Following the Cheese Crumbs in Kolkata

The traditional art of making Jewish and Parsi cheeses lives on in the city’s kitchens. Photographs by Manjit Singh Hoonjan.  
Sienna cafe Kolkata
The beetroot, walnut and topli na paneer salad at Sienna café is one of the dishes that offers patrons a taste of the mozzarella-like Parsi cheese.

Saturday morning, 11.30 a.m., and Nahoum and Sons, one of Kolkata’s oldest bakeries, in the historic New Market is a hive of activity. It is still owned by the Jewish family that established it in 1902.

Young boys trot in and out, balancing heavy wooden trays on their heads, weaving their way through the customers thronging the place. They enter with trays laden with freshly made dinner rolls, cream horns, vegetables patties from the workshop; and leave with the empty palettes to bring in the next batch of goodies. The glass-fronted shelves need constant replenishing as people stock up for the weekend. Most can’t resist the temptation of enjoying a warm snack right there in the shop while they wait for staff to pack their orders. I’m enjoying a sambusak which, along with plaited challah loaves, are the few traditional Jewish items still sold. The bell shaped Jewish samosa fits warmly in my palm. The pale-gold papery pastry is plumped out by the white spongy cheese filling that’s seasoned only with salt, and yet every bite is heavenly.

sambusaks in kolkata

The pale-gold papery pastry is plumped out by the white spongy cheese filling that’s seasoned only with salt.

I notice the sambusaks are flying off the shelf. Their popularity is obvious; but I wonder how many of their fans realise that the cheese so generously stuffed in these baked samosas is not some clever combination of paneer and processed cheese. It is, in fact, a heritage product: Jewish cheese made almost exactly as it was in the homes of the first Jewish people who settled in the city over 200 years ago.

Most people are familiar with Bandel cheese—those small salty discs of cheese, smoked and unsmoked, that are one of the few enduring cultural legacies of Bengal’s Portuguese past and now available only at two stalls—S. Panja and Johnson’s—just a few shops down from Nahoum’s. The story of how the Portuguese settled along the west bank of the Hooghly in the 16th century, named the area Bandel (from the Persian bandar or port), built the imposing Bandel Basilica and taught the locals how to make their cheese (hence Bandel cheese), has been well documented. But few are aware that Kolkata’s artisanal cheeseboard features a couple of other excellent cheeses, each the legacy of the city’s long, rich history and diverse cultures who have called it home.

Flower Silliman Kolkata

Flower Silliman recalls her husband and other members of the Jewish community queuing up at Nahoum’s on the mornings of festivals like Yom Kipper, to buy cheese samosas before they ran out.

Cheesemaking is an ancient process, my friend Jael Silliman’s mother, Flower Silliman, tells me as we sit in the light-filled kitchen of their high-ceilinged apartment in one of the city’s old mansion blocks located just south of busy Park Street. “It’s mentioned in the Book of Genesis, the very first book of the Old Testament. Communities across the Middle East have made some form of cheese for centuries. When the Baghdadi Jews came to Calcutta in the 18th century from Iraq and Syria, their cheese travelled with them.” Those early settlers spoke with each other in their native Arabic, and Flower recalls that when she was young, Arabic words still peppered conversations in her community. “The cheese, for instance, was referred to as jibben.”

Jael, Flower and a handful of others, are what’s left of Kolkata’s once thriving Jewish community that played a stellar role in the city’s early development. In a timely move, Jael, author and women’s study scholar, has recently created a multimedia website (www.jewishcalcutta.in) that comprehensively archives Kolkata’s rich Jewish history. At 86, Flower is a repository of knowledge about Kolkata’s Jewish community. A superb cook, she keeps alive the city’s Jewish culinary gems both at home for friends and family; and by advising clubs and restaurants wanting to feature Calcutta Jewish cuisine. Recently, she provided recipes and training to chefs at Calcutta Stories, a new eatery whose menu showcases dishes of Kolkata’s different immigrant communities, including Jews, Parsis and Anglo-Indians.

blocks of Jewish cheese

Blocks of Jewish cheese at Nahoum’s.

“My mother, Farah Baqal Abraham, would make the cheese right here in this kitchen using fresh rennet,” continues Flower, “but I’ve never tried. You see you could also buy it. There was Judah who lived in the Burra Bazaar area and made cheese and several Jewish snacks. Right up to the ’40s his chap would go around from house to house with a tin box full of cheese sambusak, Turkish delights and halwa. You could also get the cheese from Nahoum’s family kitchen which is just yards away from New Market. They had huge pots to boil the milk, which curdled with imported vegetarian rennet tablets. The separated solids would be drained on massive wooden-framed muslin-lined block moulds. For the plaited cheese, the solids had to be thrown into boiling water and then quickly stretched and kneaded to get the soft yet elastic texture. It was a real art, and the Nahoum’s cook, Johar, who was with them for over 50 years, was an expert.”

Little has changed in Nahoum’s cheesemaking today. Johar passed away in 2003 but not before teaching his son Sadim the secret of making perfect cheese. Although the plaited kind is rarely made, the block cheese is produced regularly. To obtain four or five kilos of cheese, Sadim needs 40 kilos of fresh buffalo milk. He uses vegetarian rennet imported from Denmark and works with the same pots, pans and wooden frames his father used.

Normally, all the cheese made is used up to fill the sambusaks. However, anyone wanting a block can place an order at the shop. Costing `600 per kilo the cheese is delicious. Moist and crumbly, but slicing perfectly, it melts beautifully, emerging from under the grill in a satisfyingly bubbling layer over toasted bread or grilled vegetables. It’s wonderful when soft-crumbled in salads, and can also be enjoyed plain.

Viloo Batliwala Kolkata

In addition to being a gifted cheesemaker, Viloo Batliwala is a former basketball player of the Calcutta Parsee Club.

Step out of New Market and just a short walk away is Ripon Street, a long narrow thoroughfare bracketed by the peaceful Lower Circular Road Cemetery on one end and gritty Free School Street on the other. Once a bustling residential neighbourhood, home to Anglo-Indians, Goans, Muslims and Parsis, today the pavements have been taken over by auto repair shops and sand heaps spilling out of storage sheds. Ugly half-finished buildings line a road rippled with mountainous speed breakers where pedestrians compete for passage with cycle rickshaws, two-wheelers and cars. But occasionally one glimpses an elegant residence that’s a throwback to an earlier era with sunlight twinkling off beautiful stained glass skylights, wooden shuttered windows and balconies edged with wrought iron railings. Viloo Batliwala lives in one of these. A member of Kolkata’s rapidly-shrinking Parsi community, this mah-jong playing grandmother is the only person in the city from whom you can buy topli na paneer or Parsi cheese. These semi-soft balls of cheese, made with full-cream unpasteurised buffalo milk, very similar to mozzarella in taste and texture, get their name from the little wicker baskets (topli) in which they are set and whose impression is lightly embossed on each snow-white rounded surface.

In a fitting testimony to Kolkata’s cosmopolitan character, I was introduced to this fabulous artisanal product by a Marwari school friend, Nidhi Jalan, founder of New York based ethnic food-kit company, Masala Mama. She had discovered it at the home of a Parsi friend who gets it from Viloo. Nidhi served me the cheese in a salad, the white cushions with their pretty patina sitting in a golden bath of cold-pressed olive oil, nestled with plump red tomatoes and vibrant green basil. It was absolutely brilliant and soon I was making frequent visits to Viloo, Tupperware box in hand, to bring home the slightly-salty, delicate, panna cotta-smooth cheese, happily paying `250 for eight.

topli na paneer

Soft, smooth Parsi cheese is traditionally called topli na paneer because of the little wicker baskets it’s kept in.

Driven out of their native Persia, the followers of Zoroastria landed on India’s west coast over 1,300 years ago. They adapted their food and customs to settle seamlessly into their new home. With a keen eye on trade and commerce, they spread to other parts of the country, arriving in Kolkata in the 18th century and contributing immensely to the city’s cultural tapestry. Parsi cuisine is a unique palimpsest of the flavours of Persia (the land of origin), Maharashtra and Gujarat (where the community laid down roots) and Britain (with whom the Parsis traded). Meats combine with vegetables, dried fruit and nuts are sprinkled liberally, sweet and sour flavours predominate, cakes and flaky pastries are made exotically fragrant with rosewater and spices. Without doubt, topli na paneer, with its close resemblance to mozzarella, harks back to the community’s Persian heritage and the fundamentals of creating this cheese have barely altered from the way it was made by the ancestors of the Indian Parsis.

At one time produced in large quantities in Surat (hence also called Surti paneer) and supplied regularly to Mumbai, today it’s a dying art, kept alive in a few Parsi kitchens, a skill passed down from mother to daughter, mother-in-law to daughter-in- law. Viloo recalls how as a child, in the family home in central Kolkata, she would watch her grandmother prepare this delicious treat, with its intriguing elements like “the tiny pill boxes from Boots (the U.K. chemist) containing rennet tablets” and the doll-sized baskets into which the solids of the separated milk would be carefully placed to drain.

But it was her mother-in-law who actually taught her the process and from whom she learnt the critical skills that made her a successful cheesemaker: to know by dipping in a finger whether the milk is warm enough to introduce the rennet; the art of carefully moving curds to one side of the pan to be scooped into the baskets; being able to judge that the cheeses are ready to be unmoulded. Soon she was taking orders for the cheese, mostly from within her community.

Viloo may get her vegetarian rennet all the way from the U.S., but the milk comes from the neighbourhood Pure Milk Emporium, one of Kolkata’s long-standing fresh milk outlets. The little handmade cane baskets are from the cane shops in nearby New Market. Over the 30-plus years that she’s been making and selling cheese, Viloo has witnessed the steady decline in numbers of this once large and vibrant community. Their count is down to 500 but this close-knit, resilient group is far from moribund. Topli na paneer remains a hit at the Parsi Food Festival held in January every year and a much-looked forward to treat at traditional wedding meals.

As she packs my cheese, pouring in the whey in which they must be stored, Viloo grumbles that making this cheese is far too much trouble. I don’t panic: she says this every time. What’s more, this cheese has recently got a new lease of life, scotching any retirement plans Viloomay nurture! Two entrepreneurial young women dedicated to promoting locally sourced artisanal products, are giving Calcuttans the chance to discover this heritage food. And their customers can’t get enough of it.

Sienna Cafe, Kolkata

Some of the most popular items on Sienna Cafe’s menu are built around Viloo’s topli na paneer.

A few miles but many worlds away from Ripon Street, Hindustan Park is in the heart of south Kolkata. Traditionally, the bastion of Bengali middle-class gentility, this quiet residential area is rapidly morphing into the city’s new destination for upmarket dining and expensive lifestyle shopping. In a welcome trend, several of the old town houses lining tree-shaded streets are resisting property developers’ rapacious plans and instead being converted into smart cafés, boutiques, galleries and guest houses. One of the most popular is Sienna—an edgy lifestyle store and café owned by Sulagna “Shuli” Ghosh who runs it with her friend, Diya Katyal. The café serves chic salads, excellent coffee, and innovative soups and mains. A chance recommendation connected them with Viloo when they were setting up shop in 2015. Now some of the most popular items on the menu, Shuli tells me as we sit in the café’s glass-roofed outer area sipping espressos, are built around Viloo’s topli na paneer.

Sienna makes delightful seasonal salads starring this cheese. They also serve a platter featuring it with cherry tomatoes, a pot of pesto and freshly-baked brown bread.Sensibly, they keep the dishes simple, allowing the delicate flavour of the cheese to emerge. They buy 40 pieces every week, “but we could easily use much more if only she could supply us,” sighs Diya, who coordinates with Viloo. Both women worry that Viloo shows scant interest in passing on her cheesemaking skills to a younger generation. In the Nahoum kitchen, however, another staffer Hafeez is trained to step in to make Jewish cheese when Sadeem is absent. Hopefully, the circle of knowledge will keep expanding to ensure continuity.

Like any art founded on received knowledge, both these heritage cheeses are in danger of being lost to posterity if the know-how is not passed on. One hopes this tragedy will be averted, and Kolkata will be able to retain these two unique handcrafted foods that are precious part of its cultural and culinary inheritance.

ESSENTIALS

Jewish Cheese Mr. J Haldar, the manager at Nahoum and Sons in New Market, takes orders (F 20 New Market; 033-22520655; `600 for a kg; placing the order in person is recommended).

 Topli na Paneer Mrs. Viloo Batliwala sells Parsi cheese in batches of eight against orders (033-22294808; `250 per batch).

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