There are many ways the Kolkatan who lives outside Kolkata expresses nostalgia—Durga Puja, the potato in the mutton biryani, sandesh made with nolen gur, or the liquid new jaggery that heralds the city’s monkey-capped winter.
But no nostalgist’s map of Kolkata would ever be complete without a rich plum cake, preferably one from Nahoum and Sons, the legendary Jewish bakery in the city. The Nahoum brothers are gone from Kolkata but every year the line at their bakery stretches around the block. The dense fruit- and nut-studded Christmas cake often runs out before the line does.
When I told a Jewish-American friend this story, he asked nonplussed, “A Jewish bakery sells Christmas cake?”
It had never occurred to me until that moment that there might be something odd about a Jewish bakery celebrating the birthday of Jesus Christ.
“But they also are famous for their Easter eggs,” I said lamely as he looked even more bemused.
That’s just the way we grew up in Kolkata. Christmas always felt a bit ersatz in this part of the world. The snow was grubby cotton wool. The Christmas trees were plastic. But the cake was as real and as rich as anything we could ever imagine. And it still is.
Also read: This Christmas, bring the feast home
The city might be officially named Kolkata now. But when you bite into that rich plum cake you can taste Calcutta, an older, more cosmopolitan city of Baghdadi Jews and Mog cooks from Chittagong, Armenians and Anglo-Indians.
Not much of that city remains. But the cake does.
“This is a rich cake. Rich in butter, rich in sugar, rich with fruits. It’s made to give you warmth in the cold season,” says Prithvish Chakravarti, the owner of Calcutta Deli, which, alongside its Bhut Jolokia sausages and smoked ham, has its own line of Christmas cakes at this time of the year. Chakravarti does not want to compromise on anything so he makes his cakes “only with butter and loads of rum-soaked dried and candied fruit” and a “very traditional brandy sauce”.
Kolkatans swear by not just the cake but the bakery. Flurys, the Swiss patisserie around since 1927, is of course iconic. Chakravarti says that for him Christmas cake meant “Nahoum, Saldanha Bakery and later on Monginis. The Monginis plum cake was one of the best and most consistent.”
But it still begs the question, what makes a Calcutta Christmas cake special? “I think it’s special because it’s steeped in nostalgia and some spurious colonial link,” says Bachi Karkaria who wrote Flurys Of Calcutta: The Cake That Walked. Her book is laden with cake stories, like the one made for a nawab of Lucknow which was so big that when it was carefully driven out of the factory, wrapped in protective layers, onlookers thought a body was being removed.
These stories are like the baking powder that makes Kolkata hearts swell with pride. No wonder Saldanha sends their cakes around the world to Calcutta Christmas nostalgists in Canada and America and Australia. The irony is that in America I discovered that the Christmas cake was a bit of a joke, the gift that got re-gifted. I always felt a little abashed trying to explain Kolkata’s besotted love affair with Christmas cakes. It seemed more an example of the eternal naïveté of our colonised minds rather than any cosmopolitanism.
But what makes Kolkata Christmas cakes special is that it’s not just about Flurys and snooty clubs and babalog. The cake exists in all kinds of avatars, from the humble, cheap ones made with Dalda shortening to five-star hotels which host a cake-mixing ceremony with staff and guests and food bloggers. J N Barua, with its outlet in Bow Barracks, the old red-bricked Anglo-Indian quarter which puts up a manger and throws a street party every Christmas, even has a white chhenapoda Christmas cake that sells like, well, hot cakes. It’s made with pure chhena, with burnt sugar for a caramel touch.
“Not everyone likes Christmas cake,” Denzil Saldanha, the late proprietor of Saldanha, once told me. “It’s very fruity. We put in a higher percentage of cashews and almonds. And we specialise in a walnut cake.” Then it’s baked in their wood-fired ovens. Their other trademark—icing on three sides. So you have icing in every bite. It’s good, genuinely good.
But Saldanha had a point about the fruit. If you are not a dry fruits person you should steer clear of the Calcutta rich Christmas cake.
On a blog called IndianVagabond, Subhadip Mukherjee, a member of the Bengali Christian community, puts down a shopping list for the “authentic” Calcutta Christmas cake. The best dry fruits, he writes, come from Entally market. There should be black raisins, red cherries (which are actually kumquats dipped in red syrup), mixed candied fruit peel, dry ginger for extra zing, tiny black currants, semi-broken cashew nuts, walnuts, almonds and sweet chunks of petha, or crystallised white pumpkin. The eggs should come from country chickens, the vanilla essence from Bush and the butter can be Amul or the great slabs of unbranded butter from Kolkata’s New Market.
Mukherjee remembers the great cake mayhem when it came to getting the cakes baked.
“We would normally get time around 18th-19th December at around 6am in the morning,” he writes. “By the time we reach(ed) the bakery there would be at least 10 more families standing before us and no surprise for guessing they too had been given the same time just like us.” It was a cake-eat-cake world. What Mukherjee is talking about is an aspect of Kolkata Christmases I only discovered a few years ago. Bakeries that produce cheap bread and biscuits year-round turn into Christmas cake factories at this time of the year. Often, ovens rent not by the hour but by the kilo of sugar.
That I had no idea about these ovens-for-hire is proof that despite all the Christmas cakes we grew up eating we knew little about the city’s dwindling Anglo-Indian community. The plight of the Anglo-Indians doesn’t get much press but their cakes do. In the anthology Christmas In Calcutta: Anglo-Indian Stories And Essays, Robyn Andrews writes about cake and ginger wine and delicate deep-fried rose cookies but also about visiting lonely, elderly Anglo-Indians on Christmas Day. After visiting one bedridden woman who had had no messages from her family that day, she writes “All we could do was talk with her, give her a bit of money and a parcel of food (roast meat sandwiches), and a hug.”
That sadness and that comfort, I realise now, is also baked into a Calcutta rich plum cake.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.