Christmas in Calcutta: Nahoum’s keeps tradition alive

The 120-year bakery, which does not have even a Facebook Page, has never advertised—not even a handbill or a classified advertisement—but continues to thrive

Christmas in Calcutta: Nahoum’s keeps tradition alive

Devasis Chattopadhyay

Nahoum’s confectionery store in Kolkata’s iconic New Market –the famous Victorian Gothic market complex-- has not changed since the turn of the last century. In 1902, the bakery started a small outlet across the street. In 1916, when Martin & Company opened the refurbished New Market, Nahoum’s moved to its current outlet. It has stayed there ever since.

The store still has the same glass display cases, the dark wood counters, the sturdy Mahogany cashbox, assorted teakwood furniture, Belgian glass mirrors with white fans hanging from the white-on-white filigreed ceiling, selling the same dainty sweet and savouries.

Nahoum Israel Mordecai moved from the Middle East to Kolkata (then Calcutta) at the turn of the 20th century when Calcutta was still the capital of British India. He was among the five thousand strong community of ‘Baghdadi Jews’, who had been trading in India since the last leg of the Mughal Empire. They settled primarily in the port cities across the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. They brought their faith, their culture, and their talent with them.

Nahoum and Sons offered a bouquet of desserts different from the conventional Bengali fare, mixing Western staples such as brownies and cream puffs with Jewish and Middle Eastern confections, such as challah bread and baklava. Though Calcutta had always been known as the food capital of India and the milkbased Bengali sweets retained their popularity, Nahoum - the confectioner - won over Kolkata with his savoury cookies known as ‘Kakas’, the speciality signature of the Baghdadi Jewish baker. His coconut and cheese samosas were pure fusion, the result of a marriage of Jewish traditions and local flavours.

Nahoum - the Baghdadi Jew and his cake shop, became known for providing the best value-for-money. British merchants and army personnel, Anglo-Indian railway men and tea-planters and resident middle-income Hindu Bengali babus patronised the shop. After Nahoum Israel passed away, his son Elias took over, and thereafter it passed on to the next generation.

Christmas in Kolkata isn’t complete without Nahoum’s plum and rich fruit cakes. The celebration would always remain incomplete without the crunchy brownies, delectable cheese muffins and those delicious pastries. Even today, with so many product options available to the buyers, during the Christmas week, serpentine queues spanning a couple of blocks to buy freshly made fruit cakes continue to be a regular sight.

“Over 60% of our customer base is made of 2nd or 3rd generation customers,, says Jagadish Chandra Haldar, one of the directors. “Celebrities like actor-director Aparna Sen, singer Usha Uthup, cricketer turned BCCI president Sourav Ganguly and tea-planter and former Tollywood actor George Becker, are among our regular clientele,” pipes in the manager, Atanu Chatterjee.

While the iconic Great Eastern Hotel, and Flurys–the tearoom and pastry shop, historically targeted the top end of the market, Nahoum’s catered to the middle-income market, a symbol of quality without frills. The traditional business motto of – ‘Sasta aur Tikau’–affordable price and good quality—influenced its business. A taste of its rum ball or a slice of Nahoum’s lemon tart explains why in a price sensitive market and despite having severe competition, this Jewish bakery has a permanent place in every Kolkatan’s heart.

30 people - 20 production hands at the Hartford Lane factory and 10 sales and administrative staff at the New Market store run the entire organisation.

Most of the production hands are Muslims and belong to Hazaribagh in Jharkhand or Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh. Sales and administrative people are mostly Bengalis. It is not surprising that all staff-members are working for decades, and even the production hands are mostly second or third generation employees. In the 120 years of its existence, Nahoum’s never used advertisements. Never. Not even a single handbill, poster, classified or display Ad or direct mailer. In this day and age of digital marketing, Nahoum’s does not have a Facebook page. The current digital presence of Nahoum’s bakery is mostly through loyal and delighted customer tweets, Insta or Facebook posts and newspaper reports.

With most of Kolkata’s Jews migrating to Israel or Europe, the Jewish population in the city has dwindled to single digits. Eight years ago in 2013, when David Mordecai, the founder’s grandson, a typical Kolkata resident with his fluent Bengali, passed away, loyalists wondered if the bakery would be shut for good

However, David’s youngest brother Isaac Mordecai, the youngest grandson of Nahoum Mordecai, who lives in Bet Shemesh near Jerusalem in Israel, took over the reins of the business. And, with the consolidated endeavour of its 30 employees headed by Jagadish Chandra Haldar, and with strong customer support, the going is still good.

The average daily footfall of over 150 customers, translating to one customer every five minutes throughout the year, goes up to one customer every 10 seconds during the Christmas week. Christmas in Kolkata is not complete without the Jewish bakery,where Muslim bakers make cakes for Hindu customers to celebrate a Christian festival.

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday.)

Click here to join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines