At the turn of the 20th century, Nahoum Israel Mordecai moved from the Middle East to Kolkata. He was part of a community of more than 4,000 other Jewish people from Syria and Iraq, called Baghdadi Jews, who had flourished along trade routes in India since the Mughal Empire. They brought their faith, their culture, and, in some cases, their talent for baking. Nahoum was one of the community’s most talented confectioners. In 1902, he began selling baked goods and cheese door to door. In 1916, he formally opened Nahoum and Sons bakery.
More than a century later, the dark wood counter of Nahoum and Sons’ original New Market location continues to groan under the weight of sweets. Bengalis are famous sweet makers and eaters, and their milk-based mishti are a dream of sweet syrups and fried dairy. Nahoum and Sons’ sweets are a bit different than conventional Bengali fare, mixing Western staples such as brownies and cream puffs with Jewish and Middle Eastern confections, such as challah bread and baklava. Some sweets at Nahoum’s, such as savory caraway cookies known as kakas, are signatures of the Baghdadi Jewish community. Others, like the bakery’s coconut and cheese samosas, are pure fusion, the result of a marriage of traditions and flavors common to this once-colonial capital.
Today, Nahoum and Sons is one of Kolkata’s last Jewish cultural institutions. The city’s Jewish community has dwindled to around 20 people. Many of Kolkata’s Jews fled following independence in 1947, uncertain what an independent India would bring. Meanwhile, the 2013 death of the founder’s grandson had loyalists wondering whether the bakery would be shut for good. Luckily, another family member took over the business, and it remains strong. Tradition has served the bakery well over the years: Although owners just recently began accepting credit cards, they continue to use the wooden money till that has collected dough (of the financial kind) for the past hundred years.
Even though the community’s numbers have declined significantly, Nahoum and Sons remains a testimony to the pluralistic history of India. One slice of the bakery’s lemon tart, and you’ll understand why this institution has weathered the test of time.