner favorite, especially with kids.
    The technique we use is exactly the same as in the vintage recipe but with just a couple of tbsps of oil rather than half a pint. Also add the sliced potatoes with a 1/4th of a cup of water when the onions turn translucent. That way you don’t end up burning the onions.
    And yes, Indian potatoes are smaller as compared to American potatoes and Indian housewives generally pick out the tiniest ones for bhajis :)
    Loved the article!

  11. wow. cool post. always wondered about jews of India. please enshrine this book and the story. Probably ezra should write about jewish life in India.

    Btw shiksa in sanskrit means offering tutelage. here you are offering tutelage of cooking :) I initially clicked this link from google thinking this had something to do with indian. lol.

  12. Very good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 stars
    Thanks for the story, again. Really love it to read it all and think about cooking tonight. Then I did it and really enjoyed the Potato Bhajee. But I changed the mixture a bit, added some toasted mustard seeds and less salt.

  13. Very good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 starsVery good - 4 stars
    Fantastic piece! I really enjoyed reading it and will definitely try the recipe. I live in Toronto where there is a huge Indian population and fantastic Indian restaurants, both traditional and modern takes. I love cooking Indian and hope that you will share more of these recipes with us. Can you find out if the Bene-Israel (or any of the groups) used the Indian Cheese Paneer? Making a Paneer dish for Shavuot or any occassion would be so cool. Thanks for sharing

  14. Even if I never make the bhajee, the family story in this post made it well worth reading. Thank you so much for sharing.

  15. Thank you for the story, I am always happy to hear stories about my ancestry. I am Indian-Jew (Bene-Israel) born and raised in Israel and now live in U.S.A. I grew up on Indian food and miss it a lot!!! Now I am cooking Tex-Mex food for my Husband.

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