As a child I looked forward to my brownie points visit to Nahoums, Kolkata. Nahoums and Sons, is a confectionery shop now run by David Nahoum. Since its inception i.e., 1902 and tucked away in Hogg market of New market it offers the city’s best brownies. The facebook page on Nahoums’ has the following description
“Only gentlemen prefer Nahoum’s. This perhaps may sound bit of an exaggeration but there is no second confectionery in India that makes better baclava, cream rolls or fruit cakes. Now run by David Nahoum, the grandson of Nahoum Israel Mordecai, who came to Calcutta from Iraq in 1870, the confectionery takes anyone with a heart back to days when life was simpler, people had time to chitchat”.
This Jewish bakery has also introduced Calcuttans to the taste of Cheese Filled Sambusak and Cholla bread. The culinary scape of Kolkata has benefitted from the migrant communities and for the first time The Calcutta Cookbook: A Treaury of Recipes from Pavement to Palace (1995) by Minakshie Das Gupta, Bunny Gupta and Jaya Chaliha from the Penguin Books brings to the readers “a treasury of recipes from pavement to palace”. The book is useful not only for novice cooks, efficient cooks or experimental cooking but it also traces the culinary history of Kolkata beyond the kitchen which makes it an interesting book for those working on anthropology of food.
The book begins with a collection of recipes which people ate before Job Charnock landed in Kolkata. What I love is that they actually pen down the recipe of Gota Siddho ( Casserole of Whole Moong Beans and Vegetables) which is eaten during Saraswati Puja ( celebrated on the occasion of Basant Panchami) to Anda Halwa.
The book is divided into Eight Chapters. The book holds the reader through a pre-colonial history and philosophy of food (chapter 1) to a genealogy of bengali ranna ( bengali cooking) in chapter 2 and shows the way the way how the palate of Calcutta is enriched by the migrant influences from chapter 3-7 and finally chapter 8 shows how tables turned around the elaborate meal to buffet, brunch and baked beans to cope with post war time food luxuries.
The second chapter is called Bangla Ranna where the authors describe the everyday life of a Bengali in Kolkata- where “fish itself is eaten from top to tail. The head is cooked with dal or rice. The Bengali believes that the Fish head adds to his grey matter. The tail and bones are fried into delectable chachchari with herbs and red pumpkin”. (pp 29) “… Thrift is an integral part of Bengali cooking. In this land of plenty, the good housewife is loth to throw away any part f a fish or vegetable” (pp29). In this preface to the collection of recipes the authors introduces the readers to the kitchen of a bengali household, cooking utensils, methods of cooking and most importantly shows how “eating is a ritual”(pp37). Next follows a collection of vegetarian and non-vegetarian recipes in a Bengali household. The collection is rich and varied, you can take your pick to cook up a Bengali feast.
The third chapter is called Dastar Khwan which traces the history and recipes of Kebabs, Kalia and Qorma in Kolkata. “Muslim Cooking came to Calcutta’s Chitpur. The air around was redolent with the aromatic mixtures of Amburi and Badashah Pasand tobacco briquettes and kebabs turning on charcoal fires in front of walk-in eating houses on Chitpur road, once the only link between the town and Delhi.”(pp101). Infact the authors indicate that after the fall of Murshidabad, with Nawab of Bengal Zafar Ali’s entry to Kolkata the nawabi food. The abundance of fish and vegetables compelled the nawabi cooks to dish out Jackfruit Korma and Kancha Kala Kofta out of plaintains. The recipes are user friendly. Best picks are of course Halim and Paya.
The scene now moves to the recipes and treasures that the Firinghees brought from Iberian Peninsula, northern Europe, France, Greece, the British Isles, and Asia Minor. Firstly the Portuguese arrived an settled on the banks of the river building “Catholic churches in the grey quarter of the town adjoining English Tank Square settlement, the pukka white quarter. Many of them came from Goa and Goan cooking added zest to the culinary fare of Calcutta” (pp148). Apart from introducing Sorpotel, one of the greatest contributions is locally produced cheese popularly called Bandel Cheese. “The small discs of salted smoked Bandel cheese were probably made by the Mog cooks under Portuguese supervision. The cheese is now made in Calcutta and sold as Bandel cheese in two shops in the famous not-so-new New Market”. (pp148) They were followed by the Dutch who settled in Chinsurah and then came the French who again chose Chandernagore. The most important contribution of French till date remains pau roti (loaf of bread). “Pau is said to be the corruption of Pain, the French word for bread. Pau, however, is the Hindi word for feet which leads others to believe that, as with the grapes in the vineyards of France, the huge quantities of dough were kneaded by stamping feet. But in fact Pau is the Portuguese word for loaf of bread” (pp151-152). This chapter also traces the contribution of Armenians, Jews and the British to the city’s social life through culinary ventures.
The richness of the book lies in the culinary ventures of colonial Calcutta that the authors have traced and collected and brought into the forefront. One of the city’s heritage is the colonial past which continues to reproduce itself in the way city’s postcolonial “dining out” has been shaped. If one takes a look at the city’s long lost Great Eastern Hotel, Peter Cat, and the series of restaurants that occupy the centre stage in Parkstreet and different pockets of this postcolonial city we cannot deny the influence of the migrants that the city’s palate have had and this is what makes this book an interesting read. Steeped in the social history of Bengal, the book takes you through a journey of the “food” conquests of Bengal. A must read and a must have for all those who share a passion for culinary history of Calcutta and for those who want to re-create and re-live some of the recipes from history.