Food has grown to be so much more than a means of sustenance. For some, it’s an unspoken language through which you’re sharing your culture, history and traditions. For those that move across national boundaries, food becomes a comfort – a thread to the homeland and the life they’ve left behind. Others leave behind legacies for their family and future generations, in the form of cakes, bakes and aachars. The food we eat has been so indicative of who we are and where we’ve come from.
The rich food traditions of India exemplify the diversity of the people that have, and continue to call it home. Numerous minority communities have found a home in India over the years, and some of them have now dwindled to a handful. Such is the case of Kolkata’s Jewish community, once a thriving diaspora that influenced much of the city’s landscape.
The Baghdadi Jews initially migrated to the balmy Eastern city during the British Raj, in 1798, much later than the other Jewish diaspora communities in India, such as the communities in Mumbai, Manipur and Cochin who were the first ones to touch down in India. The Baghdadi Jews of Calcutta, as it was named at the time, were merchants and traders from Iraq who would ply trade routes established by the community. Although their population never exceeded 5,000 members in the early 19th century, by the 1940’s they successfully had a sprawling impact on life in the city, setting up schools, synagogues, a hospital and what are some of the oldest shops remaining in the city today.
Among these, now a landmark of the city known by all is Nahoum & Sons Confectionary, or just simply, Nahoum’s Bakery. A 116–year-old establishment, Nahoum’s sits in the labyrinthine lanes of New Market as a heritage site, of sorts, as the last of the city’s Jewish bakeries. Tales of Nahoums’ plum cakes, cheese muffins, brownies, pastries and rum balls have travelled from the Eastern Coast to us here in Mumbai. Set up in 1902 by Nahoum Israel Mordecai with door-to-door sales of cheese and baked goods, the shop eventually changed hands from one generation to the next, with David Nahoum taking the reins in 1964 until his demise in 2013. Today, the shop is run by his younger brother Isaac. From a small outlet sitting at the front of New Market, it opened up its current location in 1916 and hasn’t budged since. Neither have the recipes (that much) and the interiors.
There’s a feeling of familiarity with each bite and look at Nahoum’s – from the recipes and menu to the teak wood furniture and the faces behind the counter. Walking into Nahoum’s feels like you’re entering a time capsule – everything about this establishment oozes with nostalgia and charm of a bygone era, of sorts, as the city (and country) around it speeds ahead, often at the cost of our cultural landmarks.
In our current climate of growing intolerance, we tend to forget our multicultural past and the diverse histories that have come to create India as we know it today. While the Jewish community has waned to a small group of Kolkata residents, it’s presence in the city has left its mark in more ways than one.
Make sure to drop by Nahoum’s the next time you in Kolkata for a taste of history, culture and familial love - surrounded by patrons old and new.
Nahoum and Sons Pvt Lt. Confectioners is located at F20, Bertram St, New Market Area, Taltala, Kolkata, and is open from 9 AM to 9 PM everyday except Sundays.
Featured image courtesy of Manjit Singh Hoonjan via Instagram.
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