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