Major players on the early pastry scene here were “Baghdadi Jews,” but the city’s Jewish population has dwindled to just 20 in recent years.
Calcutta, East India’s humid and chaotic mega-city, held the title of the British Empire’s first capital back in the day. Now it holds a different claim to fame as India’s leading food city for pastries and desserts. The tradition of amazing bakeries and confectionaries in Calcutta is celebrated across India, and the local Bengalis have definitely learnt a thing or two about desserts over the last two hundred years.
The most recognised name in the business of Bengali sweets is Flurys, an upmarket brand whose primary venue has existed in the same spot since it was founded by British colonialists in 1927. It’s probably the closest thing you can get to an Indian fine dining bakery.
From its beginnings in Calcutta’s classy Park Street neighbourhood, Flurys has expanded to fourteen locations across the city, as well as opening sister sites in Howrah, Mumbai, and Hyderabad.
The original branch still exudes colonial pomposity with its old-world-style furnishings and ornate chandeliers.
“There are more than 200 products that we regularly serve but there are a few that have achieved iconic status over the last nine decades,” says Vikas Kumar, executive chef at the legendary bakery-meets-tearoom. “[These include] rum balls, chicken patties, milk bread, plum cake and brownies.”
Flurys PR team also seem to run a slick operation when it comes to briefing subjects for interview.
“Flurys has introduced many generations to authentic international delicacies. Almost all of the products are based on original recipes passed down by [founders] Mr. and Mrs. Flurys themselves,” adds Kumar.
Looking around the bakery’s tables, the main client base seems to be older Indians with too much time on their hands and a lot of cash in their pockets—a group that Kumar charitably describes as “affluent,” “middle class,” and “well-travelled.” There’s also the occasional hungover tourist seeming troubled by the modestly sized “Full English breakfast” in front of them. I soon discover that a pricey tourists’ spot like Flurys is a different beast compared to the more authentic, real-person haunts found elsewhere in the city.
Balaram Mullick & Radharaman Mullick is another historic sugar-filled venue that dates back to the 1880s, but far from wallowing in perverse nostalgia for the bygone Colonial era, they revel in reinvention.
“The change that I have seen [in our customer base over recent years] is that people come here and ask, ‘What is new this week?’” says owner Sudip Mullick. “They always expect some new invention, which was not the case when I started. People were only used to the products we had. Now there’s a mindset to expect innovation.”
From the pastries to the cakes and chocolates, Mullick’s selection of more than 150 products would be enough to make even a diabetic drool.
“I’m always experimenting with new ingredients. My first new product was mango mishti doi [sweetened yogurt] with real mango pulp,” he says. “People were amazed that my doi was made with mango because doi is sour and normally curdles when you put it with mango. There was a time where it went viral and people only wanted that. I was going to places and when I said who I was, they said, ‘Oh! Mango doi!’”
There’s still a place for tradition here though, as in most of the city’s confectionaries.
“We have revived many traditional recipes, for example, shor bhaja [a deep-fried milk cake] and sweet rabri [thick condensed milk with sugar, spices, and nuts],” Mullick tells me. “As well as the mango doi, the most popular items are baked rosogolla [spongy milk balls soaked in sugar syrup] and jolbhora sandesh [fruit jam in a casing of milk and sugar]. It’s a mix of the old and the new.”
With each of the confectionaries I visit offering a least 100 different kinds of dessert, I wonder how so many variations came to exist under the umbrella of Bengali sweets.
“Calcutta’s cuisine has been influenced by many different cultures,” says Shrimoyee Chakraborty, a Calcutta native and founder of Bengali pop-up restaurants Calcutta Street in London. “The city was colonised by the British, Portuguese, French, and Mughals, and each of these has had an impact on its food.”
Nahoum and Sons, the confectionary shop I hear most about in Calcutta, is the last Jewish bakery left in the city, and an example of the diverse and cosmopolitan makeup that Chakraborty describes. Major players on the early bakery scene here were “Baghdadi Jews,” but the city’s Jewish population has dwindled to just 20 in recent years.
“After Indian independence in 1947, the Baghdadi community that came during the colonial period were unsure of what their futures would be in an ‘Indian India’,” says Jael Silliman, a historian and writer who specialises in Jewish Calcutta. “As the community was small, those who stayed on found it increasingly difficult to live Jewish lives in Calcutta.”
Every Bengali I meet tells me that Nahoum’s offers the best of Bengali desserts, at a reasonable price and with a sense of the city’s rich heritage at its core.
“I don’t think there’s any Jewish business left because there are so few Jewish people left in the city,” says owner Isaac Nahoum. “Some of them are very old. Tourists from Middle East do visit, but essentially, our customer base is 99.9 percent non-Jewish now.”
In terms of sustaining its business, though, this Jewish decline hasn’t been a problem for Nahoum’s.
“We have a very large customer base. People who have [left Calcutta and] gone all over the world—to Europe and America, and Australia—still tell us that they love our brownies, rum balls, and lemon tarts,” Nahoum says. “Bengali people are very experimental and adaptable when it comes to food. Gradually, the standard of living is improving and people are moving up on the economic scale. When they get disposable income, they buy. And food is a very popular thing to indulge in.”
Landmark dessert venues like Nahoum’s are beginning to take their offerings online, giving them the ability to reach customers across India. At the heart of this technological food revolution is online food delivery marketplace Foodpanda.
“Sweets and desserts are a favourite among Indians and are an essential element of meals, especially for Bengalis,” says Tim Schefenacker, head of global communications at the Asian-born company. “No Indian meal is complete without a dessert, so roughly seven out of ten orders include a sweet dish. [Across India], the Bengali cuisine has gained more popularity over the last few years. We have witnessed a great surge in Bengali food orders over the last six months. Some of the most widely ordered sweets are the roshogolla, sandesh, and chenna [a crumbly and moist sweetened cow’s cheese].”
Global awareness of Calcutta’s sugar-coated magic is increasing now too. As residents come and go, their distinctive dessert culture is beginning to cross borders with them. When Chakraborty moved to London, her knowledge of traditional Bengali dishes and treats enabled her to launch a series of pop-up events that soon proved popular with Brits.
After munching my way through some of Calcutta’s finest sweets, it’s a comfort to know I can repeat the experience closer to home. If Bengali sweets turn out to be the UK’s next food trend, I’ll be first in line for rosogolla at the bakery.